Thursday 5 March 2015

Night of the apocalypse

We ended last night's post "The forecast would have us believe that tomorrow will be dry and partly sunny..." Well, to be fair, today was dry and partly sunny, but we were woefully under prepared for what came in between!

After a fairly late dinner, Holly, Zach and Winry retired to their apartment at about 10.30pm, leaving us to make our way upstairs to bed. I don't recall at what time things started to get really rough outside, but can just say that neither of us got very much sleep thanks to the wind howling through the windows, roaring through the trees outside, clanging unknown objects around at the side of the house and generally seeming as if it was about to rip the roof of the house off. At some point in the early hours of the morning, I turned to check what time it was and was met with a blank screen on my electric alarm clock - the electrics were out. I whispered to Stuart 'I think the electric is off' - unsure as to whether he was awake, but the reply came straight back 'oh. great.'

We have experienced very strong winds here before, but they generally don't last very long - this, however, was something entirely different. By the time daylight started shining through the windows, the cats started fidgeting for their breakfast, and my alarm (on my phone) went off, we were still lying awake listening to the gale force winds howling around. Stuart said to me 'you're not going to go out and exercise in this!' but he needn't have worried, I'd already decided it was far too scary to go outside in for any length of time. That said, there were still the usual tasks of Reggie's morning toilet trip and letting the geese out that needed doing, so I pulled on my clothes and went downstairs.

Reggie and I stepped warily out of the front door and were immediately hit with a strong blast of wind. As Reggie trotted down to the lawn to do his business, I looked all around me to survey the damage. When the wind gusted it appeared as if the entire bank of trees on the hillside adjacent to the house was moving, and the enormous firs that stand immediately in front of the house were waving around worryingly wildly. Aside from that, I could see that lots of trees had come down or snapped off on the hillside on the opposite side of the river, and of course, all of the tarpaulins covering the two wood piles and the side of the house had ripped and were flapping about in the wind.

I went back inside, unsure as to whether it was safe to open up the goose house in such strong winds - I wasn't sure how well the construction would stand up to the wind should a gust get underneath the open door. Stuart decided to go and have a look for himself, and duly let the geese out.

Without any electricity, not to mention internet, we didn't have much to occupy ourselves, so while we waited for Zach and Holly to surface for breakfast, Stuart decided to go and inspect the state of the drive. I was only half-joking when I said he should check to see whether we could even get out of the drive for fallen trees. There have been several occasions in the past when we've had stormy weather overnight and I've walked the length of the drive first thing the next morning to check for fallen trees - and have always been surprised (and relieved) to find everything still in its rightful place. I was therefore expecting the same to be the case today.

When Stuart didn't come back for a while, I decided to go and look for myself. This is what greeted us:

A carpet of fallen fir branches in the car park area.

Wood pile #2 somewhat broken.

Driveway littered with fallen branches.

Ah. We might struggle to get out of the gate this morning. If you look closely you can also see that there is snow on the hills in the distance again!

Hmm. Chainsaw needed!

Tree down in the woods.

Not one, not two, not three but four very large Italian pine trees had been uprooted in the woods immediately above the drive. This is on the small piece of land that borders our drive but which doesn't belong to us.

So we lost count of the actual number of trees we spotted that had either been uprooted entirely or else split in two, but one thing was clear: our exit was blocked!

By the time we got back to the house, Holly and Zach were tucking into their breakfast, all ready for their lift to the station to go into Florence for the day to meet up with Zach's grandfather's girlfriend. Stuart broke the news that, in order to get them to the station, he would need first to do a bit of forestry and get his chainsaw on the go. So, while Holly washed the dishes, Zach followed Stuart out to the end of the drive and between them the cut and moved the trees so that we could at least leave the drive.

Once that was done, it was time to jump in the car and take Zach, Holly and Winry to the train station. With no electricity I certainly wasn't going to get any office work done today, so we decided to walk Reggie in town after dropping the guys at the station and pop into a café for a coffee and some free wifi to contact the world and let people know we were still ok.

We had no idea how localised the bad weather had been - last week, we slept through a pretty calm night here while Donatella and Alex had been kept awake all night by fierce winds with trees coming down all over the place, so we wondered if the same had happened last night but in reverse - with us suffering badly but other places nearby not being affected. No, that certainly wasn't the case!

As we made our way down the road, we saw that some trees had fallen across the road, and already been cut up to clear the route. We then turned the bend and realised that a tree - one of our trees on our land - had fallen and crushed the signpost at the turning to Sorana. As we carried on down the road, we saw destruction and devastation all around us - fallen trees, smashed roof tiles, and when we reached the communal bins, two of them were lying on their backs and the third was missing - until we spotted it, lying prostrate in the river!

As we came along the road into Pescia, there was a brick wall that had fallen into the road and pretty much every other tree that lines the pavement by the side of the river had been uprooted. This was clearly quite a big storm. We took care to notice whether or not we could see lights on in the properties in Pietrabuona on our way through the village, and noticed that both Amanda's shop and Frateschi's were still closed with their shutters down - from which we concluded that there must be a problem with the electricity here too.

In the centre of Pescia one set of traffic lights was out - and not only were the lights out, but the overhead lights had been blown sideways. It did look as if the shops were open and lit though, so we held onto our hopes of finding a café open.

When we got to the station we went in with Holly, Zach and Winry, to make sure they were OK with buying tickets and finding the right platform. There were lots of people standing around, and while Stuart and Zach went off to fathom the ticket machine, Holly, Winry and I stared at the information screen and realised that most of the trains were either delayed or cancelled. A quick chat with a Dutchman and an Italian guy who spoke to us in English revealed that the storm damage was widespread, that roads were closed, and that trains were being cancelled due to debris on the lines. Rather confusingly, although the 8.51am train to Florence had been cancelled, and the 10.21am train was also cancelled, the 9.51am train (Holly and Zach's intended train) appeared still to be running, and on time at that.

We were a little dubious, so Stuart went to ask the man in the ticket booth if the train was running - the man simply pointed at the screen and said 'it's arriving'. We therefore took the guys to the other side of the track to the Florence platform - and, sure enough, five minutes later a train pulled in and we waved them goodbye for the day.

Next, we drove to the main piazza, parked up and headed to Franco's bar for coffee and free wi-fi. The bar was abuzz with people clearly all talking about the night's weather - indeed, the piazza was littered with broken roof tiles.

After a couple of coffees, we went back to the car to get Reggie out and decided to walk him to Chris and Sue's - on the way into town we thought we could see some damage to the large tree that stands just to the side of their house, so we wanted to go and check to see if they were OK. We were also worried about Donatella and Alex, but we'd managed to find out, through the power of Facebook and free wi-fi in the café, that they'd had a very rough night - rougher than ours, by the sounds of it, with a lot more damage - but at least the fact that Donatella had posted an update must mean that they themselves were safe.

We therefore headed to Chris and Sue's - while the wind had died down considerably by this point, there were still some very strong gusts that had the three of us leaning into the wind and squinting to avoid getting flying dust and debris in our eyes.

We were pleased to find that things were fine at the Phillips household. Sue treated us to a cup of tea and a chat while we compared our overnight fears and experiences. We then headed back to the car and back up the hill home, taking some photographs on our way:

As we drove past the damaged road sign (onto which one of our trees had fallen), we realised that someone had already been past and done an emergency job of moving the tree to make it safe. We pulled in and loaded the car with the pieces of wood that were rightfully ours (I still managed to feel guilty doing it, despite knowing it was our tree on our land!).

We finally wended our way back to the house - which was still in darkness - at about 12pm. After so much excitement for one morning, we were both feeling hungry, so we decided to have an early lunch. As we were preparing lunch we heard a couple of beeps and the sound of the fridge kicking in - the electricity had been restored! This was an enormous relief, and much to our surprise the wi-fi kicked in after a couple of attempts. We had been absolutely certain that we would have to reposition the satellite dish again after the battering it must have taken during the night, but for once, the satellite gods were on our side!

I was then left in a quandary - I had all but written the day off work-wise, as there is nothing I can do without power, and had decided I would spend the afternoon helping Stuart to clear up the driveway, but now it seemed that everything had been restored and I could work after all. In the end, I decided that the clean-up effort was sufficiently pressing to put work on hold for the time being, so changed into my work clothes and the pair of us headed up the drive with chainsaw, hand saws, secateurs, rakes and a wheelbarrow.

Stuart started by cutting the tree that was still resting diagonally across the gateway - this proved something of a tough nut to crack though, as it was so entangled in other trees that it wouldn't fall easily, and for a while it simply hung, suspended in the air. In the end, Stuart solved the problem by taking down the trees that were holding it up as well.

After a couple of hours of Stuart working away with the chainsaw, and me cutting and piling up the smaller pieces of wood, we had cleared up the entrance to the driveway and, thanks to Mother Nature, made serious inroads into our wood pile for next year.

As you'll see from the photographs above, by this point, the sun was shining and it was a beautiful late afternoon. We decided therefore to rest our weary limbs and share a glass of beer on the patio, looking down to the village and the hill opposite in wonderment at how calm and beautiful the weather was, and seeing what other damage we could spot. 

It wasn't long before the sun dipped behind the hill opposite and the temperature dropped though, so we retired indoors to see whether we had had any messages from Zach and Holly. It seems that they have been having their own weather-related adventures today - they managed to get a message to us at lunchtime to say that they had only made it as far as Pistoia on the train, but that they were planning to keep trying to get to Florence. As things stand, we still don't know whether they have made it, so we are waiting for a message to say whether they need collecting from the station in Pescia or whether they have decided to stay overnight either in Pistoia or in Florence.

We are hoping for a quieter night tonight and rather more sleep! Tomorrow might well hold a trip up the valley to Alex and Donatella's in store, as it seems they have suffered so much destruction that they are in dire need of willing chainsaw operators to help them find their greenhouse and uncover their garden.

All in all, a scary night, but we are thankful that the damage we suffered was very limited and, more importantly, that we and all of our friends (and animals) are safe. 

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