“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.

 

 


At 6:15 pm on July 19th, the sky looked weird and the air turned deathly still.

We had planned to go to an outdoor concert in Amery, Wisconsin that fateful Friday night. We had packed four folding chairs and packed them in the trunk along with rain jackets, just in case. Fortunately, we’d left the car in the garage with the door shut.

“Can’t tell whether it’s going to rain or not, said Gunter, my husband. “If it does, we can go to the fish fry instead.”

The four of us—Gunter and I along with his younger siblings, Helmut and Helga—remained on the patio, staring at the sky. It was turning greenish-black.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Let’s get inside.”

We entered the sunroom with picture windows facing the gardens and White Ash Lake. Then it hit. Suddenly the sky roared like an oncoming freight train—and then whooshed through the treetops like a jet engine. We stood there, transfixed. Our feet were riveted to the floor. We were seeing, firsthand, the sheer, raw power of nature. One huge pine twisted, uprooted, and crashed to the ground in a slow, deliberate motion. Then another. And another. Altogether, our six trees at the shoreline fell on top of each other like dominoes. Their trunks and branches carpeted the entire lawn between our house and dock. Beyond, we could see White Ash Lake kicking up angry waves. My heart pounded but common sense prevailed.

“Move away from the windows; they could break!” I yelled.

Terrified, yet fascinated, the others just stood there.

White Ash Lake Tornado 2019

The pines along the lakeshore fell across the yard like dominoes.

“Move!” I insisted. “This is a tornado. I’ve been in one before. Follow me down to the bunk room. That’s our safe space.”

They didn’t get it.

Then a dull, heavy THUD shook the house. The roof! The sky turned black and the power went out.

We all raced down to the bunk room, a windowless Man Cave we had fashioned out of the utility room for our grandsons. Gunter grabbed flashlights but our trusty generator kicked in after 10 long seconds. We had lights! Five minutes later, the generator stuttered and stopped. My stomach clenched and my tongue felt like sandpaper. To drown out the godawful noise, I chattered about the tornado I’d experienced in as a child in 1952. My Bavarian husband and his siblings had never experienced one in Germany; they had no first-hand knowledge.

When the racket subsided, we ventured upstairs. It was only 6:45 although it had seemed like an eternity. The sky was no longer black; the storm had moved on. Our first impulse was to go outside. We were shocked to discover there was no way out. Fallen trees and branches filled every window and door. Out of the lakeside windows, I could see nothing but trees across our entire lower patio and yard. We couldn’t see the dock, but I thought we saw a glimmer of white beyond the tangle of trees. “That must be our pontoon,” Gunter said softly, still in shock.

Helga called our attention to water dripping onto the kitchen counter and splashing onto the floor. “Looks like the roof is leaking,” she said. We sprang into action, positioning every wastebasket and bucket we could find. Later, we found water dripping from our rec room ceiling. We covered the sofa below with towels.

Because we couldn’t exit through any of our doors, Gunter manually opened the garage. We all filed out behind him, astonished at the destruction. Our driveway was blocked by fallen trees; but no matter, so many trees had fallen from the woods onto South White Ash Lane that we could barely make out the road!

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My daughter Kim and son-in-law Mike insisted on driving to Northern Bliss as soon as they could. They had experienced straight-line winds but even those downed six trees on their property—thankfully, none near their house. The downpour had created a river of rushing water down their driveway. We begged them not to try; they wouldn’t be able to get through. But they were determined. Their usual 20-minute trip took 2.5 hours, chainsawing their way through. The worst devastation they encountered along the way was my four-acre wooded property, with hundreds of trees down, some of them across the road. There they joined the drivers of five other blocked cars who were also chainsawing their way through. Their last challenge was to move parts of trees blocking our dead-end road. Mike and Kim wanted to bring us back to their home, but we said no. We were the bucket brigade, protecting our property from further damage from the rain. We four spent the night the old-fashioned way: by candlelight. We collected rainwater from the buckets to flush the toilets.

White Ash Lake Tornado

Holly removes branches from my hydrangea and hosta garden.

Early Saturday morning, Mike called on all our relatives living in Minneapolis to come on down to help. Six arrived, each with his or her own chainsaw. Mike’s brother-in-law helped him tarp the roof, which was broken right at the peak with a massive oak branch inside the hole! A huge tree had uprooted and tipped the propane tank partly on its side. The jolt had cut the buried line from the generator to the propane tank; Mike went to Menards to purchase copper tubing. Then he built a new line. The others focused on cutting the trees that had fallen from the woods across the street onto our driveways. Downed power lines crossed the driveway exit, but they could clear the entrance. My granddaughter Holly especially impressed me. She owns a “Queen” battery-powered chainsaw and cut and removed branches from my hydrangea and hosta gardens. Seeing six relatives—without helmets, chaps and boots—wield those chainsaws impressed Helga. In Germany, such work would require licensing, training, and special clothes. Chainsaws would not be a common item in their garages.

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By Saturday afternoon, we had generator power again. Those in the White Ash Lake area without generators waited 1-2 weeks for the electric company to repair all the lines. They had 6000-7000 customers without power in Polk County and brought in 100 linemen from Minnesota. The following week, The Wisconsin National Guard arrived to help open the roads to remote homes on the other side of White Ash Lake.

In addition to structural damage to the house roof, minor damage to the cabin, a destroyed dock and boat lift canopy, arbors, and numerous smaller items, Northern Bliss lost 22 mature oaks and pine; it will never be the same in my lifetime. A similar story can be told among all the property owners around North and South White Ash Lake. Not one of 80+ properties was spared. I expect to hear the buzz of chainsaws, the grinding of stumps, the roar of heavy machinery, and the pounding of hammers until frost—as the recovery continues. How ironic! My latest blog was about migrating north to the sounds of silence here in the land of lakes and woods. The silver lining is that all are safe, and no lives were lost, thank God. We will rebuild.

Next: The Recovery Begins

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 https://loisjoyhofmann.com.