By Cindy Haverkamp

With a freight-train roar and a thunderous snapping of trees, the tornado that struck Port Orchard on December 18, 2018 smashed a swath of destruction in a matter of minutes. A roof flew off one home and drove itself through another home before landing in the middle of the street. Windows and entire walls blew out, leaving people and possessions without shelter in the winter weather.

One of many Port Orchard homes blown to bits by December’s freak tornado.

Cars and trucks in driveways were flattened by falling and uprooted trees. A 2″ by 4″ launched itself through an exterior wall and lodged itself in a shower. “The miracle,” says Dennis Magnuson, Pacific Northwest (PNW) United Methodist Church (UMC) Early Response Team (ERT) member, “is that this happened at 2:02pm and local kids didn’t get out of school till 2:10pm.” Miraculous, indeed, is the fact that no one was injured or killed.

This is the story of what happened after that…how a community pulled itself together, partnering with the PNW UMC, to support one another and to recover from this tragedy.

As soon as disaster struck, Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management (KCDEM) kicked into gear, setting up a base of operations in the local Walmart parking lot. The Salvation Army provided snacks to first responders and the newly homeless. Team Rubicon, a national veteran-connected organization, also came onsite to assist with the initial damage assessments and debris removal. Within several days, KCDEM determined that a lead organization was needed to continue with volunteer management and more in-depth assessments. They needed a group that could quickly set up a Community Recovery Center (CRC) and provide staffing until some order could be restored to this devastated community. That organization was the PNW UMC.

Jim Truitt, PNW Disaster Response Coordinator received the request on Christmas Eve, then called upon Kathy Bryson, PNW ERT Coordinator, to start the staffing wheels in motion. By Friday morning, December 28, additional ERT members were on the ground at the centrally-located Christian Life Center in Port Orchard, ready to start operations.

CRC Manager, Lynn Magnuson, answers a call while Port Orchard UMC volunteers, Mitzi Lawson (left) and Carol Wright (right) process paperwork.

Right away, Lynn Magnuson, first-time CRC manager, noticed that this community was intent on getting to work. Dennis Magnuson described it this way, “The community rushed in immediately. The people here are very strong and resilient and everyone in this close-knit community wanted to help!” Managing the flood of volunteers—everyone from a person who wanted to help with paperwork for one hour to people offering their dump trucks to drive away debris—required organization.  Lynn, Dennis, and fellow ERT members began to gather information and build a database system to help understand the next steps toward recovery.

As Lynn and Dennis managed the CRC, experienced ERT damage assessment teams, assisted by Port Orchard UMC volunteers, started contacting households on December 29 in the tornado-affected neighborhoods. They followed up on homes that were tagged by the county with either green, yellow or red signs denoting whether or not they could still be inhabited.

Not all debris is bound for the landfill! Here is a pile of woody debris that will be recycled into wood chips!

Damage assessments are the first step to better understanding survivors’ needs. Information such as how many people and pets live in each home, the status and extent of the damage, and insurance coverage helps agencies like KCDEM understand the scope of the situation.

According to Kathy Bryson, ERT Coordinator, the role of ERTs is to determine if the situation is “Safe, Sanitary and Secure” and to provide a caring Christian presence. While the ERT’s focus is helping families to get through a crisis, community resources are generally funneled toward those homeowners who are un- or underinsured as well as toward helping renters who may need help getting their belongings out of a damaged home or finding housing alternatives.

In the three weeks since the disaster, much has been done, but there is still plenty of work to do. A complicating factor was that a very strong wind storm blew through in the meantime which did its own share of damage. The site of the CRC, Christian Life Center, lost part of its sanctuary roof during the secondary storm and when the churches’ breakers blew because of water flooding into the building, they also lost two freezers of food that they would have served during their Wednesday night homeless dinners. 

Christian Life Center, home of the CRC, was damaged by the wind storm that followed close after the tornado.

Unfortunately, the church has not been able to serve those dinners the last few weeks, despite the heavier-than-normal need, because of the damage the church sustained. Pastor Virgil Brown said that suffering their own disaster “really gave the church a heart for how others are feeling and helped us to identify what the community is going through.”

During a visit to the site on January 7, the clean-up was progressing at an amazing pace. A local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), led by Ken Hulet, was in place to train and manage a large group of volunteers from Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores. Five groups of Lowe’s well-organized volunteers were hard at work and both volunteers and homeowners were all smiles as they surveyed the work that had been done.

Lowe’s volunteers, led by Nancy Williams, clean up debris blocking roads and driveways.

The Salvation Army was on hand to provide snacks and drinks to volunteers and Costco provided pizza for lunch. Local contractor, Bob Disney, had 5 employees and a subcontractor on hand with two giant dump trucks to haul away debris. 

Woody Russell, ERT member, and Bob Disney, a local volunteer.

Disney, who lives 2 blocks away from the disaster zone, paid for all the time of his employees and the subcontractor, the gas for the dump trucks, and all dump fees. He said, “I was just glad to help. It could easily have been my neighborhood that was hit!”

Despite all the hard work and good feelings, the stress of the disaster continued to cause some tense moments and frayed nerves as exhausted survivors struggled to understand what had happened to them, what might happen next and how they might move forward. As ERT Woody Russell put it, “Everybody’s busting their tails during this time of barely manageable chaos.” This makes it all the more necessary for ERTs to be trained to understand how people might respond to a disaster and to learn to be a calming presence amidst the debris.

Salvation Army volunteers, Dylan and Victor Vayona (a father and son team!) serve snacks and drinks to Lowes volunteers.

Throughout the day, the CRC prepared to close down its public access and move to a phone-only presence in the local Lutheran church. A meeting was planned for the following week to determine if the community was ready to take over the next phase of support for the tornado survivors. The transition will be to the Salvation Army, who will provide case management for people with unmet needs by working with a long-term recovery group. 

“We don’t own this disaster, the community does,” offered Lynn Magnuson. And while the time may have come for the community to take on the responsibility for its own survival, the PNW UMC ERT members will remain ever-vigilant, ready to step in again whenever they are needed to make things “Safe, Sanitary and Secure” while providing a caring Christian presence during the community’s healing process.

All photos by Cindy Haverkamp.

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