I wanted to report the Riverdale tornado in a more timely fashion but I’ve been without internet access since it hit. Now that I'm back online I have a story to tell.
On Sunday after signing up for the next Netroots Nation I went down to Wave Hill to celebrate with a few flower photos. Wave Hill is a beautiful little botanical garden in Riverdale that I once wrote about in a photo diary.
I was caught in a storm there like none I've ever seen before in the Bronx. I was in the greenhouse with my camera and it was suddenly too dark to take photos. I walked outside and could see it was raining over the river.
The next thing I knew I was running for my life and people that were smaller that I am were actually being blown down. The scary part was the sound of trees breaking everywhere. It sort of sounded like a war zone. When it hit I was standing right at the southern edge of what is now being called "Kansas on the Hudson."
I understand that an EF1 twister is considered a minor tornado but it sure didn't seem minor to me. Just before the sudden wind came I went closer to the river to try and capture the rain in the distance. I was quick to join these much smarter people in a run for the car. With the 100 m.p.h wind to my back it was the fastest I’ve ever run in my life.
The way that wind came up the side of the hill filled with leaves, branches and water it felt a bit like a tornado at the time but tornadoes just don’t happen in the Bronx. I didn't have a clue at the time what the wind velocity was but there were actually tree limbs flying in the air across the grounds to go along with that scary sound of trees breaking and being uprooted all around. In the time it took me to stuff both my cameras into a plastic bag I was soaked to the bone and completely covered in leaves. I took quite a beating from all of the leaves and twigs in the air during the hundred foot run to my car.
Blaming climate change for a freak storm would be naive but the way this wall of wind came up the hillside from the river sure felt like adventures in global warming. The way the winds suddenly started knocking people off their feet it very much felt like a scene from the movie "2012." With this being only the second time since 1950 that a tornado hit the Bronx this is not exactly tornado alley. If this sort of weather was common those 300 year old maples, oaks and tulip trees that make my neighborhood so green would not have lasted this long and now there are not many of them left.
Global warming assumptions might not be in order but New York City trees are threatened like never before. As a New York City naturalist I’ve read much that is written about the mature trees lost to a hurricane in 1938 and until recently that seemed to be the last major event. Last summer there was a "high wind event" where Central Park got all of the coverage because of the loss of 133 trees but it affected all of the lesser observed parks in the city too. Two miles to the east of Wave Hill in the much more famous New York Botanical Gardens where they do keep track of trees there are green signs throughout the property explaining the loss of historic trees in the previous winter. During the last winter my housing complex alone lost 13 trees. It would seem there is a pattern in climate change developing here.
In the aftermath the media would count the automobiles and houses destroyed in Riverdale but not the trees. Now I can count hundreds of tree stumps from my window and many open spaces where large trees once stood. Many of those affluent houses that were once hidden below the trees can now be seen and I can see the parking lot for the Spellman Retreat House for the first time. There are patches of Palisades Avenue exposed that I couldn’t even see in wintertime and the tree line at water’s edge is very different now.
Had I been at home I might have observed the funnel cloud that was picked up by a security camera at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, a complex that can be seen in most of my sunset shots. But I was five blocks southwest when the "minor tornado" hit with a canvas roof over my head and wishing I owned a hardtop as I tried to drive home. There was no way out while I had trees failing all around and more that a few branches on top of my car.
Every road led to a tree that could not be driven over. This was 252nd Street;
And 254th Street.
Palisades Avenue going south.
I got out of my car and removed a small tree to try for an exit at
Palisades Ave. and 260th Street.
But that just got me and about ten cars that followed to this.
Where this woman,
had a tree inside her house.
While this all sounds extremely inconvenient it actually became very social. The usually deserted upscale neighborhood that looks more like the Catskills than New York City became shocked homeowners offering drinks food and the use of their bathrooms to the stranded drivers. Homeowners who had no electricity and a few who had not much of a home left offered disaster hospitality.
Once the rain died down to what is normal for Bronx rain the stranded drivers began getting out of their cars communicating what roads were blocked, all of them. We stood around the hillside on 254th Street because there are no trees overhead there. The ice breaker was followed by a good laugh when one driver said "Oh Auntie Em I don’t think we are in the Bronx anymore." Then it was the usual small talk, discussing the weather "Was that a tornado?"
One of the drivers who lives in a Sycamore Avenue high rise got a call from his wife. The building employees were outside with chainsaws clearing the street. The ten or twelve cars followed him as what was probably the very first traffic jam in western Riverdale history could make a getaway. The drive to the Henry Hudson Parkway service road felt like a freedom convoy.
The Parkway was too flooded for driving but the service road was clear up to the turn off that leads to my neighborhood. Nobody was going anywhere there because Riverdale Avenue was closed from several trees laying across the road.
The FDNY to the rescue. I hope the next time Bloomberg starts talking about closing Firehouses someone can hang him upside down until he gets a little blood in his head.
While it would be an entire day before Riverdale Avenue could be cleared the Firemen cut up a few smaller trees on the service road so the drivers could make it to Fieldston Road. These are the government workers that matter. Thank you FDNY.
My good deed for the day was getting out of my car to tell someone to get out of that puddle with all the downed power lines.
Finally the hill to my apartment complex.
I came home to no cable, telephone or internet but unlike my neighbors to the west I had electricity. I did have broadcast television and noticed something was missing. No "We interrupt this broadcast for a special news bulletin," just golf, car racing and those new digital news channels from the network affiliates that were obviously recorded the day before. "96° with a chance of thunderstorms" when it was more like 72° after the tornado. Friends from other neighborhoods informed me that the cable news channels were also reporting a chance of thunderstorms and the only hint came to people watching the rained out Yankee game.
I called the Chinese restaurant on Riverdale Avenue for news because they know everything. Do you remember when the networks were obliged to keep residents informed? Now it takes a phone call to a Chinese restaurant for news and information.
From the nice lady at the Chinese restaurant who I always chat with I found out that there were many houses that have been destroyed by falling trees but nobody in the neighborhood was injured. Most of the traffic lights were working again and while the commercial street never lost power the residents on both sides of Riverdale Ave. were dark. She also told me the Fire Department was cutting up the many trees that were lying across Riverdale Avenue but the side streets were impassable.
I would later learn that not everyone survived. Everybody in Riverdale survived and that is amazing! While all those pleasure boats on the Hudson seems to have made it out, over to the east near Larchmont one sailor was thrown overboard in the Long Island Sound.
The sun started coming back out and the sunset view I often post seems to have gone through ages of change. My sunset view is exactly where the tornado hit and a very different landscape now.
I went down to talk with the doorman and found out that the top of a tree had gone through a window on the eleventh floor in my building but everyone was okay. My twenty-first floor terrace was a leaf filled swimming pool but how does a tree top get to the eleventh floor? The property damage was minimal, a few roof top coaping stones laying around the property and some of the signs were blown over. The real damage was to the trees.
I don’t think the media will ever count the number of trees destroyed because these carbon dioxide eating beauties don’t seem to matter in New York City. There was a news report from Oyster Bay where 45 trees were lost. Oyster Bay is on the north shore of Long Island where there was not a tornado but they counted the trees there. The lost in the western Bronx will be all forgotten very soon.
I do remember being part of a neighborhood coalition that tried to save a 400 year old oak tree on Riverdale Ave. I can’t remember if it was Giuliani or Bloomberg but we tried to stop the developer from taking down the tree by lobbying City Hall to use eminent domain and turn the lot into a small park "Ancient Oak Park." Neither the mayor nor the City Council was interested so the judicial branch was given a try. A lawyer presented that tree as probably the last living historic monument in a Hudson River community, a tree that predated Henry Hudson exploring the area. I still remember the quote from the judge "Trees have no rights."
Now where that 400 year old oak stood there is a drug store. It wasn’t even the first drug store on the block. Once it was done everyone forgot. I’m still pissed off and I’m even more annoyed that I can’t even find a link to the story through Google. It’s like it never happened.
The number of trees destroyed was huge but since trees have no rights in New York City and the coverage went to cars and homes destroyed, while the lost trees will never be counted and with the reports all about things that can be replaced, I took a walk around the block to remember some of those trees. I'm not really doing justice to the damage because I only walked about 3000 feet south from my apartment and that is east of the real damage down by the river at Palisades Ave. but this is what I saw on Sunday afternoon.
Just across the street from my apartment.
The clean up had already begun.
The sidewalk across the street from the south end of my complex.
A half a block south a huge tulip tree had fallen across the entire block. Did you know that the tulip tree or Liriodendron tulipifera is thought to be the largest living organism in the history of New York City? More tornadoes like this one and we will be reading about these great trees in a tree museum.
The news vans had arrived at this point and it all the devastation seemed a bit like a tourist attraction to the neighbors. People all talking about where they were when the tornado hit.
"Will you look at that BMW!"
The YWHA just south of that dead tulip tree.
Netherland Gardens a building complex surrounded by trees just south of my building took a big hit.
A large oak tree went down.
This kid was wearing the "Keep off the grass" sign as a hat.
The south corner of one building at 256th Street.
Another tree at the entrance to one of the buildings.
The garage entrance.
Everyone wanted to go down to Riverdale Avenue to see the damage and big traffic jam there. We all walked down the hill.
The sidewalk at Riverdale Avenue.
The end of the sidewalk.
"So that's what the underside of a tree looks like."
The walk back up through Netherland Gardens.
And the big tulip tree is about to become a memory.
I missed sunset from my window on Sunday but I noticed that for the first time ever people will be able to see the sunset from street level in front of my building. The forest to the west has been greatly lowered.
My apologies for posting so many photos but I think those trees deserve a proper send off. Respect for trees is in short supply. While some worry about Brazilian rain forest and the American lumber industry, our urban and suburban tress get no respect. Since neighborhood tress also sequester carbon we should take a closer look at how many get cut down, not just from natural events but all sorts developments. Need a Target where that forest is or a drug store where that 400 year old oak was. When a community cannot save a 400 year old oak from a developer there is something very wrong with the government's attitude about going green.
Anyway over the years in New York City I've seen some pretty impressive winter blizzards but I never thought I'd hear myself say "I survived the Riverdale Tornado." That's just wrong.