When Cape Codders or their visitors hear the expression “thar she blows,” they are usually then directed to glance over the right or left bow of the whale watching vessel they are motoring on to see a whale spouting water from its blowhole. But on July 23 the words took on a different connotation. In an eerie case of life imitating art, “Sharknado” was actually upon us, with sharks to the right of us and tornados to the left. That was the Tuesday the 2019 Tornado skipped through town. As we now know, there were three that lit on the Narrow Land, with Barnstable, Yarmouth and Harwich becoming the reluctant hosts of the unwelcome guests. The Harwich intruder only stayed for five minutes and cut a 250 yard-wide swathe of destruction for two miles, leaving trees uprooted and snapped, power lines downed and roofs compromised, but miraculously neither killing nor injuring anyone.
My husband and I had gone to Hyannis early that day to avoid the inevitable daily summer traffic. We were in Yarmouth on Route 28, returning home, when our visiting 16-year-old California grandson texted us, even though he knows we don’t text. He said a tornado was headed to Harwich. Had we not received a similar alert the previous night, I would have thought he was overwrought by playing too much Fortnite and eating too much pizza and chicken nuggets. We got home in 10 minutes and watched the TV weatherman track its path. I momentarily considered dragging in lawn chairs and yard toys, but instantly images from the iconic “Twister” movie popped into my head: cows and tractor trailers careening across the skies, carried into far off counties. OK, recalculating…get thee to thy basement was the forecaster’s cry, and so I did, just as I saw mayhem occurring in the back yard. I dragged the two dogs that would come with me, while shouting for the “men folk” to come with. They ignored me, preferring to place themselves in harm’s way in front of the windows to watch the spectacle. As the puppy peed on the cement floor and I cranked my storm radio into power, I prayed my husband and grandson wouldn’t be impaled by shards of glass from the windows which would certainly be struck by flying cows, or at the very least, the beach umbrella. Thankful that did not happen. I tentatively emerged and ventured out for a look see. We, and thousands of others, then surveyed our changed landscape.
This tornado, which has changed so much for so many, doesn’t even have a name, like a hurricane would. Tornados come and go so fast, often in multiples, that they are not named. The word itself may have come from 16th century Spanish explorers. Their words for thunder “tronada” and turn “tornan,” along with English translation, became ternado. There are more tornados in North America than anywhere in the world, due to weird science from north to south mountain ranges and the Gulf of Mexico. Think you can avoid one? Think again. You’d have to move to Antarctica, as they occur in every state and every other continent. The deadliest killed 695 people in 1925 in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
Minutes after the cyclonic winds subsided, happy-go-lucky tourists and locals made their way through Harwich Port on bicycles, pushing strollers around and over fallen limbs and trees. I’m not sure how many of the rubberneckers considered there were live, broken electric wires swinging freely in the breeze and entangled in the branches.
The clean up was extraordinary. Within 24 hours power and cable were restored. Fire, police, utility workers and tree crews both local and as far away as Ohio labored tirelessly and patiently to restore power to our homes and businesses. We are grateful for us and for them, that the tornado did not swoop in a few days before or after, when the sidewalks seemed hot enough to fry eggs. As financially damaging as it was for many of us, we remain grateful lives were not lost. We mourn the loss of signature trees throughout our towns, and some yards, once shady, are now sun-filled enough to grow those sun-loving flowers they never could before.
There are fewer branches to break in future winter storms and wildlife agencies are working overtime to nurse the displaced birds and critters. In the end, whatever the 2019 Tornado swept away in its 110 mph winds was replaced by what it gave us: reassurance that people care, comfort that neighbors are supportive, and the knowledge that we are resilient. It gave us a taste of what others in our country and the world endure in natural disasters; it renewed our compassion and desire to pay it forward. Like hockey players taught to skate “heads up” to avoid injury, we, too, will have to walk heads up for a while to avoid those still-hanging clusters of tree branches poised like the Sword of Damocles above our heads. But all in all, we weathered the disaster that could have been truly tragic very well. Now we’re waiting for the “I survived the 2019 Cape Cod Tornado” T-shirts, the tempting tornado cocktails at our local bars, terrific tornado sandwiches or burgers and a Simply Cyclonic Tornado Funnel dessert. I’m sure they’ll all just blow us away!