Sunday, April 1, 2012

An Acre of Fire

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The first two (actually 3!) waves of SMC folk have arrived in Indiana.  Shawny is totally freaking out about the students’ (and former students’) window into her past, but surely the needs that we will help to address will serve to calm her frazzled psyche.  The adjustment has been pretty smooth all in all, as the first wave (Shawny, Dani, Josh, and Scott) arrived on Thursday night and spent most of Friday getting the lay of the land, visiting worksites and borrowing chainsaws (thanks, Blake and Tyler!).  They spent Friday night in Indianapolis with the world’s greatest hosts, Bob and Becky Kevoian. 

Saturday morning brought an airport run (after a hearty Hoosier breakfast of farm fresh eggs, bacon, fresh-squeezed juice and biscuits and gravy) to pick up the latest redeye arrivals, Dennis, Amelia and Gabe.  When that group stopped to grab breakfast on the way south from the Indianapolis airport, they were joined by Spring Break 2006 (New Orleans) vet Johnny Stratton, who drove down from his Ph.D. program in Chicago to spend 24 hours working with the crew. 

We are now based in Madison, Indiana, a river town of about 12,000 or so people on the border between Indiana and Kentucky.  We are staying in every available space in Shawny’s parents’ house and using it as a headquarters to do work in smaller local areas like Paynesville, Nabb, Henryville and Chelsea, all of which were hit very hard by the swarm of tornadoes that cut a swath across the Midwest on March 2.  (Madison itself was spared from damage this time around.)  Despite the destruction we have witnessed already, we have not yet seen the worst of the 49-mile track that the tornado left on the landscape.  Even with what we have seen we can imagine that the experience of this particular storm must have been overwhelming. 

We began our relief work today in Paynesville, working with Vicky and Joe Germano, whose house is still standing, even if damaged, but whose property is a twisted landscape of broken trees and scattered belongings (some their own and some belonging to several other families who live both near and far away).  They have ten acres of destroyed woodland, but they consider themselves incredibly fortunate: all around them are the charred remains of their neighbors’ homes, as the practice for the moment is to salvage whatever can be saved in a ruined house and then burn whatever is left to expedite the recovery process. 

Even more tragic than the loss of these homes is the grim news that their next-door neighbor was one of the fatalities that resulted from the storm that day.  Joe struggles even to look toward that house from his property but like the hardy Midwesterner that he is, he continues to plug away as diligently as he can to take the next step, the next step and the next step that will get his world back on track (or as close as it will ever get to being back on track). 

Today, then, Joe and Vicky (along with their friends Mark, Sara, and Marco) continued the seemingly unending work of clearing fallen and twisted timbers, stacking some into firewood piles that will be hauled away and the rest into “burn piles” (the fate of which is no doubt self-evident).  Little tubs are near every work zone to collect any personal items that are in any way identifiable or that might have sentimental (or other) value to someone out there.  So, under one set of logs and branches, we found the contents of a medicine cabinet, all of which were smashed and unusable (nail polish, a spare hair roller or two – but not a whole set – and some other cosmetics).  Under another we found some garden tools, which went near the “save” bin.  Under another was a smashed and twisted bejeweled ring (noticed and salvaged by Vicky, who has a particularly keen eye for things that might be very small but are also likely very important to their original owners.) 

Joe showed us some of the grotesque artifacts they have found, including shards of metal driven through tree trunks, roof panels twisted and looped around the (few) remaining treetops and even a bird impaled onto a board by a high-velocity steel pin.  At the sight of each of these items, no one can help but to exclaim over the incredible force that this tornado inflicted on its path. 

So our job was to enter into the tangle (already substantially addressed by Joe, Vicky, Mark, Sara, Marco and a host of other volunteers) and start moving pieces of debris one by one, including twigs, branches, whole trees, house parts, roof tiles, tv remotes, and the walls of the shed that used to hold Joe’s mowers, tools, and hardware.  At first it seemed entirely fruitless even to lift the first item and move it, but as the whole group continued to do so, we noticed that we were starting to make a difference in the scene we had first observed. 

There were two substantial burn piles already amassed when we arrived and two smaller ones to which we added much more content.  We created four or five more and as the sun started to fade, we helped Joe light them on fire one by one.  In all we think that about one acre out of the ten that surround Joe and Vicky’s house was on fire.  Strangely, those huge fires counted as a big achievement and a mark of great progress rather than an awful setback.

Like many of the relief trips on which we have participated before, we found ourselves questioning whether we had really come to Indiana to burn and destroy things.  But our doubts quickly vanished when we felt the immensity of the space that we could now navigate, all of which just a few hours before had been occupied by a layer of thick clutter that prevented anyone from moving (easily) more than a foot or so in any direction.  We can see that once we get our whole group here (a total of 16 people will come, but we will never have more than 14 together at one time), we will be able to make even more progress really quickly.

We have to be especially cautious, as the unseasonably high temperatures here have brought out two pernicious enemies: poison ivy and ticks.  So far we haven’t had any problems with either but we know that it is just a matter of time before someone has to deal with one or the other.  We will all keep scanning every apparent abrasion and picking at our own scalps to make sure that we don’t let either of these issues become a big problem for us. 

As for keeping ourselves clean, we have secured an outstanding setup: the women’s basketball coach and assistant coach of nearby Hanover College are friends with Shawny’s sister Shelly and they have offered us the use of the visitors’ locker rooms in their oh-so-impressive athletic facility.  The College is between all of our worksites and the house, so we can just carry towels and a change of clothes and come home clean every day.  The water heater at the house will surely appreciate this arrangement. 

In general, we have plenty of help finding our way around here, as many old family friends of Shawny and her sisters are organizing meals, snacks, excursions, and more.  Every surface on the first floor of the house is covered with homemade baked goods (shoofly pie! buckeyes! oatmeal cream pies! peanut butter fudge! cookies galore!) and other snacks.  The refrigerator is stuffed full of sandwich makings, casseroles, and breakfast foods.  Long-time family friend Karen Modisett is the main coordinator of all of these contributions, making daily runs for the last week or so to get things organized for our arrival and first few days.  We owe many, many thanks to Karen and her network of contacts for the relatively easy situation we face at our Hoosier home. 

We will return to Joe and Vicky’s house on Sunday, with another whole day of clearing and burning woodland.  If we can make good progress we should be able to pick a spot to build Joe a new shed sometime this week so that he can begin to reassemble the tools he needs to do the things hopes to do.  We will also connect with some more families that need help and get a feel for what the other jobs of the week will be. 

Please stay with us as we find our way through southern Indiana and make whatever small contributions of labor we can make to help families turn the corner on this devastating experience.  We have several excellent photographers in our group, but our somewhat sketchy internet setup might thwart our attempts to post pictures.  We will try to find a way . . .


  1. I am so happy to read this.........what a wonderful experience to be able to do what you do so expertly all over the world, but now in Shawny's home state, surrounded by delicious baked goods. :). I'm thinking of you all as you are among the Hoosiers, my dear Midwestern neighbors!!!

  2. I am so grateful that you guys want to be a part of this project. The landlocked parts of the United States are often known for having strong communities, like the ones SMC trips with Shawny have described and experienced. I wonder if having that experience in the United States will help clarify the thinking some of you have been doing about the scope of these amazing projects? I hope it helps with reentry. And I'm totally envious of the baked goods! Wishing you all the best!