By Paul Morrone, CFP®, CPA/PFS, MSA
Growing up in New England has made me somewhat numb to the prospect of bad weather. Aside from a couple of memorable storms (Sandy, Irene, etc.), our definition of ‘bad’ doesn’t even hold a candle to what those along the Gulf Coast experience during hurricane season or what those in the west are facing with the extreme droughts and wildfires. Which means when I hear a storm is coming through, it doesn’t really impact my plans – unless I’m scheduled to be on the golf course. Well 2020 threw not one, but two, curve balls that shook me up good and gave me a whole new respect for Mother Nature’s raw power. When my phone first blared ‘Tornado warning,’ I didn’t think it meant ‘Tornado warning right now, seek cover immediately!!’ Usually those severe weather alerts give you ample time to finish what you’re doing and get to a safe place before all hell breaks loose. In my case, I was picking up Kyle from my parents and was already on my way home, only a few miles away. Let’s just say the timing was less than favorable for a tornado to roll through…
Having Kyle in the car certainly added another dimension to the chaos and increased my level of fear exponentially. For about 8 minutes, all I could think about was being the feature story on the 6 o’clock news ‘Father and son killed in tornado by falling tree.’ Aside from the iPhone warning, I had little indication that the storm was rolling in, and fast. In fact, I had left my parent’s house with Kyle only 2 minutes prior and it was only after getting a panicked phone call from my mother that I knew I was in trouble. Her frantic tone was understandable as she was watching the tornado spin across the Branford River right towards me and Kyle. Now before you think I’m totally reckless, let me say that it was not even raining or windy when I was packing Kyle into the car. Sure, the sky was dark, but I could still see some sun to the south and figured I had at least 10 minutes to get home before the worst of it. Boy was I wrong.
It came out of nowhere, there was no slow buildup or even a hint of what was to come. Before I could hang up the phone, the sky turned a greenish black and then – boom (see picture). Tree limbs were flying, leaves were everywhere, the wind was howling, and the rain came down by the sheet. I watched several trees take out powerlines in front of me, making sparks fly in the darkness. There was nowhere to hide. I felt like Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in Twister. Except this wasn’t a Hollywood set.
Houses went dark and the wind was so strong at one point I am convinced it lifted the rear end of my car off the road. All the while, I had Kyle in the back saying “Oh no, Daddy!” “I’m sorry, Daddy.” I’m not sure what he was sorry about, but I did my best to distract him. We sang his favorite song, “Hey Jude,” with the volume up loud enough to muffle the wind, rain and debris hitting the car. By the time we had sang the last “na na na na,” the worst of it was behind us and the rain had slowed to only a drizzle. As the sky brightened, the true carnage was revealed.
Downed trees and powerlines blocked (literally) every road in town. The only way from the east side of Branford to the west side was Route 1 – and that, too, was a disaster. Passable is the best description I can give, as no streetlights were functioning and in many places one full lane was completely blocked. Not ideal for rush-hour! It took me close to an hour to go only 3 miles.
I pulled into the house and must have looked as white as a ghost. I don’t scare easily, but this one shook me up. I walked inside, gave Jill and the boys a hug, and took a deep breath. A stiff drink didn’t hurt the healing process, either. Our neighborhood was entirely decimated. Trees didn’t get cleaned up for weeks and some of my neighbors had lost power for over 7 days. Fortunately, we had no damage and our power was restored quickly – but we were the exception not the norm. Aside from a flat tire on my car, we were just fine.
Now I’d love to say that this was the only time this year I’d been caught in a car, in a tornado, or at least something close to a tornado. I can’t say for sure if one actually touched down the second time, but it felt eerily similar to my first experience that occurred only a few weeks prior. This time I was alone, fortunately, and had just filled up my car with gas. The rain started as I was getting back onto the road and was driving to the highway on ramp only about 100 yards away. As I turned on the highway, it got ugly. Rain, hail and tornado-esque wind pummeled the front of the car. Only a few feet later, a massive tree fell out of the woods and hit the windshield of my car. I was stunned and terrified at the same time. My windshield was shattered, and the tree had hit with such force that it opened my passenger side door. The tree was large enough that it rendered the road behind me impassable, blocking all of the other cars from getting onto the highway. Watching more trees fall down both behind and in front of me, I figured it would be best to go another 100 yards and get onto the highway where I could at least be far enough away from trees to avoid getting hit by one, again.
Debris was flying everywhere, and the rain was suffocating. I stopped dead in my tracks on I-90 because I couldn’t see a thing. Fortunately, other drivers were equally as terrified as the storm roared through and we all began to pick up our pace as the rain subsided. Again, the terror lasted only a few minutes, and the aftermath revealed just how intense it was. The next hour of my drive was done at about ½ the normal highway speed, avoiding tree limbs, leaves and debris that were scattered all over the road. Fleets of emergency vehicles were navigating the same roads, and I was able to see plenty of damage to homes, cars and businesses.
Needless to say, next time I get a warning on my phone. I will listen!