Great oaks' fall offers hint of storms' potential to harm


WITH THE dying of the last, honest bit of daylight, and all the electric power in the house gone from the force of Hurricane Floyd, my wife and I gazed at the huge trees in the back yard Thursday evening and followed them into the sky.

Those trees have been there forever. They've survived rain and gusts and history of all kinds, and fiercer troubles than Floyd, whose very name sounds more country bumpkinish than menace.

But the leaves in those trees were shivering in blustery wind now, the way a spaniel shivers when drying off. And the branches seemed to grope about in the gathering darkness.

"No lights, no cable, no ballgames on TV," we noted dully. It sounded primitive. Also, it sounded like a fine excuse for some extra sleep.

But we read for a while by the eerie glow of large flashlights my wife had managed to buy Thursday, when the radio was issuing warnings about the possibility of blackouts.

I was upstairs around 8: 30 when I heard the noise: a ripping sound, a mournful groan, and then a whoosh. Downstairs, my wife said she thought it was a gust of wind, nothing more.

I went outside to examine the neighborhood. Two blocks away, a big tree was down. A block away, a smaller one had fallen. And then, turning back onto my street, there it was: my neighbor's house, two doors from mine, and a huge oak tree was ripped from its roots, pulling up part of the front yard, pulling up big chunks of sidewalk and leaving them sprawled the way a tremor might.

The neighbors stood in their yard and said they were thankful. The tree had fallen into the street, missing people, missing houses, missing electrical wires. To one side of it, there were skid marks from a car's tires, some lucky driver hitting the brakes just in time to avoid catastrophe, and then backing quickly away.

The rain had stopped by now, but not the wind. Up in the branches of standing trees was noise that sounded like some ghostly chorus. The neighbor with the fallen oak pointed up, toward another huge tree in his yard that was curving severely at its top.

"At least that one didn't go," he said.

But it looked vulnerable, looked unpredictable in this neighborhood where each old tree, formerly seen as graceful and symbolic of the area's rustic charm, now seemed a potential traitor. My neighborhood is full of such trees, old and weathered, some of them yielding to age and unseen infirmities, waiting to be bullied by nature.

"Down the street," somebody said then.

My wife and I walked to the next block, and there it was worse. Another big tree had fallen, and this one landed on the house on the corner. The top of the tree hit the roof but went no further. Maybe it hadn't gotten enough momentum going to crash all the way through.

The neighbors stood on the front sidewalk with their two little children and prepared to go to a motel for the night. They said their little girl had been frightened and wanted to go away. The roots of the big tree were so large, so out of proportion to everything else in the yard, that they seemed otherworldly.

We went home to sleep, assuring ourselves the worst was over. Sleep ended a few hours later. The burglar alarm, KO'd by the power blackout, nevertheless was wailing away now. I hit my code numbers; the wailing continued. I called the alarm company.

"What is your code?" I was asked.

I gave it.

"No, sir," said the woman at the alarm company. "That's not the code we're showing."

She gave me another phone number and suggested I call back in the morning. I went through the house shining a flashlight, checking the doors and windows, and saw a light shining directly at me. My heart stopped. Then, brilliantly, I realized it was a reflection of my own light. The wailing of the burglar alarm stopped several minutes later, apparently out of exhaustion.

In the morning, my wife walked through the neighborhood. Several large trees had fallen within a block of our house.

"Remember that big curvy tree last night?" she said.

She meant two doors down from us, where our neighbor's big oak had fallen about 8: 30 and he'd said, "At least that one didn't go."

During the night, it did. It fell across an entire street, across power wires, into the yard across the block and nearly onto the house there.

I walked down to look at the damage and realized how lucky we were, and how vulnerable. No one had been hurt. But we'd only gotten a hint of what Floyd threatened to bring us, and here was the fallout.

"Want to go to a movie tonight?" my wife said dryly. "We haven't sat in the dark for a while."

Pub Date: 9/19/99

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