‘It seemed like an eternity’ — Life more meaningful after tornado scare
By Dawn De Busk
Pete and Martha St. Jean were huddled with their dog in the tiny bathroom of their cottage while a tornado’s path pummeled their summertime paradise.
Moments earlier, “as the rain picked up in intensity, we proceeded to close the windows and sliding door,” Pete said.
As she glanced out the slider, Martha watched a large pine tree fall on the lake side — just a few feet from their A-frame cottage. Meanwhile, Pete saw only the dark shadow of it. The glass of the slider seemed like it might shatter so they hurriedly took refuge in the bathroom, he said.
The tornado happened so quickly that the couple didn’t really have time to think about whether they would live or not. They heard the booming sound of another tree — an old oak as it came crashing down on their front porch. One branch broke an upstairs window and damaged the roof.
Still, they hunkered down.
“Little did we know, the storm had passed,” Martha said.
Pete continued with the retelling of Saturday’s horrific experience, “It was the two of us and the dog in the bathroom. The whole thing was over in less than a minute. It happened in about 30 seconds.”
Martha added, “It seemed like an eternity.”
“It was a long, thirty seconds,” Pete agreed.
Martha said she “was terrified by all that was happening.”
The sights and sounds of the tornado were so intense it has been hard to shake it from their minds.
“It was our first and last tornado, hopefully,” Pete said.
The tornado that tore through the Bridgton Marina campground around 6:15 p.m. on Saturday was one of four confirmed by the National Weather Service (NWS). Some say that seven tornados touched ground in Maine on the first day of the seventh month. But, according to NWS, only four were officially verified.
The NWS’s summary of the July 1 tornadoes in Maine indicates that one was spotted on Sebago Lake at 2:25 p.m. The tornado on Big Sebago had a wind speed of 65 to 75 miles per hour; its path was 50 yards wide by 1.9 miles long, the NWS said.
The second confirmed tornado touched ground around 4:40 p.m. at Moose Pond in Western Bridgton. At that point, the wind speed of the tornado had increased to 100 mph, and its path had expanded to 250 yards wide by two miles long. The damage, which included downed utility poles and lines, caused the closure of Route 302.
“Meteorologists surveyed several areas of damage along a path beginning at the Shawnee Peak ski resort extending northeast across Moose Pond, including the causeway on U.S. Route 302. The damage was found to be consistent with a tornado and is accompanied by earlier received reports of a rain-wrapped tornado crossing Route 302 at the Moose Pond causeway,” the NWS website said.
The tornado made contact with Maine earth about two hours later in Denmark. Again, the NWS confirmed it was a tornado.
“Meteorologists surveyed damage along the southwestern shore of Moose Pond in Denmark. Dozens of trees were snapped or uprooted in a path crossing Mountain Road and extending into Moose Pond. Damaged trees fell onto at least one vehicle, multiple cabins, and at least one boat and nearby dock, causing substantial structural damage,” the website said.
Around dinnertime the tornado hit two more lakeside areas and was confirmed by NWS meteorologists, who discovered “extensive damage resulting from a tornado that formed over the southeast portion of Highland Lake. The tornado moved onshore, snapping and uprooting several large trees, some of which fell onto structures and vehicles. There was a report of one minor injury due to a person being cut by glass.”
“The tornado appears to have briefly lifted before setting back down on the west shore of Long Lake in the vicinity of Obelazy Lane, where a campground was particularly hard hit. This area received extensive damage resulting from numerous large soft and hardwood trees falling onto cars, A-frame buildings and camping vehicles,” according to the NWS. “Despite the widespread damage, no injuries were reported in this area.”
“This tornado was rated a high end EF1 with winds up to 110 mph. This was based on large hardwood and softwood trees being snapped at the base of the trees. Some trees were [more than] two feet in diameter,” the NWS stated.
At the Bridgton Marina campground, there was a strong sense of community that arose out of the post-storm chaos and destruction. Additionally, those summer residents — all of whom survived the storm without bodily injury — experienced a newfound fondness for life, for being alive.
“All of a sudden, I am appreciative of each day,” Pete said.
“I feel lucky. I feel fortunate for friends — that they weren’t hurt worse. There were no fatalities. We were lucky,” Martha said.
“Some of the trailers were crushed but the people weren’t there. The couple who was inside [their home] when the tree came down on it, they weren’t hurt,” she said.
The St. Jeans commented on the coming together of the people who survived the path of the tornado. They also praised the first responders who checked on everyone’s welfare and coordinated the evacuation.
“Now, there is more of a sense of community. The people with less damage to their camps up on the hill have helped us remove trees.
The St. Jeans — along with a group of friends — labored to remove the trees from the parked vehicle of a person who hadn’t arrived for the summer yet. All around, people joined forces to battle the damage.
“The road was impassable” on Monday morning, Pete said. Central Maine Power “did a great job. They cleared the road by the afternoon. A lot has transpired over the last 36 hours.”
Sometime after the tornado had passed on Saturday and after Pete and Martha had emerged from the bathroom, they tried to get out of their home but a fallen tree was blocking the door.
They did not hear their neighbors screaming if they were alright. From the neighbors’ perspective, the tree had crushed the home.
Finally, the St. Jeans exited from the sliding glass door, climbing over trees that once stood vertical. Pete walked over to his vehicle. A tree trunk hung horizontally above it and, luckily, the weight of the tree was supported by another truck in the guest parking spot.
“The pickup that got crushed saved three cars,” Pete said.
Pete retrieved a power saw but the battery-pack was dead. For some reason, he had parked his Pathfinder nose out, he said. His SUV needed to be moved before the other cars could come out. He gave up on cutting away the branches and drove out anyway, theorizing that the rig was 11 years old and a few scratches did not matter as much as having a way out to get home.
That night the couple refused to ride a bus to the American Red Cross-certified emergency shelter at the Stevens Brook Elementary School — mostly because they had a pet.
Instead, the St. Jeans drove the two-plus hours back home to Hampton, N.H.
Martha said she simply wanted to be in her own home, where she felt safe, comfortable and there was electricity and running water.
“We had to evacuate because the weather was questionable,” Pete said, later adding “the final insult” was a torrential but short-lived downpour as they drove across the Naples Causeway.
“We were able to get out of here and put it all behind us,” Pete said, adding it was difficult to sleep at night. “We kept playing over and over the event in our heads.”
“We kept remembering the sights and sounds of the tornado,” Martha said. “And just realizing how fortunate we are.”
On Monday afternoon, Pete was still surveying the damage in their front yard. One flower planter was intact; another had been ripped from the exterior wall and landed right side up.
Inside the cottage, carpenter ants scrambled across the floor — having been displaced from the colony that had lived in the tree that now lay across the porch. “We didn’t have ants before,” he said, stomping on the insect as it headed into the bathroom, where 48 hours earlier the couple had endured the tornado.
On the beach, the campground owner and manager Rusty Parent was saddled with way more maintenance than usual. He said sections of the campground are still open. In fact, there are 65 fully-functioning sites and only 16 are no longer inhabitable without some work.
“It’s a mess over there. I just got a quote from a logging company and you wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
His truck was still pinned under branches and he hadn’t had time to rescue it. But that’s not a big deal because “it’s a 2003 GMC with 100,000 miles on it,” he said.
“I am more concerned about the land. I’ve been here since I was baby. I look around” and get emotional, he said.
“I hate to lose these trees,” he said, adding that the one nearest him was about 150-years-old, based on the number of rings.
The tornado was still wrapped around his brain, he said, and he was operating on maybe one hour of sleep a night since Saturday.
“I was in the middle of it. My body felt it. It wrapped around me, the pressure, it was like it took the breath out of me,” Parent said.