James City family picks up the pieces after Michael's destruction

jojacobs@vagazette.com

The Howard family has lived in their Toano home for more than a decade. Hurricanes and tropical storms have come and gone and while there had been close calls, they were largely unscathed.

That lucky streak was broken when Tropical Storm Michael sent a tree crashing into the Howard’s home.

Days later, with roads reopened and power restored in James City, it might be easy for other county residents to put the storm out of mind. But for the Howards, the effects of that night are still being felt and will continue to be felt for months.

“I thought we were going to die. It was very scary. It’s hard to explain it because it’s like a shock, like an actual bomb,” Amanda Howard said, standing in the driveway of her home Monday, a large tarp fastened over the structure to cover the gash in the roof left by the tree.

After smashing into Florida as a hurricane, Tropical Storm Michael hit the Historic Triangle Oct. 11. The National Weather Service confirmed at least one tornado touched down in the Norge area that night, and thousands of Dominion Energy customers lost power in the Historic Triangle. County officials determined at least 32 houses were damaged by the storm, with damages estimated at $1.8 million, according to a Oct. 12 news release.

As rain beat down and winds pressed on the windows at about 10:30 p.m., the Howard family was home. Amanda Howard was in the kitchen with her teenage son, Nathan, and one of his friends. Her husband was in the bedroom, while her 10-year-old daughter Natalie was taking cover in a bathroom.

That was when the tree struck the house.

“I was scared because it was getting windy outside. So I was calling my friends and talking to everybody. Then the house shook and I dropped my iPad and ran,” Natalie Howard said.

Amanda Howard dashed out of the kitchen to find her daughter. While she initially thought the tree had hit the bedroom, her husband emerged unharmed, so she started to think her workroom, where she runs her seamstress business, had been hit instead.

It had been crushed. The tree had struck the house almost directly on top of the workroom, spilling toys and seasonal clothing out of the attic and into the workroom along with insulation and water.

“When I saw it I just turned around, I couldn’t even look at it,” Nathan Howard said of the scene that greeted him in his mom’s workroom. “You’re talking a state of shock where you can’t even cry about something.”

The tree knocked out the house’s electricity. The next morning, the family could take fuller stock of the damage.

The house had been rendered uninhabitable.

“It’s quite shocking to actually see it because you can stand on the ground and look at the tree and not realize how big it is until its laying across your house,” Amanda Howard said.

Amanda Howard and her children donned surgical masks to protect against mold before they re-entered their home Monday. Days into a recovery and cleanup effort, it’s a familiar routine.

A table was stacked high with fabrics ruined by the rainwater. The tree had been cut up and removed, but splintered wood beams and wires hang from the ceiling, as insulation and debris sit in piles on the floor of the workroom, along with a box of Amanda Howard’s summer clothes.

Amanda Howard discovered that the Federal Emergency Management Agency hadn’t declared the area an individual assistance area, preventing her from claiming aid.

“I put in my zip code and they said there was no help available for this area,” Amanda Howard said. “So many people had so much damage.”

Given the extent of the damage, it could be three to six months before the house is repaired enough to pass an inspection to be reoccupied. After that, the family can move back in, Amanda Howard said.

And since the tree took out her workroom, destroying materials, it’s become more difficult to earn a living as a seamstress.

The family has homeowners insurance and now lives in a hotel. But the pull of home is still strong.

“There have been very difficult times, just awful moments,” Nathan Howard said, adding that even days after moving out he still felt compelled to return home.

“I couldn’t help but stop here and I sat at the end of the driveway with my headlights on looking at the house for almost an hour and a half,” he said of a pit-stop he made Saturday.

But there have been bright spots during this dark time.

Family, friends and employers have been supportive. Amanda Howard’s mother and sister were there to help at the house Monday. That morning, her husband Troy was working at his job as director of operations for Star Express.

The family has been able to enjoy home-cooked meals thanks to the mothers of dancers at Natalie’s dance studio, Broadway Dance Arts.

“These women have saved my children from starving,” Amanda Howard said. “It makes you feel not so alone.”

Nathan Howard had been scheduled to work an evening shift at his job at Subway the night after the tree hit his house. He received a call from his manager, who told him another worker had covered for him, freeing him to help his family.

The family bounced from hotel room to hotel room after the crash and is now settled in a local Residence Inn. The room’s kitchen has brought a sense of normalcy, Amanda Howard said.

“I baked chocolate chip muffins the other morning. It’s the silly things you’re used to at home that you can’t do now,” she said.

She has even been able to get her business, Butterbeans Boutique, back on its feet, working from hotel room tables.

The road ahead is a long one.

The family set up a GoFundMe page to help absorb the financial hit of the crash. Given the time estimate on home repairs, the family is searching for a short-term rental home that will also accept their 7-year-old yellow lab, Sammie.

Despite the hardship, the Howards haven’t lost their sense of humor.

Natalie Howard recalled how she shared an entry from her journal with her family as they settled into their first hotel stay just hours after the tree struck its home.

“It went from ‘It just got boring. The rain stopped going. I’m eating ice cream now,’ to ‘Oh my God, a tree just hit my house,’ ” Natalie Howard said of her journal entry.

“It was helpful that night,” her brother said. “We got to Motel 6 and she read it to us and we busted out laughing.”

Want to help?

To donate to the Howards, visit gofundme.com/tree-fell-in-our-home.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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