Natural Disasters



It’s been a year since the tornadoes touched down on July 19, 2019. I still shiver when I think of that day when everything changed at Northern Bliss. From that day until October 15th, when we left our lake home for the winter, I heard the grating buzz of chainsaws from sun-up until sundown. See my blogs about that terrible tornado and recovery efforts at https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/tornado-disaster-at-northern-bliss/ and https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/recovery-from-natural-disasters/.

One year later, a pontoon ride around White Ash Lake shows that residents have done an awesome job of clean-up but still more work remains. So many have planted new trees that will never reach maturity during their lifetimes. Indeed, “to plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow.”

Tornado

Last night, the National Weather Service issued warning for many counties in Wisconsin, including Polk. “This time, we will be spared,” I muttered, “for the simple reason that one should not have to endure a tornado for the third time.” I remembered the tornado of 1955, all of us on our knees praying in the kitchen of our farm home in Eureka township. (The house didn’t have a basement to run to for shelter.) I’d never written a story about that experience, but my brother Dave did. Here is his story:

From the Memoirs of Dave Glassel:

The Polk County Wisconsin Tornadoes of 1953

I was watching the weather channel the other morning and it brought to mind the tornadoes of 1953 in the St. Croix Falls, Polk County, Wisconsin area. I was about eight years old and it was my job to go get the cows at milking time. My sister Lois, three years older than I, used to go get them, but as she grew older, that became my chore. She was relegated to house chores by then.

Our small dairy farm was at its best in 1953. Dad was milking about 18 cows and we were filling about 5 or 6 milk cans per milking. The milk house was quite a way from the barn and Dad built a two-wheel cart that would hold 2 cans. It had big wheels he’d taken off an old horse-driven hay rake. I would help Mom push on the cart uphill on the last leg of the journey to the pump house where we put the cans into the stock tank to cool the milk. We had two tanks. Mom and I were able to lift the cans into the low tank. It was not easy because when the can went into the water it settled to the bottom slowly because of the buoyancy, subsequently one needed to keep it upright all the way to the bottom. I guess that is why my knees and back are bad. Too many hay bales and milk cans wrestled with in my youth!

We had a hired man in those days. His name was Larry. He was from McKinley and from a family Dad had known for years. He was a genuine slacker and Dad never could get him to do any work to speak of. He was always out behind the horse barn smoking cigarettes and that made Dad furious. When it came time for milking he was never around. He and his friend Wayne would be off riding Wayne’s Indian Motorcycle instead. Dad despised Wayne as well. He finally told Larry’s Dad to come get him. It was the same day of the Big Storm. No one came and he finally hitch- hiked his way back to McKinley.

I went to get the cows about 6 p.m. They were way back in the southeast corner of the 80 acres on the border of the Rock Creek Farm and the Old Rehbien Farm. Dad had made a pasture on the back of the big hill that always washed out when he planted corn there. The grass was green and lush and had lots of cow pies to step in.

I am suggesting it was probably in June when the tornadoes were spawned. I had gone to get the cows and bring them home for milking. I always carried my walking stick that Grandpa Glassel had made for me. I also had the Lassie, the cow dog, with me. I don’t know which Lassie as we had numerous Collies, all by that name. The cows were all bunched up in the far corner of the pasture. Lassie barked at them and tried to get them to get into the cow path and head for the barn. The cows always walked single file and had a deep rut cut in the ground. But this was a new pasture and the cow path was not well-defined. I thought that was the reason they wouldn’t start going to the barn. Between Lassie and me, we finally got them heading north to the barn.

Then, without any warning the cows all started to walk really fast. Then they began to run! I was scared because when they ran, they would let down and all of the milk would start coming out of their udders. Dad used to scold Lois and me for letting the Collie dogs make them run by biting at their heels. But soon, I couldn’t keep up with the cows.

Meanwhile, Dad saw the cows rush toward the barnyard. They ran frantically through the gate and into the barn—all into the wrong stanchions. “That had never happened before,” Dad told me later.

He figured out something was wrong and when he didn’t see me, he climbed the hill to go looking for me. By then I had just reached the top of the hill.

Dad later told me that he heard about the tornadoes on WCCO radio in the barn and then saw the tornadoes on the horizon over the St. Croix River, heading in our direction. I was scared and was running as fast as I could go but I kept tripping. I calmed down a bit when I saw Dad coming for me. He grabbed my hand and pulled me down in a gully. The storm blew over as fast as it came. In a matter of seconds, its fury had passed us by. It skipped over our farm but we watched in awe as the huge barn at the Rehbien farm flew into the air and landed in a million pieces.

The next day Mom and Dad loaded us all up in the rusted, green 46 Ford and we went for a ride to view the devastation. There were 18 tornadoes spawned by the storm stretching from the Glassel farm to Grantsburg and East as far as Clam Falls. The majority of the damage was done west of Eureka and north of Cushing. We drove past areas where as many as six barns and a few houses were totally demolished. Dead cattle were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately, most all of the milk cows were in the barn for milking at that time of the day and the barns collapsed on them. We stopped to visit Donald Christensen, Leroy Christensen’s Dad and Mom. Their barn was blown down and there were dead Holsteins everywhere. Some were still alive but immobile. They didn’t shoot them because they wanted to keep them alive until they could be butchered. The slaughter houses in Luck and Milltown were all backed up, however, and unable to take more cattle. Mom cried like a baby for hours for all those poor, injured cows. She loved animals!

But she loved her babies more. After the storm I remember Mom hugging me and thanking Dad. Her nine children were all saved.

The next Sunday, we went with Aunt Gertie and Grandma and Grandpa Glassel to Clam Falls. The old Glassel house where Dad and his brothers and sisters grew up was leveled to the ground. The farm had been vacant for several years. I went back to find the place years later but there was nothing there. Nature had taken over.

I often think about that storm. At the last class reunion, I talked to Judy Jensen, a historical writer for Polk County who worked for the Polk County Museum in Balsam Lake. She told me that they had numerous photos of the devastation from those 18 tornadoes in ‘55. It was the most devastating storm to ever hit Wisconsin and has since been recorded in the records as such.

I don’t know if I can actually say I was “in” the tornado or not. I just remember being really scared and Dad being on top of me. There was an unbelievable wind and then a flood of rain. I remember seeing Dads lips moving but couldn’t hear anything because of the overwhelming noise. Perhaps he was praying. Dad claimed that what saved our farm was the fact that it was built in the ravine sheltered with hills on all sides. During later years, he recalled that he saw the funnel going overhead and it looked like as if it went right over the barn and house. We never even lost as much as a tree limb!

As for the cows, later I came to understand that their erratic behavior was related directly to their sensing the oncoming storm. That is why they were all grouped in the corner of the pasture. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the animals can’t detect weather and storms. Dad used to say to Mom, I know it’s going to rain. I can hear Landahl’s horses whinnying. He was right every time.

I’ve forgotten many things about my St. Croix Falls childhood days. But there are many stories that I do remember—especially those events that took place on that 80-acre Dairy Farm during the fifties.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


“To plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow.”

Planted Maple

Lois stands by one of the six maple trees she planted at Northern Bliss. She also planted a variety of ornamental trees and bushes. She calls this phase 1, a start toward replacing those 22 trees lost during the tornado.

Natural disasters take their toll on the environment, but also on the human spirit. At first, everyone rallies around the victims. The disaster—flood, fire, hurricane or tornado—dominates the news cycle. Reporters interview eyewitnesses; curious onlookers drive by to view the destruction; scrappers and scammers come a’callin.’ At first, survivors of disasters are fueled by adrenaline. They are thankful that they and their families are safe. “It could have been worse,” they mutter while surveying their ravaged homes and property.

But in less than a week the news dies down, immediate help is gone, and victims are left alone to clean up the mess. Recovery is a much longer process than most expect. Insurance companies are swamped with claims and professional services are overloaded. Soon the realization hits home: the damage is worse than they thought. Cleanup will take a lot of time and resources. Many survivors have to go back to their “real jobs” while they continue to restore their property on weekends.

On July 19th 2019, Gunter and I, along with his siblings, experienced a F2 tornado at Northern Bliss, our summer lake home in Wisconsin. I published a story about the storm and its immediate aftermath. That story ends on Saturday evening, the day after the tornado, when all of our helpers left to go back to their families and jobs. This story is about our recovery process—internal and external—that still continues 2 ½ months later.

We were more fortunate than most; we four seniors were alone for just one day before my grandson Brett and my son Jeff and arrived in his work truck complete with log splitter and tool chest. They had driven straight through from Houston to come to our aid! After evaluating the situation, it was clear that the two of them could only do part of the work, a tree service replete with heavy equipment would be necessary. Professional tree services I’d used in the past weren’t even returning calls. We would have to hire one of the men who had stopped by to offer their services. By Monday, we had engaged Nemo Tree Removal Services to topple the trees that had partially fallen, haul away the root balls, and saw up the rest. For days, they cut trees, dumping branches into one pile and cut logs into another while Jeff and Brett worked the splitter. Nemo fished some trees out the lake. In one case, he employed two cranes with baskets, working in sync, to remove a monstrous oak branch that could fall onto the house during a storm. We discovered that an enormous old oak we’d hoped to save had a gash so large that it too, threatened the house. Always, there were decisions to be made—which trees had to go and which ones could be saved. Each time yet another of the few remaining trees had to come down, my heart sank. In all, we lost 22 trees on our one acre of land. On a 100-foot section of lakeshore, every tree fell.

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Mike, the roofer we’d used to remodel the cabin last year, helped that first week as well. What a relief to have that job done quickly! Part of a branch was still inside the roof. Mike repaired the structural damage and provided estimates for interior repair to the kitchen and rec room to be done over the winter. Our insurance company had over 400 claims and only 4-5 adjustors, so work had to be subcontracted. The adjustor assigned to us lived in Duluth, Minnesota—over 100 miles away. Needless to say, claim processing and payouts proceeded at a snail’s pace. My job was to file claims as soon as we received estimates. The process was frustrating: I learned that trees are not covered unless they cause damage to housing or structures. They don’t pay for prevention, e.g., trees that had been so damaged that they might fall on a structure in the future.

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Disaster work crews—whether public or private—proceed on a triage basis. That makes sense, but slows down the process of recovery for homeowners. Clearing fallen trees from rural roads for electric line workers and emergency vehicles is the first priority for local governments; clearing driveways to get to those roads, and providing access to home entries are the first priority for commercial workers. Think snowstorms, except that trees instead of blizzards were preventing access. The next priorities are clearing trees that have fallen against structures. Trees down at the lake or in a back yard are last priority. All this means that in our situation, work crews completed some emergency work, then moved on to other customers, returning to our place later. Stump grinding (necessary before replanting can begin) is the very end of the tree removal process. That was shoved out to the 4th week of recovery and beyond; in fact, we still have stumps to remove from the lakeshore before we can restore our lake bank.

It takes a while to process grief. After shock and denial comes anger. When I was in that phase, my friends were reassuring me, “You’ll make Bliss beautiful again—even better than it was before. Granted, it will never be the same, but it will still be a pleasant, peaceful retreat. That was difficult for me to believe. As I looked at the 60 feet between the house and the dock, all I could see was a tangle of trees that had fallen on top of each other like dominoes. I couldn’t even see the dock! I could make out a speck of white that I hoped was our pontoon, way out there past that jungle. Imagine seeing a 100-to-150-foot pine lying flat. Now imagine a pile of pines. I was tempted to climb on top of the stack to see what the dock looked like, but I didn’t dare. Safety first.

Trees being cut into wood

Worker on top of fallen trees

As the clean-up moved on, those tall trees were sawed into manageable lengths and stacked using skid steers that tore up what was left of the lawn. Branches were dumped into huge piles and eventually hauled off by the truckload to the woodchip factory in Luck. Always curious, I learned a lot about the logging process. The roar of skid steers, bobcats, and cranes and the continual buzz of chainsaws drowned out my anger; I had too much to do. I hadn’t made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a work crew since I was a child growing up on a farm, but I soon remembered how to sandwich meal preparations for Jeff and Brett, in between laundering their work clothes and helping where I could.

I had entered the third phase of the grief process: bargaining. But not with God. With the tree services, insurance companies and loggers. I was consumed in a beehive of activity as the constant buzz of chainsaws continued from morning ‘til night all across the lake. Our world had closed in. It had become our family, our workers, our White Ash Lake neighbors—all compressed together and becoming one. When we had a minute to get on-line, we didn’t tune into news or politics; we checked the White Ash Lake Facebook page to see how folks across the lake were faring and what help they might need. We could see their damaged roofs and tarped windows; the wind had violently ripped away the privacy curtain of trees that had surrounded each home.

I began to appreciate gifts that the tornado had left behind: our bright red canoe; special clay pots; the renovated cabin and its rock gardens; the stalwart Swedish couple made of concrete who miraculously escaped between two falling trees; the deer statue Nemo lifted out of the lake with his crane. Gunter ordered a flagpole and a new U.S. flag. Jeff and Brett raised it one day as we all saluted. Brett rescued a garden trellis, pounded out the dents, and re-cemented it into place. I reattached the honeysuckle vine, which still lives. All these are precious now.

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After three weeks of nonstop activity, my son and grandson left and the same day previously- scheduled August visitors arrived. I smothered my exhaustion and tried my best to entertain. After both couples left, Gunter and I slumped into depression. The bliss and magic were gone and this beloved summer home no longer brought us joy. I took out my purple pen and journal and began to write. It was then I realized that I had been navigating the five stages of grief and had fallen into that dreaded fourth stage: depression. However, we had planned a September trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons with my sister Ret and her husband John, our favorite travel partners. We love to travel, but were we up to it? So much work remained.

Gunter had a great suggestion: “Why don’t you make a list of trees you want to plant? Get creative. Let’s do something new and different…now that those oaks and pines are gone.” My spirit lifted. I’d rather create than restore anytime! For the next few days, we tossed about ideas and came up with a list of nine trees and two shrubs that could be planted yet this fall. We would make another list for spring, when those recalcitrant tree stumps along the lake shore would be gone. I ordered the plants to be delivered from the nursery the week after we’d be back.

After a wonderful trip, we returned to Northern Bliss with renewed energy and vigor. Two weeks of that fresh mountain air had refreshed and invigorated us. Full of anticipation, we watched Abrahamson Nurseries deliver and plant the new trees. Pure bliss!

“Each tree you plant is a personal testament of your having lived,” ecologists say. Just the act of watering those new trees forced me to think beyond myself. For many years, we enjoyed the marvelous oaks and pines provided by those who came before us. Now, these new maples and ornamentals will be gifts to our children and grandchildren and for generations to come. As Author Nelson Henderson said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

And that fifth stage of grief: acceptance? We’re way beyond that! We’re into creating something new—another Paradise. Just you wait and see. We may even add a bench underneath those Autumn Blaze maples.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.