(Editor’s note: Michelle Hiskey, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, got a powerful glimpse of Tropical Storm Irma’s wrath Monday from her home in DeKalb County. Hiskey, who served as an AJC enterprise/special projects writer and sports columnist from 1986 to 2008, now works at Emory University.)
About a half-hour before Irma took the power out Monday, I could see the worry on my teenaged daughters’ faces. We were all home because the ominous forecast had canceled school and closed Emory University, where I work and near where we live.
“Let’s pray,” I said, and we asked God for safety and especially that the tall trees would hold. We sometimes forget to pray in the face of things that we don’t control, but not this time.
We live in the 30033 zip code, just off Clairmont Road, and South Peachtree Creek flows about 75 yards from our back porch. Powerful storms usually make us worry about flooding, but Irma’s high winds created a peculiar high-pitched howling. How long could the trees — our tall pines especially — bend but not break?
I curled up on the living room sofa. A work assignment needed my concentration, which was quickly interrupted by my high school senior needing help with her homework. Her sister was in the dining room.
CRACK! BOOM! The end of the house shuddered with the impact.
“What was THAT?” we said — or our eyes did — and we rushed down the hallway that serves as the spine of most brick ranch houses like ours, two bedrooms on either side. We opened the doors on the left, where the boom had come from.
In the first room, 6 feet of a giant limb punctured through the window at eye level, leaving shattered glass, window molding, dirt and pine sprigs on my bed and floor. Like the hand of a giant Ent in the “Lord of the Rings,” it belonged to the giant pine in our front yard. Falling, it had pulled up a mass of earth the size of our Honda SUV, parked and unscathed only inches away.
The second bedroom took the direct hit. The tree had gashed the ceiling and opened 3 feet of daylight. The ceiling drywall was falling and the thousands of craft materials and textiles in the room — a Michael’s store in miniature — were showered with drywall, insulation, dirt, pine sprigs and water. Water streamed down the interior wall. Few sounds are worse than a shower that’s not coming from the bathroom.
HOLY CRAP. If this had fallen 5 feet closer to the middle of the house, would we even be alive? And since we were, what now?
In a crisis, when it’s hard to think of the next right thing to do, few sounds are better than the voice of a calm neighbor. Brian from next door advised me to call insurance and the power company. Within seconds of the boom, Chris and Nancy from across the street phoned to see if we were OK. I knew immediately that we were not alone.
My smartphone was a lifeline. I posted to the Clairmont Heights Neighbors on Facebook that my house had been hit, because I had read that during storms, a crew of dads with chainsaws try to help out.
Boy, did they ever. As we moved as much of our belongings that we could safely to the other side of the house, they tackled the fallen monster. Without removing it from the roof, there was no way to tarp the hole. And they had to be careful not to fall through the roof, either. And Irma hovered, rain and wind blowing in sheets.
These guys are teachers, engineers and other professionals who climb on ladders on the weekends, not for a living. I know some of them well, and others were complete strangers. Michael Dowling, Ian Sifuentes, Bert Ackermann, Scott Davis, Dana Atwood and Luke Love figured out how to safely remove the worst of the damage and put their tarps in place. Meanwhile, social media connected us to a roof and tree service that promised to show up within two hours. As the pros showed up, the “chainsaw gang” was just finishing. Sopping wet, they left to help other neighbors.
Inside our house, other friends had pitched in to roll Herby Curbys in place to catch the water and board up the broken windows. They brought over lights, food and wine, and along with the piney smell from the punctured windows and ceiling, a little Christmas hung in the air.
How to describe the fullness of receiving so much of exactly what is needed — at the time when it is most critical — from people who could have stayed behind their safe walls during the storm? This is community and grace in action, and we cannot be more grateful for our neighbors in Clairmont Heights.