When the Kitsap 911 call went out over the radio at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 18 — initially about power lines down on Bethel Avenue near the Bethel Saloon from high winds — I hopped in my car and headed down the road to the incident. It was just a few blocks from the Independent’s office, but traffic had come to a halt just south of the Bethel-Lund avenue intersection, slowing my arrival.
As I inched closer to the scene of the downed lines, something seemed amiss beyond the usual isolated downed tree and power line radio call. Pieces of building siding, insulation and splintered tree parts — lots of pieces — haphazardly littered the road and a forested section of land next to the Bethel Square shopping area. The peaks of the fir trees had been lopped off in succession and branches were left dangling or stripped from tree trunks. Fencing had been pushed forward or uprooted altogether.
As someone who was born and partially raised in Tornado Alley — Kansas — I sensed this was caused by a different kind of natural event, with the familiar markings of a tornado. But that couldn’t be so. This was the Puget Sound region of the Pacific Northwest, after all, where tornadoes are as rare here as a great barbecue joint.
I parked next to the saloon and jumped out to speak with onlookers who appeared somewhat dazed at what just had unfolded. A late-model Toyota sedan sat in front of Farmer George Meats, its rear end mashed as if a semi truck had hit it from behind. It had been pelted with bits of aerial flotsam and jetsam embedded on its body, with windows busted out.
The first word out of my mouth was “Tornado?” Two employees from the meat shop confirmed my suspicion and pointed to the battered car, then gestured to a woman who was on her cell phone. Caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, the woman had been driving the white car when the tornado took shape on Bethel, picked up the vehicle, and spun it like a top on its rear end.
Thankfully, the driver survived the traumatic ordeal. Indeed, she escaped serious injury, climbing out of the wreckage with a bloody face that was quickly washed clean by meat shop’s employees.
The fast-moving tornado didn’t tarry. It dropped on the Bethel Square collection of stores, flattening most of a storage unit facility in the rear, then cut over to the nearby Walmart parking lot, edging to the building’s south side. It saved its fury for a neighborhood of homes behind Walmart, sitting on Harris Court, Serenity, Tiburon and a few other streets.
Images that were taken just after the tornado ravaged the neighborhood confirmed that this tornado, in itself a rarity in the Northwest, was even a rarer commodity: it later was gauged to be a strong EF-2 tornado — just a notch below the 135 mile-per-hour threshold for EF-3 twisters. Unlike weak EF-0 or EF-1 tornadoes, this one inflicted substantial damage.
Out of disaster, a miracle
But out of this trick wrought by Mother Nature came something of a miracle. No one died and nobody was taken by stretcher to the hospital with serious injuries. Thankfully, things — not people — were destroyed by the tornado.
This is the stage where the residents of Port Orchard and South Kitsap can share pride in their community. Our little town showed its true colors in a most spectacular way. Minutes after victims of the twister crawled out from their battered homes, neighbors helped neighbors find lost pets. They went door to door, knocking to see if everyone inside were OK. Facebook’s Port Orchard page was flooded with offers of a place to stay for a night or two for those who lost the use of their home.
Strangers helped shellshocked residents remove Christmas presents and precious items from their damaged homes just in time before more rain squalls rolled in. Members of local service organizations — the Port Orchard Eagles, South Kitsap Helpline, South Kitsap High’s boys’ lacrosse team, FFA, and others too many to mention — put aside their pre-holiday plans to feed, clothe and house victims, or help to clean up and secure their shattered properties.
South Kitsap Fire and Rescue and Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Port Orchard Police Department, jumped into action — first in rescue mode, then assessing the damage, while securing the homes that otherwise were open to the elements — from potential looters. Alongside the efforts of the Kitsap Department of Emergency Management, this inter-agency team performed with professionalism and thoroughness as they worked to bring the community back after the unexpected disaster.
Citizens can also be proud of the work done by staff members from the city’s government. It’s a welcome reminder of how lucky we are to have these folks, who continually have our backs, day in and out, mostly unnoticed and often unappreciated.
To all who helped out — or are continuing to offer their assistance to our community on this holiday week — we’re full of gratitude. Thank you.