Hurricane Sally: A Woodworker’s Perspective

To employ the worst of literary cliches: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

It really was. On the evening of Tuesday, 15 September 2020, Hurricane Sally slowly moved into the Alabama Gulf Coast. For the last few days, our area had been predicted to be just to the east of the storm’s center (which is always the most dangerous side–west is best, east is the beast, as we say down here). But the storm kept shifting eastward, and the eye wall (the part of the storm with the strongest winds) came ashore just to the west of us, sparing our neighborhood the worst of the storm.

But listening to the winds whipping the trees around all night, and hearing branches breaking and transformers blowing, well… I didn’t get much sleep that night. Our power went out at some point during the night, which we all expected. There was nothing to do but wait for the morning and see how bad it was. At first light, I got up and looked around.

There were still strong gusts that threatened to take down trees and damage roofs. Our house, thank God, was just fine–no damage whatsoever. Standing on my porch watching the wind and rain was strangely peaceful after a long night of danger–at least now I could see what was going on.

There wasn’t much to do besides wait for the storm to pass. My wife made us some coffee in our French press. (When we first moved in, we installed a gas stove and gas water heater for just such occasions.) We ate some muffins she had baked the other day and watched the tail end of the storm from the relative safety of our dining room.

Mid-morning, it was time do get up and do something. Fortunately, 90% of my woodworking is unplugged anyway, and while I usually rely on a lamp for extra light at the bench, my spoon making could proceed as usual.

We’ve been preparing for a couple upcoming craft markets, so we opened up the curtains and started making spoons and spatulas like normal.

After a couple hours, the winds had died down and it seemed safe to walk around the neighborhood and see what damage had occurred–and if there was anybody who needed help.

There were lots of small limbs and branches in every yard, and our neighbors had some trees down. In one yard, a tree had been partially uprooted and was leaning dangerously toward a house. In another yard, an old double-trunk cedar had split apart, taking down a power line and blocking the driveway. All over the neighborhood it was the same.

A couple blocks away, a big tulip poplar came down and blocked the whole street. (That’s me walking toward it.) It missed hitting somebody’s car by about two feet. Fortunately nobody in our neighborhood had been injured.

Some years ago I bought myself a chainsaw, mostly so I could cut up logs I found for spoons and other projects. But in the back of my mind, I knew one day I’d be using it for hurricane cleanup. It was heartwarming to see all the neighbors rally to help each other clean up. Those of us with chainsaws cut what we could deal with safely. The rest of us helped pile up branches out of the way and clear debris. Even the little kids got into the action, carrying small branches and raking up twigs and leaves. By the end of the day, most of our local streets were passable again.

Naturally, I salvaged a few promising logs for spoon making. I find that there’s always a healthy demand for ultra-local woodenware, especially if the wood has a story behind it. Eventually these are going to be “Sally Spoons” and “Sally Spatulas.” I might even make a few “Sally Salad Sets.”

We were surprised and delighted when the power came back on at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday. We had resigned ourselves to being without power for a couple days at least, but we were powerless for fewer than 18 hours total. As I write this on Saturday afternoon, some areas south of us are still without power, and an army of linemen are working literally around the clock to fix power poles and electrical lines.

When Hurricane Sally hit, many of Alabama’s linemen were still in southwest Louisiana, helping with cleanup from Hurricane Laura, which had hit there about three weeks ago. (I understand that the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana are STILL without electricity.) So we were grateful to see trucks not only from Alabama but also from Georgia and other surrounding states. My wife even saw a truck from Michigan and overheard the driver tell someone on the phone (presumably his wife) that, no, he hadn’t been to the beach, and that he didn’t think there were any power poles to work on at the beach anyway.

One of the biggest post-hurricane problems we all have is food storage. A freezer or refrigerator without power will stay cold inside for several hours, but not for several days. An older acquaintance of mine suggested freezing several gallons of water (pour a little bit out first to allow for expansion). Then, when the power goes out, stick them in the top of the fridge and turn the whole thing into an old-fashioned ice box.

It worked like a charm! All our food stayed cold, and nothing spoiled. The gallons were still frozen almost solid when the power did come back on. I suspect they could have kept the fridge pretty cold for up to another day. But I’m glad we didn’t have to find out personally.

Hurricane clean-up can take a very long time. The news cycles have already moved on to other big stories, so unless you’re on the Alabama Gulf Coast or Florida Panhandle, it’s likely that you’ve almost forgotten about Hurricane Sally, not to mention Hurricane Laura. But this afternoon I drove through the neighborhood and saw one house whose roof was halfway gone. A big tree had come down right through it, and it’s not the only house in our city with severe damage. For many people, it will be weeks if not months before their lives are “back to normal.”

In the meantime, I’ve got some wood set aside to make some commemorative items from. Driving up and down the city’s streets, there’s lots more wood where that came from.

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6 Responses to Hurricane Sally: A Woodworker’s Perspective

  1. Robert Demers says:

    Glad to hear you are OK. Hang on, the hurricane season is far from over, plus its 2020 😦

    Bob, expecting Hurricane teddy Wednesday or so…

  2. Paul Bouchard says:

    With so many storms happening down where you live, have you ever considered a natural gas powered generator? A friend’s kicks on automatically when the power goes out. It’s annoyingly loud but the immediate neighbours doing mind because they’re each able to run a lawn mower extension cord over to her back yard outlet. Stay safe.

  3. Joe says:

    Glad to hear it wasn’t worse. This story reminded me of a less serious event we had when I lived in WA state. In the green belt behind my home was a huge cottonwood tree. My neighbor and I used to debate whose house it would fall on if a bad storm came through. One storm came through with very strong winds. I got up at something like 3 am to watch the tree. I looked over to my neighbors house and his family room light was on. I knew he was doing the same thing. I confirmed it when I told him the next day. He laughed and said I should have come over and he would have made me a cup of coffee.

    Luckily the tree didn’t fall. The next day I called the home owners association. They came out shortly after and agreed that tree was a danger and took it down. Not sure why I waited so long to call the HOA. As much as I like trees, I don’t want them falling on my house.

  4. Joe W says:

    Good to hear your are well!

    We had a major storm last year, with strong gusts that did snap several trees off in the forest behind our house. It looked as if a giant had walked through and just broke them casually. Several trees in the neighbouring were uprooted or partially damaged, one fell into one of the houses – built of stone, which is the standard here. Cars were crushed, the town was cut off from the outside world for a day. Nobody was killed or severely injured, we were just on the way back from a museum (dinosaurs! With 3 year old kids….) and almost got stuck in the train / aftermath / chaos that followed the storm. So I really feel with you and the neighbours! The fire brigade cut apart the more dangerous trees, but the damages can still be seen.

    • That’s quite a story, Joe! We had just such a storm come through earlier this year, almost without warning. It completely removed our porch roof in a matter of minutes. (I rebuilt it, and it withstood the recent hurricane.) At least with Hurricane Sally, we had a couple days warning to prepare, and that made a big difference for everybody.

  5. Robert Reid says:

    When I started carving and selling, I had a Katrina collection. Acquired a pecan log from Louisiana that Hurricane Katrina brought down. Traded some walnut for it. In Indiana we have tornados, got 70 cherry logs from a tornado that wiped out the town of Henryville In. about 9 yrs ago. People do love a story with the pieces they buy.

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