A few seconds can change your life

On Monday, April 4th, I awoke and went through my normal morning routine. In checking the weather I noticed that there was “possibly severe weather” predicted for the day- that’s typical for this time of year for those of us who live in a tornado alley.

My wife Carol left the house on foot for a faculty meeting at the University of Memphis which is less than a mile from our home. She took her jacket in case of bad weather. In case of really bad weather a colleague would always be glad to give her a ride home. No problem.

I met my first client and took her back to my garage-office. My cat Neo was in the office. He was a bit too rambunctious and playful for psychotherapy, so I exited my office and deposited him in my home a few feet away. Back to psychotherapy.

Toward the end of our meeting it really started to storm. There was heavy rain, high wind, and intense thunder and lightning. I looked at the National Weather Service radar on my laptop- it was apparent that Memphis was about to get hammered by a major storm. I told my client that it might be a good idea for her to leave early to beat the storm.

Too late. About that time the lights flickered and the tornado warning sirens started howling. I ran into my home to quickly unplug all the electronics. We had lost a few hundred dollars of computer equipment once during a thunderstorm, so in my mind I was taking reasonable precautions.

By then it was raining about as hard as it can rain. There were only 3 cords I needed to unplug- no problem– mission accomplished. I was dressed in a cotton t-shirt, sneakers, and shorts. I was totally soaked when I returned to my office. I was as wet as if I had jumped into a swimming pool.

The power went out. Then I saw something I have never seen before- water was blowing horizontally under the crack in my office door – it looked like someone had a hose squirting water under my door and it was flying into my office. The wind was howling furiously. It picked up – something like the freight train sound you hear about from tornado survivors– Then there was a big sound- Obviously a tree or big branch had fallen- it made a lot of noise and even made the ground tremble for a moment.

My client, Gwen, asked “What was that?”

I opened the door in response. The first thing I saw was that my son Eli’s tree house had been crushed- it looked as though a large limb had fallen on it. Then I turned to look at the house. I said a few expletives at that point- mostly in amazement. It was hard to tell what I was looking at. I saw a lot of tree parts everywhere, limbs, trunks, leaves, and I had a hard time seeing my house because of all the tree parts that were in the way.

I finally realized that the huge ancient oak tree from my next door neighbor’s back yard had fallen onto my house and had damaged it extensively.

What now? Gwen and I were safe and uninjured. No problem there.

My next thought was of my cat, Neo. He was in the house when the tree hit it. I could tell that there was a lot of damage to the home and I wanted to make sure that Neo was safe. Or, if Neo was injured, I wanted to get him to the vet ASAP.

But, I knew that everybody’s safety had to take priority over my fears for Neo- I would do no one any good if I were dead or seriously injured, so I had to play it safe enough.

One look at my home and my neighbors’ homes let me know that live power lines were likely down on the ground. There was a high risk of fire by either the natural gas or the electrical system with all the damage that had been done. That meant that the natural gas and electrical power had to be cut off- that was my first safety priority in this disaster.

The electrical circuit breakers were on the side of my house and I could not get to them because of the tree and the live downed power lines. The natural gas valve was directly in front of me, only about 15 feet away, but it was behind a whole lot of tree. That gas valve needed to be closed.

Then I heard my neighbor, Patrick Murphy, yelling “Hello? Carol? Cliff? Y’all ok in there?”We yelled back and forth. I let him know Carol was not in the house.Patrick said that he would flip off the circuit breakers so that the electrical in the house would be cut off. He had also noticed the live downed power lines and he made sure I knew about them.

The fallen tree had blocked direct access to the gas. Gwen was smaller than me and thought she could get to the gas- she wiggled through some branches and tried to turn off the gas. She tried hard but she did not get it done.

I got some loppers from the tool shed and started cutting my way to the gas.  My perfect tools for turning off the valve were in the damaged house, inaccessible, but I had some pliers and a couple of wrenches that I thought might do the trick. I finally got there- I could hear the gas hissing through the pipes. I turned the valve and it got quiet. That mission was accomplished. Yay!

Later I discovered that the tree had knocked over our natural gas water heater. The gas pipe was broken- natural gas was flooding the air. A spark or flame could have ignited the gass- that could have been disastrous. Turning off the gas and the electrical was critical.

Now, where’s my cat, Neo? I wanted to get into the house to see if I could find him.With the tornado warning sirens still blaring Gwen and I started to chop through some branches in an effort to get to my back door- that’s how I get into the house right? Well, not now.

The back door, which led into our laundry room, was about 15 feet in front of me- I intended to hack my way to the door through the tree’s branches so that I could find Neo. But when I paused to focus, I realized that the laundry room’s outside wall had been flattened, peeled off as if  the tree were a can opener that had sliced off the back wall.

Then, as I focused my vision through the rain and through the tree branches, I realized that the laundry room was impassable- there was too much debris to get into the house through the back door. As I looked at the house, I discovered that the tree had also shattered the master bedroom wall.

I ventured over to the fallen part of the tree that had ripped open our bedroom. I was careful to avoid the live power lines that were on the ground nearby. I hopped up onto the tree and I was able to walk on the tree through the destroyed wall into our bedroom. The bedroom was a disaster. But that was not my concern.

I wanted to find Neo and I also wanted to save Carol’s laptop computer—all of her professional and personal work was stored on that laptop. I saw that a large branch of the tree had penetrated the living room ceiling and was on top of the wood stove in the corner of the room. There was water pouring into the living room. My TV and sound system were getting soaked. Fortunately, Carol’s computer was dry. I ran to the kitchen- water was pouring into the kitchen, too, through the ceiling. I got a garbage bag, unlocked the side door, and ran her computer out to our car- whoops! No car keys.

Two young men who live across the street were standing near our car observing our catastrophe. “Guard this computer,” I told them. I ran back inside, got my car keys and my laptop, and ran back outside. I put the laptops in the trunk of our car. For the next 10 hours I worked to rescue valuables.

But now I was mostly worried about my cat Neo. I knew that he was in the house when the tree struck. I also knew his habits. One of his habits was to sleep in the laundry room on a shelf- that shelf had taken a direct hit from the tree and had been crushed. I hoped that Neo had not been sleeping on that shelf. I knew he slept mostly in 4 other places- on our bed, on the couch in the living room, and on  chairs in the computer room and dining room. I could not find him anywhere. Every time I picked up some debris I was afraid I would find Neo dead.

But I had to keep picking up the debris- we were trying to figure out what to try to save and what we might need.

Chainsaws- I heard chainsaws. Our neighbor Jim had his house damaged by the same tree. There were crews starting to show up clearing our driveway and clearing the tree off of Jim’s house. I knew Neo would not come out of hiding with all the noise- that is, if he was not dead.

My neighbor Patrick Murphy is a good man. Patrick and I don’t talk much but if there is ever a problem that arises you can count on Patrick showing up to help. Patrick was on point out front while I was trapped in the back of the house. Patrick got our water turned off at the street which was huge. When the tree fell, it broke a lot of water pipes upstairs. Water was gushing out of the broken pipes and was flowing into our house. About 30 minutes after the tree had fallen Patrick had managed to get the water off. It was turned off after the electrical breakers were flipped off and after the gas was turned off. That’s the right order.

About an hour or so after the tree fell Patrick told me he thought that Gwen should leave because of the work crews showing up with trucks and cranes and chainsaws- he feared Gwen would get trapped in the driveway. At that time Gwen’s car was parked in our driveway but it was not blocked. I agreed with Patrick- it seemed that getting Gwen out should be a priority.

He looked at me and asked “What do you want me to do?” I said “Get her out. Take your time, she is really shaken up, but get her out.”

I walked through the bedroom wall, jumped down from the tree trunk I was walking on, stayed clear of the power lines, and went back to talk with Gwen. I introduced her to Patrick and he got her out of the office into her car. It took her a few minutes but she was finally calm enough to drive away.

I found out later that Carol was worried about me. People kept asking us where we were going to stay that night. Friends and neighbors were offering room in their places. I told everyone that “I’m not leaving until I find my cat Neo.”

That worried Carol. She and I are very close to Neo- he is like a child to us in many ways. I had lost my previous cat Boo in June of 2009. After watching how I dealt with the loss of Boo, Carol knew that I would probably come apart if Neo was dead.

I was determined to do everything I could to find Neo. I had hope that he was alive but I realized that it was very possible that he had been killed.

My office behind the house was clean and dry. It had a huge comfortable recliner and a reclining loveseat. The weather was mild. I knew we could survive the night sleeping in the office. I just wasn’t sure if I could sleep if Neo was still missing.

Eventually the sun went down and everyone left- the major emergency was over. Carol and I found our storm candles and lit several of them so that we could see to move around the house. It was nice and quiet.

Amanda and Robert, our neighbors, let us run a long extension cord from their house to the office so that we could have some light.

Neo’s favorite sleeping place was on a shelf above the washing machine on the back wall of our house. That wall was now flat on the ground. I had heard of cats surviving in tight quarters for days.

I took my high-powered flashlight and started looking in the debris in crevices for Neo. I knew his eyes would light up if my flashlight hit him—if he was alive and well.

Suddenly I saw a cat in a space under the collapsed wall. I thought it was him. He looked alert. I figured he might be stuck there. Perhaps there was no opening large enough for him to crawl through. Or perhaps he was injured and he could not move. I ran outside and started trying to lift the wall a few inches so that he could escape.

I could no longer see him from that location. After a few minutes of wrestling with sections of the wall that were too heavy to lift more than a couple of inches, I ran back inside to see if he was still there. I could not find him. I went back out and called him. No Neo.Then I saw another cat, Glitch, who lives next door with Amanda and Robert. I realized that the cat I had seen peeking through the debris was not Neo, it was Glitch. They look alike.

I was really disappointed. I went back into the house and continued salvaging valuables and essentials with Carol.

About 10 pm we were getting ready to head back to the office to sleep. We had found some dry blankets to use in case the temp got too chilly. As we were headed to the bedroom to walk through the hole in the wall to get to the office, I saw a flash of the rear hindquarters of a cat in our bedroom.It was Neo. He was frightened but ok.

When I tried to grab him he ran into the dining room and hid under the table where I could not get him. Carol and I hugged one another and we both cried tears of relief and joy. We had been so afraid that he had been killed. We lured him out from under the table by rattling a bowl of his food. He came out and let us hold him. He was dry and uninjured.

We took Neo back to the office and slept until sunrise.



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One Response to “A few seconds can change your life”

  1. Dr. Cliff,
    I am very glad you, Carol, and Neo are all okay. I have kept up with what had happened through Gwen. We all worried about Neo. I would call just to check on the cat. I was very happy to hear Neo wasn’t hurt. I really appreciated reading what had happened in more details. I know from experience that writing about an event that is traumatic in your life is very important in the healing process. I also want to thank you for all the support that you have given Gwen. She has been a friend of mine for over 26 years.
    Thanks you