PORT ORCHARD — It’s a monumental understatement to say people living and working along the stretch of Bethel Avenue, nestled alongside the Walmart Superstore, were caught by surprise around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 18 — one year ago.
Blustery winds and squall-line conditions characterized by sheets of rain and hail occasionally punish this corner of the U.S. in the winter. Puget Sound weather doled out through our region’s microclimate landscape — partly sunny and calm in Poulsbo, for example, but dark clouds, rain showers and even hail in Port Orchard — is often the rule, not the exception.
That’s part of the surprise that shocked residents a year ago on Wednesday when a strong EF-2 tornado lowered from dark gray skies just north of Sedgwick and Geiger roads, hovered just above forested acreage, then struck a line of homes and businesses fronting both sides of Bethel.
The rare twister damaged roof sections of these structures before crossing Bethel, where the disorganized, but powerful storm landed with a thud as it significantly damaged the Bethel Square business block, sending the roof and walls of a storage center hundreds of feet into the air. The tornado saved the bulk of its fury for a section of an East Port Orchard neighborhood at Harris Road Southeast and a cul de sac at Tiburon Court — just behind Walmart.
Just touching the ground for two minutes, the destructive tornado — almost unheard of in the Pacific Northwest — dissipated just east of Harris. But while it held together for those few minutes — and packing winds up to 130 miles per hour — the twister damaged approximately 50 buildings in the commercial section of Bethel. About 250 residential structures were found by a team of emergency first-responders to have been damaged, most of those homes behind the Walmart store.
Emergency teams led by South Kitsap Fire and Rescue and assisted by local and regional law enforcement spent hours shutting off utilities, including natural gas lines, that had been impacted by the tornado. Teams over the next few days evaluated the damage, tagging structures they judged to be uninhabitable.
Port Orchard was ‘fortunate’
Surprisingly, nobody was killed in the path of the tornado. And inexplicably, there were no significant injuries reported afterward. It was all the more shocking, considering a) the storm struck without warning, and b) Puget Sounders have virtually no experience following tornado warnings on television, as do those living in other parts of the country.
Port Orchard was fortunate that the twister appeared when it did just before 2 p.m. Had it struck a little later in the hour, the human toll could have been tragic.
“A little later in the day and we would have had increased traffic on Bethel or children walking home from school,” said Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu.
And if the tornado had dropped a bit farther south or up north, it would have hit busy shopping areas, he added.
Acknowledging the one-year anniversary of the devastation, Putaansuu said, “It’s encouraging to see the businesses and families returning to our community. I know those affected had a difficult 2019.”
One of those families whose home — and lives — ended up spinning in nature’s damaging vortex last Dec. 18 was the Olmsteds. Skip and Darlene Olmsted’s home on the 2000 block of Southeast Serenade Way was severely damaged by the tornadic winds, making it unlivable.
While the tornado hopscotched past the Walmart parking lot, Skip was taking a shower in his house when he noticed something odd with the water supply.
“I thought that the water tank was going out,” Olmsted said shortly after crawling out of the damaged home. “Then I saw shadows from things going by [from the small window in the bathroom] and figured something was going on.”
Olmsted called his wife and told her their home had been severely rocked by a storm: “I thought she was going to have a heart attack when I called her. I don’t know what she’s going to think when she sees this,” he said shortly afterward.
Hundreds of East Port Orchard homeowners and tenants faced similar ordeals in the minutes, hours and days after the tornado. Many were lucky to have escaped with broken windows, missing roof shingles or broken tree limbs. Others, like the Olmsteds, were left to grapple with homes tagged as unliveable by emergency response teams inspecting affected structures.
For many of those unlucky residents, 2019 would mean having to relocate to temporary quarters while at the same time salvaging their homes’ contents and placing them under cover and out of the winter weather. While most had their homes insured, they still had to make repeated trips over the next six months or so to negotiate with insurance agents.
Some, however, didn’t have insurance coverage on their homes. As a result, they were left with little alternative but to pick up the pieces and start over with whatever funds they had available.
Twelve months later, it’s hard to calculate what the total cost was inflicted on the community and on home and business owners.
Dave Rasmussen, the public information officer for the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management, said that since the disaster fell short of the standards by which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) becomes involved, financial statistics that would have been collected through a coordinated agency effort weren’t readily available.
Despite not having firm numbers to share, Rasmussen agreed that without the cooperation and teamwork from many government departments and nonprofit agencies that joined in the hours to help those afflicted, the impact to the community would have been much greater.