Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season and Home Ownership

One of the benefits of living through several relatively calm hurricane seasons as a kid was that the “minor” tropical storms that did impact or brush the coast of South Carolina tended to create more excitement than actual fear. While these weak storms were still dangerous in many ways, they didn't cause the wholesale destruction people on the coast constantly worried about when they saw dark clouds coming over the horizon while at the same time barometers began registering the atmospheric pressure dropping like a rock. I do remember both my grandparents and parents talking about Hurricane Hazel, a category 4 storm that ravaged several Caribbean islands back in 1954 before slamming into South Carolina with a combination of awe, dread, and outright fear that I found difficult to fathom in my grade-school years. Up until Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston back in 1989, the way the name “Hazel” was whispered by people that lived through that storm it was clear, even to a small child, it had become synonymous with the boogeyman for many in South Carolina.

I was in the last months of my active army enlistment when Hugo struck the coast of South Carolina pretty much wiping away any remaining memory of Hazel. Which is easy to understand since by 1989 the coastal areas of South Carolina were exponentially more developed and populated than back in 1954. As Hugo zeroed in on Charleston I was in the barracks watching the CNN weather reporters on television trying not to look totally silly as the wind and rain threatened to send them flying off like an ill-trained winged monkey from Oz.

Being stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado during that time, I was spared the post-storm aftermath of the long weeks living without electric power, the total disruption of economic services like deliveries of food and fuel, and the general chaos that results when a massive storm strikes. I did return home to South Carolina about three months after Hugo, while the main roads were open again and a good chunk of the storm-related debris had been removed, many locations were still baring the scars. One of my favorite places on the planet, Pawleys Island, had an uncomfortable resemblance to many active war zones with houses looking like an artillery battalion used them for target practice.

Despite the damage and the persistent anxiety caused by Hugo, South Carolina not only cleaned up and rebuilt the state but quickly returned to its near exponential growth along the coast. I came home on leave about a year before Hugo and was frankly disturbed with how much things had changed in the Lowcountry since the last time I was in the area. The best example I can give is that Charleston, once a genuine sleepy little town, had overnight turned into thriving city. Once my enlistment was over in July of 1990, I came back to watch that general area expand in real time into undeveloped sections that had remained untouched since the end of the Civil War. About sixty miles separate Charleston from my hometown and while the pace of growth has slowed, I still expect to see the two essentially joined together in one humid and hot Southern megalopolis before I shed my mortal coil.

Of course, sea level rise and an increase in problematic tropical storms brought on by human-caused climate change is the pesky irritant that could send the descendants of all those folks who fled the northern states because it was just too damn cold up there back home. Hell, if things get bad enough, and I think they will, the effects of climate change might force many Southerners to the relative safety of places like the Midwest. Even now the steadily growing cost of home owners insurance in the coastal areas of South Carolina has already forced many with long family histories tied to the Lowcountry deeper inland. It's not hard to imagine that as conditions worsen, even the folks that can afford the insurance on their raised three and even four-story beach houses might have to retreat from the coast.

As Hugo faded into the background, except for a few minor tropical storms South Carolina didn't have to deal with a major hurricane for a couple of decades. While minor, those weaker cousins of Hugo were enough of an issue that several National Guard units, including mine, were activated and sent down to the coast just in case. The duty was quite boring actually, my memories are mostly of staying in some hot and uncomfortable school gym until the leadership decided we weren't needed and sent home. The worst thing I can complain about during those activations was that I was away from home just enough to upset my wife's morning routine. Our son was in his pre-potty training toddler years where every simple task, like getting him dressed for daycare, could become an epic battle of endurance if say he did a sudden and messy number two in his diaper right before it was time to leave the house.

When I rejoined the National Guard in 1990 after my active army enlistment, I got to hear a great deal of complaining by guys who got called up for Hugo and literally spent months pulling traffic control or guard duty in waterlogged shopping center parking lots. The main reason these Hugo vets were upset was because many of them built or renovated houses for a living, and as anyone can imagine their business was booming during that time. One weekend warrior I knew suggested there was favoritism being shown in the way some guys were released back to their civilian lives while others were forced to stay in uniform. This weekend warrior said he received an Article 15 after cussing out his lieutenant because a couple of weeks into Hugo duty he saw another guy from his platoon, who had been released from his National Guard obligation, down in Myrtle Beach installing new roofs on damaged homes, thereby “making money hand over fist.” I couldn't help but silently laugh whenever I heard such bad attitudes because not only were they rather common, even long before the ball buster deployments for Afghanistan and Iraq began but because they are totally contrary to the high-end recruiting commercials on television showing dynamic and happy part-time warriors.

In the history of tropical storms the very recent Hurricane Matthew presented those living along the coast with some curious problems. While tropical storms have a long history of meandering, and even looping around on themselves, Matthew hugged the southeast coast with an almost supernatural precision. This was after slamming into the country of Haiti, causing yet another round of suffering for those people. However, it wasn't until Matthew began to take a firm aim at the United States that the assorted weather forecasting folks started having panic attacks. The impression I got was that they were worried Matthew might take a sudden left turn as it headed north, concentrating its destructive power in one area.

Since I am now marooned in the Midlands of South Carolina, Hurricane Matthew's wanderings in some respects played out similar to my experience with Hugo. I spent the better part of that Friday and Saturday as the storm crawled northward watching high-paid reporters on television stand in knee deep water while being hit with driving rain exclaiming to their viewers just how much the situation sucked. Where this situation differed from Hugo was that my area was going to get winds whose speeds would be pushing the tropical storm-level of intensity.

My immediate concern as the winds increased was centered on a rather large, twenty-seven year old river birch tree situated on the edge of my front yard growing right beside a stop sign. I'm a certified tree hugging environmentalist but for about five years now I have been pleading with my wife to have someone cut that thing down. The reason being that we've already had two other river birch trees lose major limbs, but at least they were in areas of the yard I didn't have to worry about hitting anyone, and yes, once those two essentially collapsed we had them removed. The river birch next the stop sign loses minor limbs all the time, but the tree is far enough back that at least they almost always fall inside the yard and not on the street.

After one of the other river birches collapsed I was told, by someone I trust, that the wood of that tree is weak compared to other species and that after so many years of growth it is bound to lose of a major limb. The resistance my wife is giving me on having the river birch next the stop sign removed is due to her ideas about the aesthetics of the front yard as well as how all the landscaping adds value to the property. You'd have to know my wife, but I have long since learned there are some battles that are simply not worth the cost, so after a token resistance, enough to qualify me to say “I told you so”, I let the subject drop.

Well, Hurricane Matthew brought my simmering fears to the forefront again and as the winds increased I spent a great deal of time watching that river birch sway in the heavy winds. I'll be damned, but even after some serious gusts that weekend which scared the crap out of me, the front yard river birch not only survived intact, it really didn't lose any minor limbs. Unfortunately, the Leyland Cypress trees that line the backyard suffered a disaster that even a couple of weeks after the storm still has me freaked out.

It was early Saturday morning, even though it was raining and the sky was a subdued gray there was enough light for me to see four of the cypress trees were leaning over at a steep angle. I'll just skip over the words I said after discovering this surprising fact and just say I wasn't happy. As that day progressed, I literally watched my personal homeowner's disaster unfold in slow motion. These cypress trees fell over at the root mass with another degree or two of decent signified with a loud pop as another tendril broke below ground. Just to show how complicated things can get, the root masses of the falling cypress tree lifted up the backyard fence destroying twenty-five to thirty feet of it.

Excuse the following understatement but home ownership to me has always seemed more trouble than it was worth, but this incident caused a new high in my frustration level. Yes, I know many people suffered true disasters losing their lives, homes, and all their personal property because of Hurricane Matthew. As I have already written, this is a personal disaster and will eventually be cleaned up leaving only another bad memory for me. If there is a lesson in this truly small affair, compared to what others suffered through it is that you never really know the direction from which things can go bad.

As the days have passed, my wife and I have discovered that our homeowner's insurance will not cover the removal of the trees. Had one of them crashed into the house, we would be golden, but unless something changes we will have to cover the cost of tree removal and the price to fix the fence that divides our backyard and the neighbors. At least those neighbors are being cool about the situation, although if we wanted to press the subject my wife vaguely mentioned that we MIGHT be able to charge them rent on the portion of our fence they attached their own segments. Yet, another reason for me to hate all the semi-implied and murky details associated with suburban existence.

All things considered, once this situation is cleaned up and removed I plan on keeping my mouth shut and not worry anymore about the yard. Life is too short and there is always something waiting in the wings to make it more complicated. Like the five-year old water heater that started leaking just yesterday. 

The situations is actually worse that this picture suggests. You can't see the damaged fence and a couple of other cypress trees are out of view on the far right.


Unknown said...

I'm in Houston and over the past decade or so, the issue of hurricanes and general flooding have loomed large for us as well.

Both car and housing insurance costs have skyrocketed as floods have hit areas never flooded before, basically every year!

I don't know how people are going to be ankle to continue to live here, with insurance, if this keeps up.

It's great that everyone is safe for now, but the problem remains!

MigratingSpirit said...

Do not come to the Midwest. In the past 8 years I have survived a 500 year flood that permanently displaced me, a tornado that ripped apart my backyard and a blizzard that left me stranded in the middle of rural America for 3 days.

Besides all that ~ we Midwesterners do not want to be encroached upon by human populations.


Pixel Peeper said...

Wow, those are some tall trees. I would have freaked out, too, seeing them lean and then fall over. My co-worker lived through the three hurricanes that went through our county within one month in 2004 (that was before we moved here). She had a tall tree lean over - and the only thing preventing her tree from falling into her neighbor's roof was the fact that the crown of her neighbor's tree leaned against the crown of her tree. Those two trees were entangled like that for two days, precariously holding each other up, until the tree removal guy was able to come out and remove them.

And she said it was expensive. Hope you get everything back to normal quickly. Stuff like that is stressful.

Ranch Chimp said...

Hey Bum ... sorry to hear about the fence damage, but it could have been a Hell of alot worse too! I figured you were gonna get hammered by Matthew when I heard about it moving in, even though I know you're are inland, not sure how far, but nonetheless "hammer time". They had one of them sort of moderate hurricanes once when I was staying in Miami, I was in a public shelter strictly built for such, when it went down, so didnt see anything, but morning came, and the stone wall that lines part of the beach off lower Collins Ave. was damaged and broken in places, so it must have been fairly strong. When they hit the Texas coast, all we get up here in Dallas is heavy rains, but towns like Houston/ Galveston, or Corpus get hammered (I'm 240 miles north of Houston) ... Dallas is tornado country, but wherever you go Bum, you're bound to have something ... even in beautiful LA, you have earthquakes and mega fires when the Santa Ana winds come through. You have been through this routine time and again as far as these storms it sounds like. Yep, I bet those guyz hate being on duty, when they can be making a small fortune doing repairs ... I know a couple guyz and a gal, who work for themselves ... my buddy Randy has a A/C service ... geez ... the summer months here, he's working like 18 hour dayz! I didnt know if you were from South Carolina, or one of them 'snowbirds' ... I have alot of familia for instance for generations in places like Brooklyn and Buffalo (we had a BIG familia), who relocated to places like Miami, Tampa- St.Pete, LA area and Oceanside(CA), Las Vegas ... because to get away from the damn cold and snow, I never had any familia in Texas, besides what I made here, I came here on my own years back ... got drunk and fell in love, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh {:-) ... have a Happy Halloween guy!

The Bug said...

I was living near Raleigh in 1989 & it was freaky how my family near Charlotte got slammed by Hugo (SO MANY DOWNED TREES!) & we barely even noticed. Such is the geography of NC.

Sorry about those trees & the expense! Mike & I are going to Tybee Island right before Thanksgiving. We talked about changing the trip after the storm, but I decided that it would be better to support the merchants there.

Marja said...

Wow these trees are enormous That must be so scary having them come down.What a shame that you love far away I know people who could help you with getting the trees down, one of them my husband.
I have never experienced a hurricane and it seems frightening to live with the threat of it and worse actually it destroying everything. I find it always hard that some people loose everything and others make a lot of money out of a disaster. That's life I guess

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