Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What the Wind Blew In

We have friends who have lived on the North Oregon Coast for a long time- most of their lives, some of them. They both surf and fish, and as a result they pay attention to the weather in a very serious way. Saturday, December 1st, our friend Doug told us that the low pressure readings off the coast to the north of us were so low that the only time they had read lower was right before the 1962 Columbus Day Storm. We generally don't name our storms out here on the West Coast, so I figured that if this weather system was being compared to a storm that had earned itself a name, we had best batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst.

Packy got all of the plants cleared out of the greenhouses and moved them to the barn, and we went around the farm and tried to pick up anything that looked like it had potential for flight and put it somewhere safer. We stocked up on candles and batteries, made sure we had enough non-perishable food to make it through a few days without power, went to the library and stocked up on books to read and then just waited. The waiting was the worst.

When the storm finally started to hit on Sunday mid-morning, it was almost a relief. The sooner it starts, I thought, the sooner it will be over. Hah! I heard afterwards that this is the first time that the National Weather Service has used the word 'hurricane' to describe a storm in the temperate zone of the Pacific Northwest- usually hurricanes only occur in tropical or semi-tropical regions. A lot of the wind meters in the area snapped, but those that stood up to the storm were clocking sustained winds anywhere from 40-80mph, with gusts well over 120mph in many places. We've had sustained winds like that before, and they aren't fun, but the thing about this storm was that it lasted so long- over 36 hours of steady wind, with gusts that shook the house like an earthquake. Everyone agrees that what really did a lot of the damage was that the wind blew for so long, it just wore things down until they snapped.

We lost power, which we were expecting. We didn't think it would be out for five days, but who can anticipate that? Fortunately our local community radio station KMUN managed to stay on the air throughout (even after a tree fell on their building) and with the miracle of a hand crank radio, we were able to find out what was happening around us. Our area was totally cut off- all highways in and out were blocked by downed trees or were flooded, there was no phone service (not even 911!) and no cell phone service. You couldn't call outside the area, or even from town to town, and there was no power anywhere. It was a little weird to realize how isolated we were.

We hardly slept that Sunday night, each gust sounded like it was going to take the roof off. When dawn finally broke on Monday morning, we could see that Greenhouse #2 had exploded sometime in the night, and that Greenhouse #1 was barely hanging on, and had been dealt a couple of fatal blows. I felt like we should be playing 'Taps' as we stood there and watched it ripple like a swimming jellyfish. Packy finally couldn't stand it any longer, and during a brief lull went out with his utility knife to cut the plastic off and put it out of its misery. There was still a whole day of storm to get through at that point, so other than venturing out during a sort-of lull to make sure that the barn roof was still on, and to check out the downed trees, we just stayed inside, listened to the radio, read books, tried to keep Eddie the Cat entertained and just waited for it to end.

We were lucky, really. Not that the loss of our greenhouses isn't a huge blow, and certainly not an expense we really needed at this time. But so many people were hit worse than us, and had no power for far longer. Two farm friends that we know of, Jeff at Kingfisher Farm down in Nehalem, and Larkin at Green Angel Greens up in Long Beach, WA both lost their greenhouses as well- and theirs were a lot bigger and fancier than ours were, with large crops of over-wintering greens growing inside.

We ventured out on Tuesday the 4th to check on friends, and see if everyone was OK. We stopped in at the Blue Scorcher Bakery in Astoria- I was supposed to work there that day, but as there was no power at all I figured we could just stop by and make sure their big windows hadn't blown in, and see if there was anything useful we could do. I should have known that our friend Iris, one of the Blue Scorcher owners, would be there finding a way to make a bit of lemonade out of the situation, even though the bakery ovens and cook top are all electric. Until her friends Steve and Kathy came by with their big camp stove, she borrowed the gas range stove top of the fabulous Fort George Brewery next door to boil water for coffee, and as soon as the camp stove was up and running, she and pastry chef/ cook extraordinaire Sheri led the crew that showed up into dealing with the situation by clearing out the refrigerators and making a big pot of 'Cream of Perishables Soup' to serve with Sheri's wonderful biscuits baked off in the oven next door. We also sliced up all the loaves of sandwich bread left in the bakery, sliced up a whole lot of cheese that wasn't going to last beyond the next day, rounded up whatever lettuce we could find and brought sandwich fixings to the retirement living apartment building next door- many of the senior citizens there had been without a decent meal for far too long because of the storm. Many storm weary Astorians stopped by the bakery over the next few days and each day were able to at least get hot coffee, a hot bowl of delicious soup with warm biscuits and a healthy dose of good cheer thanks to Iris and the crew at the bakery.

The worst news we got on Tuesday was when someone came by the bakery and said "Did you hear about the Big Red Net Loft? The roof blew off!" Our good friends Royal and Sarah Nebeker own that historic building, and Royal's art studio was on the top floor. Royal is a brilliant artist, and we knew that he had been spending all his time lately getting prepared for two big shows, one in Seattle and one in Germany. Packy took off at once to see if he could help while I stayed a bit longer at the bakery to help out there. When I finally made my way to the Net Loft, I was stunned to see the destruction. We spent the rest of the day there with friends, trying to help Royal salvage what he could.

The official name of the building is the Union Fisherman's Co-Operative Packing Co. Net Loft, although locally it is known as 'Uppertown Station', or 'Big Red'. The building was one of three constructed by the co-operative after a disastrous strike by local fishermen in 1896, who were frustrated by the local canneries low prices for fish, hazardous working conditions and other issues. Largely formed by Finns who were unhappy with the settlement reached between the unions and the canneries, the Union Fisherman's Co-Operative Packing Company was a worker-owned co-operative that went on to became one of the largest canneries on the Columbia River in its heyday. The Net Loft was the building where the fishermen would make repairs to their nets and fishing boats.

Sarah and Royal have spent the last decade trying to save this piece of Northwest history from sliding into the Columbia River, drawing upon what funds they had to straighten the building, work on rebuilding the roof (oh, the irony), and to put 50 new pilings underneath the building to stabilize it, as well as countless other repairs, many of them carried out by Royal himself. They envisioned the building becoming a center for the arts on the Oregon North Coast, a place where Royal could work, but where he could also share the enormous space with other artists as affordable studio space, as well as have a space for art events and programs that could begin to attract the kind of National attention that this area, with its rich and diverse arts community, could thrive upon. The Nebekers well understand that when places with active arts communities like the Oregon North Coast become 'discovered', as this area has been in recent years, some of the first people priced out of the area are the artists, and when they are forced to leave, a lot of the richness of the community leaves as well. That they have tried to address that issue in their own way, by quietly and steadily laying the foundations for the kind of contribution to their community that most people far better off than they are seem to avoid making these days is tremendously inspiring to me, and I have been in constant awe of the way they kept working away at it, no matter how great the challenge.

The challenge has gotten a whole lot harder for them now. This is a recent picture of the Net Loft, looking quite good after so much work had been done on it:

This is a picture of it soon after the December 1st Storm:

And this is what Royal's art studio looked like after the storm:

We spent much of that first day trying to dig out paintings that were pinned beneath huge beams, rescue flat files full of delicate prints, salvage art materials and a lifetime's worth of collage ephemera, as well as countless other pieces of furniture and fixtures. In spite of all the artwork we were able to salvage, much of which was damaged,Royal figures that over half of his paintings just blew out into the Columbia River. Over the last week, volunteers have shown up to help Royal and his son Israel dismantle the roof, try to shore up the building as best they can, and get tarps over the top so that what undamaged studio space still exists on the lower floors stays dry. The Nebekers need help, obviously- trying to save and repair this historic building is now a huge task. Their daughter Hannah is helping to organize the effort, and is asking that anyone who can think of grants, or organizations that might help, or individuals- they need grant writers, contractors, carpenters, architects, electricians and engineers, to please contact her at hannahnebeker@gmail.com.

I cannot even imagine what it would be like to loose, in a night, your entire livelihood, and potentially your life's dream. At least Royal and his friend Eddie, who were both there in the building during the storm, are alive. They thought that if they could just keep the wind out of the building during the storm, it could maybe hang in there for another hundred years. Eddie suffered a broken wrist after being tossed by wind while trying to nail up a sheet of plywood, and their tale of crawling across the bridge from the building to land is one that still raises the hairs on my neck.

Somehow seeing all that Royal and his family are going through helps to put the loss of our greenhouses in better perspective for me. If this had happened in spring, when the greenhouses are usually loaded with tomato plants and basil and all the plant starts for our summer season, it would have destroyed us. It was devastating to loose the greenhouses, but we don't actually over-winter a whole lot of plants anyway, so the potential loss of crops isn't that bad. We will rebuild, as soon as possible, (we'll probably have a 'Greenhouse Raising Party and Work Day- you are all invited!) and we can hope that whatever we build will be able to weather the next storm. We don't need expensive engineers to help us do it, and we have not lost our livelihood, and our place of work.

I suppose it just makes me feel grateful to have all that I have in life- family and friends most of all, a strong and feisty community around me that reaches out to one another when times get a bit rough, and to know that I have the ability to start again this next year with a few handfuls of seeds, a bit of water, some good soil and a lot of hard work. There is something comforting in starting seeds, starting the cycle over again, re-planting where things have been torn up, and moving forwards with the coming season. It is hard to feel very much Holiday Spirit in the air right now- I think we are all a bit wonky and wind-blown here on the Northwest Coast. But we will all be OK.

And we all have a lot of firewood for next season now.

Still, I would really appreciate it if Mother Earth could hold off on sending another hurricane our way for the foreseeable future.