They said it was a storm supercell. I had no idea what that was. I do now.
Our area has been ravaged by thunderstorms and ridiculously high humidity for the past three weeks. Animals, humans, we’re sluggish, fed up, and on a dubiously feminine note, my hair has taken a severe downturn by turning into a fur ball. Not belle. And then, without warning, everything changed. Here’s what happened.
As we approached the end of the day, conditions seemed, if anything, worse. I plodded through our outside jobs and allowed the dogs an extra-long wallow in the nearest reservoir. We returned to the house, and Jack surveyed Max’s muddy paws in disgust.
“Why is that dog perpetually filthy? Huh, and he’ll be worse later. There’s supposed to be another storm tonight.”
“Again? Urgh! Tedious. We’ve been on orange storm alert for ages now. I’ll get the dogs fed and out quickly.”
Post-supper dog strolls are usually blissful. It’s a time of day, alive with the sounds of nature; stags barking, boar squabbling, and birds vying for airtime with stridulating crickets. But not that evening. Something strange happened. Our pastoral setting fell silent.
We returned just as the treetops started rustling. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Jack pointed out of the window.
“Good timing. Those clouds are an odd colour. It looks as though the forecasters were right. Perhaps this storm’ll clear the air.”
A loud thunderclap reverberated around the old buildings as fork lightning snaked across the sky. We lost power. There was clattering above. The wind, whipping into a screaming frenzy, had wrenched the old external shutters from their keeps, sending them banging against the window casings. I watched the racing storm clouds.
“Wow, this is ferocious. I’ll go and fix the shutters.”
I rushed upstairs but was too late. Rain and monster hailstones now hammered against the windows; opening them would have been foolhardy. Jack shouted from downstairs.
“Forget the shutters. We’ve got water flooding through the downstairs window frames.”
“It’s happening here too!”
I stared, shocked, as water seeped, inveigling its way over sills, creating puddles on the floor. I glanced out of the window, amazed at what I saw. Our skyline beyond the courtyard had altered. There was a gaping space where trees once stood. Distracted by the water ingress, I grabbed towels to sop it up. They immediately saturated. Above the howling din, there was a crack. One of the window frames had split under the storm force. I propped a couple of pillows against it and closed the curtains. There was nothing else I could do.
Water started dripping from the ceiling in the spare bedroom. Same treatment. I stuck a bowl and more towels in place and joined Jack downstairs, where the scenes were similar. By now, it was almost zero visibility outside. We stared, horribly mesmerised, as the air boiled with a malevolent brew of hail, rain and flying debris. We could barely see the car, paces away.
Groundwater oozed through the floor in the kitchen and hall. The dogs, unnerved by the clamour, stuck to me like glue as I mopped up mucky water. Twenty minutes or so later, quite suddenly, the storm abated. Desperate to find out what had happened outside, we tentatively opened the front door.
Water lapped the doorstep. No noise. It was eerie. We stared at our garden, an altered landscape. Branches and trees littered the lawn. Shards of mature, hundred-year-old oaks protruded from the ground. Grotesque javelins. It was a bizarre sight. Tree branches straddled our back gates.
“Jack, it looks like the lane’s blocked on the corner. I’ll position hazard triangles on either side.”
“Good idea. I’ll try and get the generator started. Be quick, though,” he said, pointing at the sky. “There’s a new storm front coming.”
Sure enough, the lane corner was clogged with foliage. A sickening cracking sound came from my left some distance away. I glanced just in time to see a large tree slam into another before falling with a dreadful thud. Directly ahead, there was movement. A car was inching through the debris. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The car stopped, and two people got out. The man started tearing at branches on the ground, trying to make a way through. The woman was crying.
“We were searching for mushrooms in the woods when the storm hit. Your forest, it is finished. I’m terrified, shaking. We have to get home.”
I had no reply.
We managed to clear a path, and they sped away.
I reached the other side of the corner and scanned the forest beyond the field. It was painfully evident that many trees had been lost. I started to receive text messages. Nathan, our forester. He wanted to come and check that we were safe. I pleaded with him not to try. We were fine. Other neighbours and friends close by, we all exchanged short messages when the signal allowed. Some had escaped entirely, others not. Mercifully, nobody had been injured.
Our evening was a hellish light show of booming thunderstorms that continued into the night. Jack discovered a mechanical problem with the generator, which couldn’t be fixed without tools. No problem, it could wait until morning. We had candles and torches. Sleep, with Aby and Max, our Australian Shepherds, restlessly roaming, and our two cats, Brutus and Cleo, wide-eyed, huddling, didn’t come quickly.
We were up at first light. It was still and misty outside. I left Jack to work on the generator and set out with the dogs to check on the bird pens. Or tried. One of the tracks was impassable; the other, via my potager, was manageable.
My heart went out to the dogs as they tentatively examined their changed conditions, confused by the chaos. Extra cautious, we clambered over fallen trees. I stared wistfully at one which had crushed the potager entrance archway, pulping my beautiful Rambling Rosie shrub rose. Luckily I had left the greenhouse door open as branches now filled its interior.
Amazingly, all the bird pens were still standing; better still, the birds seemed okay, though there were casualties. A large tree had come down in the middle of the chicken run, inevitably bringing down the netting. The poor chooks milled around, bewildered; even Caesar, our noisy cockerel, couldn’t summon a crow. I looked for Nap, our podgy rescue pot-bellied pig.
His nighttime enclosure was a mess. A tree was lying across it, next to his bed. And yet he was fine and stamped up to me, grunting, hungry as usual. Hugely relieved, I gave everyone a hearty breakfast.
I checked that the hazard triangles were in place to find that a kind soul (still no idea whom) had cleared the blocked corner during the night. I took the Jobber forest vehicle and set off down the lane to check the tree-lined avenue leading to the main road.
Ahead was a strange-looking piece of wood on the road. I picked it up and gasped. It was the head of a wooden reindeer Nathan had made for us one Christmas. The rest of its frame was crushed under the tree outside my greenhouse, some 200 metres (218 yards) away.
Here is a short clip of the lane I took at the time.
The avenue was impassable. I received a message from Nathan at around 7.00 am. There was no access to Le Palizac from his direction, so he had parked in the village and was approaching on foot. I gave him half an hour before returning to pick him up. His face was ashen as he scanned the woody devastation.
“I am crying inside,” he said.
There was nothing I could say to make things better for him.
Our first task was to clear the lane, and we were alone. But actually, we weren’t. Olivier and his team, our wonderful LeBrun fruit-farming neighbours, came to our rescue. Within the hour, tractors trundled past our house to join Nathan on the avenue. It took most of the day, but they opened the route. Meanwhile, Jack got the generator going and was busy contacting the forestry commission for assistance.
As trees were still sporadically falling, the forest was too dangerous and unstable to enter. Jean-Pierre (plums), our other fruit-farming neighbour, called to ask for help. Some of our trees had fallen, causing severe damage on his side of the border fence. With no access from within the forest, we had a look from his side. We were unprepared for what we saw.
Approximately half a kilometre of our fence had been crushed by mature oaks. Massive branches sheared off, and complete trees on the ground. Ancient healthy trees. Bless him, Jean-Pierre was as upset for us as he was for his orchards. He showed me a plum peppered with black marks.
“This is hail damage. Most of my fruit is finished.”
We promised to clear a way so he could work.
23rd – 25th June
The power came back on at the end of the week. Reports of local damage started to come in, including a new orchard belonging to our friends at LeBrun. I took the dogs over to look and was desperately saddened by what we saw.
Approximately 30 hectares (74 acres) of young fruit trees protected by new netting had been flattened. The entire orchard was decimated. Some estimate the initial costs at two million euros before the clean-up begins. We haven’t spoken to Olivier yet, but we know he’ll be devastated.
Little by little, the dogs and I inched around the forest, trying to assess the losses. Bizarrely, some sectors were untouched, but others were appalling and still too unstable to attempt a detailed investigation.
Monsieur Hubele from the forestry commission arrived. A lovely man, he had helped us in the aftermath of Tempête Klaus, which I tell you about in Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV. His news was awful. He had just viewed a nearby poplar tree forest. Fifty-five hectares (140 acres) had been felled or trunks sheared in half. It now resembled a crazy lunar landscape. The farmer would have to start from scratch.
Our tour with Monsieur Hubele was challenging. We viewed each of the worst affected areas mainly in the Jobber but often on foot. Much of the damage was high in the trees, with broken trunks and twisted limbs leaving spiky slivers. We had never seen extensive damage like this before.
“These are classic signs of a supercell thunderstorm,” said Monsieur Hubele. “It’s a unique weather system holding a deep rotating updraft called a mesocyclone.”
“But it’s so different to the last time,” I said, unsure I’d understood.
“It is different to Tempête Klaus. A supercell thunderstorm has a high propensity to produce severe weather, including damaging winds, large hail, and sometimes weak to violent tornadoes. Its aftermath is what we’re looking at here.”
Three sectors had been razed. Oaks, chestnuts, they had all been felled. These were the most serious problems, said Monsieur Hubele, because foraging deer and boar would limit the chances of early regeneration. Other sites with trees stacked like dominoes were still too dangerous to examine closely. Assessment would have to wait for another day. Yet, despite the dire scenes, there were positives.
Trees left standing among the woody chaos would flourish with more light, said Monsieur Hubele, and we could eventually replant and protect in those areas which had been destroyed. And yes, he would put us in touch with a forestry company to help with the clean-up job. He wished us ‘Bon courage’ and left.
We have lost hundreds of trees, around two kilometres of fencing have been flattened, and three of our lovingly-made water gates have disappeared. Of course, our electric fence doesn’t work either. Mind you; I can’t say I’m overly upset at being denied the chore of fixing faults for a while.
Our next forestry commission meeting is on Tuesday. It’ll be another tour of the damaged sectors with a new monsieur and, hopefully, agreement on when a team can come in to start work. In the meantime, there are a million jobs we can get on with.
We know these storms are often commonplace for many of our friends, especially those across The Pond. So we must keep a proper perspective. We’re incredibly relieved nobody was hurt, including the mushroom pickers. Having seen the carnage in the area they were searching, it’s amazing they escaped unscathed.
In the circumstances, we have much to be thankful for. The house only has superficial damage. And even though the challenges ahead seem stark, feeling sorry for ourselves won’t do much good. And with my constant companions, that’s not going to happen anyway. I shall never know how Max got himself stuck between two tree trunks!
This Youtube video will give you some idea of the storm as it hit. As you now know, we were in its path.