Faith Gong: After the tornado

Words I never expected to say: “After the tornado went through our front yard….”

Yet I heard myself say exactly that to my children on the evening of March 26, 2021. It sounded so ludicrous, so absolutely unbelievable, that I broke down in giggles.

“Uh, Mommy,” my daughter asked, “do you have post-traumatic stress?”

Maybe. Probably. I suppose some degree of trauma is inevitable in a year when I’m learning that no matter how ludicrous, how absolutely unbelievable something seems, it can still happen. “Is this actually happening?” I’ve wondered numerous times over the past year: when the COVID-19 pandemic began, when I saw news coverage of mobs storming the U.S. Capitol building, and when I watched a tornado pass by our house — in Vermont, in March.

Vermont is not known for tornadoes, although they do happen: The state has averaged one tornado a year since 1950, which makes Vermont one of the ten states with the fewest tornadoes in the nation. Only one other tornado in history has been recorded in Vermont in March, a month not known for thunderstorms or tornadoes.

The forecast on March 26 called for a chance of severe afternoon thunderstorms. It rained off-and-on all morning, but by lunchtime the sun was out. My daughters headed outside for their weekly (masked, distanced — we’re still in a pandemic) “nature group” playdate with two friends. Because of the forecast, I settled the six girls with painting and games in our backyard yurt, with instructions to stay in the yurt at the first sign of thunderstorms.

As I walked back to our house to put the baby down for his nap, the rain had started up again. When I reached the kitchen, the power clicked off. “That’s strange,” I thought. “It’s not all that bad outside; the storm must be much worse somewhere nearby.”

Then I looked out the window.

We often joke that we live in a wind tunnel. The way that our land is situated, wind tends to whip past our house and down the valley beyond even on mild, sunny days. So I’ve seen some pretty strong winds around here.

I had never seen wind like this before.

Usually you “see’” the wind based on its effect on the things it encounters, but this was a wind that you could actually see. And the things that it encountered — like the poplars and willows in our front yard — were nearly horizontal. There was something else strange, too: It looked like pieces of paper were blowing across the yard. “Our neighbors must have left their garbage can outside,” I thought.

The baby and I stood there for a frozen moment, disbelieving. Then I realized that this was quite possibly a very big deal, so I called to my husband, who was working upstairs. By the time he came down, I’d realized that those pieces of paper weren’t paper at all: they were parts of our neighbors’ house.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado lasted five minutes, from 1:50 to 1:55 PM. Its winds reached speeds of 110 mph. When it had passed, my husband and I could see devastation on either side of us: To the right, our neighbors’ garage and the office above it had been ripped entirely off of the main house, and their car was flipped on its side; to the left, half of our neighbors’ barn was gone and a nearby workshop had sustained some damage.

“The girls are in the yurt,” I gasped. 

When it seemed still enough to venture safely outside, my husband left to check on our neighbors. I stepped outside and met the girls, who were holding hands and running up to our house from the yurt.

“What just happened?” they shouted.

“I think it may have been a tornado,” I replied, barely believing myself.

My 11-year-old daughter thought differently: She was convinced it was a dragon. “I saw it in the clouds, and I heard it,” she insists to this day.

Once I had calmed the girls and installed them in our garage with chocolate, I went out to survey the damage.

The terrible thing about tornadoes is their specificity, which feels almost personal. This tornado covered a mile in its five-minute lifespan. It began across the road, where it uprooted multiple trees around some neighbors’ houses. Then it crossed the road, toppling utility poles and downing power lines. It hit our nearest neighbor directly: In addition to the obvious flipped car and detached garage, their entire house was twisted six to eight inches, rendering it uninhabitable. Then the tornado moved diagonally across our front field, littering its path with pink fiberglass insulation, roof tiles, and the contents of our neighbors’ office files before slamming into our other neighbors’ barn. It ended in a tree-filled valley, which looked as if a giant holding an axe had spun in a circle, lopping the tops off of trees; a tree with its top off would be standing next to a tree that was untouched.

The damage on our property consisted of several downed trees and one bent trampoline pole. Our house, our children, and the 26 chickens and ducks that were free ranging outside were all unhurt.

How does one process being the house that the tornado just missed? Had it moved 50 yards to the left, it would have hit our house. Ninety yards to the left, and it would have hit our yurt — a glorified tent — and the six children inside. What do you do with the knowledge that the distance between you and unimaginable tragedy could be measured on a football field?

We are grateful; grateful for our own safety, grateful that the total injuries related to the tornado amounted to some cuts and bumps. But it’s complicated.

The phone calls, text messages, and emails started arriving in the tornado’s aftermath, friends and family checking in on us. And more than one person — people who love us — said something like, “God was protecting you,” or “Angels were watching over you.”

On the one hand, these statements sound innocuous: After all, I do believe in a good God who is concerned with events on earth.

But deeper consideration forces me into some uncomfortable theological gymnastics. Because if God and the angels were protecting us, then what about our neighbors? Was anyone protecting them?

Despite ourselves, we tend to assume that life works on a logical point system in which good is rewarded and bad is punished and everyone gets what they deserve. It’s a short step from statements like, “God was protecting you,” to thinking that the tornado spared our house because we deserved it.

I will go down fighting that idea, because I don’t believe it’s how God works.

My biggest question in the tornado’s aftermath was: Why not us? Our neighbors are kind people, good friends, hard workers, and contributing members of our community. They did not deserve to suffer loss; we did not deserve to avoid loss.

Interestingly, the tornado hit exactly one week before Good Friday, which is when Christians commemorate Jesus’s death by torture and crucifixion. Good Friday turns upside down the idea that good is rewarded and bad is punished. Christians believe that Jesus was God’s son: God in human form. If God himself can be falsely accused, beaten, and killed — taking, in effect, a direct hit from the tornado — then none of us is safe. Put another way: God appears to be less interested in our immediate safety and comfort, than with larger and more eternal soul issues.

The grace is that God does not leave us alone or helpless. I think that God was equally present with our neighbors when the tornado slammed into their property, as with us when it passed us by. And for help, God gives us each other.

The volunteer firefighters arrived first and walked us gently through the next steps. The Green Mountain Power crew worked for eight hours in nasty weather to restore the broken power lines. Volunteer crews secured plastic over the damaged buildings to protect them from the rain.

When I looked out my front window the following morning, where the tornado had raged, I saw dozens of people who had gathered to help clean up the detritus of our neighbors’ house. A few days later, more people arrived to finish the job. My neighbor has been loaned a car, and the last I heard she’d received no less than ten temporary housing offers.

In the end, we’re all just biding our time between life’s tornadoes — the literal and the metaphorical. But when we’re the fortunate ones, the ones who are spared a direct hit, I’ve stopped asking why; I see it instead as an invitation to help.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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