‘It’s just gone:’ Blount County music couple loses home in storm
By Steve Wildsmith | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle, Wednesday seemed like a good night to stay in.
Mother Nature had other plans.
The singing, songwriting couple were driven from their home on Barb Hollow Road shortly after 6:30 p.m. after a tree on the hillside above their home, its roots saturated by the days heavy rainfall, came crashing down onto their house.
Returning there Thursday morning, they stepped over broken branches and glass, fallen ceiling timbers and electrical lines, and attempted to salvage their belongings.
The enormous loss will take some time to process, they said, but of one thing they’re certain: They’re very lucky to be alive.
Barbra, nursing a couple of broken ribs from a fall a couple of months back, had risen from a nap an hour earlier. It’s difficult for him to get comfortable with the injury, and he’d moved from the bedroom to the living room couch to watch television while his wife made dinner. It’s a good thing he did.
“When I saw the bedroom, I knew there was no way I could have lived through it,” he said. “The ceiling fan is on the bed. The ceiling is on the bed.”
The tree, believed to be a red oak, stood on the upper part of the couple’s property, which spans a chunk of Barb Hollow. Atop the hill, there’s a clearing where they hope to build a new home — perhaps sooner rather than later.
Trees ring the rocky outcropping, and at its base the two lived in a cozy little cabin, complete with a trio of goats, a garden and the various music-making equipment with which they make a living.
For years, the trees have towered over the house, and the occasional deadfall is commonplace. The roots of the one that targeted their home, however, mark it as one of the biggest. It landed on the house with no warning, Barbra said.
“There was this massive bang that lasted for about 10 seconds, but it felt like an eternity,” he said. “There were sparks flying, and suddenly it was pitch black. We just started scrambling for a flashlight, freaking out, and got to looking for the animals and grabbing things as we saw them that we knew were important. It took me 15 minutes before I could talk.
“Thank God we were sitting right there where we were. If we’d been in any other part of the house, it would have been on top of us.”
Living room spared
The living room, miraculously, was spared. The walls have shifted, causing the floor to buckle in places, and the glass in the windows was blown inward. But the couple’s CDs and vinyl albums are, for the most part, undamaged. The rest of the house wasn’t so fortunate.
It wasn’t until the couple returned on Thursday morning that they understood the full scope of the damage.
“All I could think of was how lucky we were to be alive,” Pirkle said.
In the kitchen, one of the tree’s largest branches punched through the ceiling and speared the couple’s refrigerator. Spices and cans lie scattered across the floor, and Wednesday night’s rain pouring through the torn roof inundated the stove. Daylight streams in through broken rafters and beams. In the bathroom, the outer wall has been pushed inward several inches. Soggy insulation covers the floor and tub.
The outside of the house resembles crumbling Middle Eastern homes shown on television news footage that have suffered rocket attacks. Wood and wire litter the ground; the heating and air-condition unit is ripped from its slab and sits overturned in the yard; the electric box is peeled off the side of the home like a sticker.
The carport roof is buckled, but Barbra’s truck was miraculously spared; his tool shed is cradled by a crown of sharp-pronged branches, unable to be reached.
“We just rebuilt the back part of the house a year ago,” Barbra said. “I was able to get my chain saw, but all my other tools are shot, I believe.”
Friends offer help
Thursday, the couple spent most of the day on the phone with their insurance agency, loading boxes and bags of surviving goods into the trunks of cars and backs of trucks. The outpouring of support has been tremendous; Pirkle’s Facebook status updates have generated upwards of 100 comments, and they’ve received more than two dozen private messages from friends offering assistance.
It’s the one bright spot that’s come out of the tragedy, she said: They knew they were loved, but the amount that’s been shown to them in their time of need has been staggering.
“It’s been unbelievable, and we’re so grateful,” Pirkle said. “We’ve got calls from people offering to let us stay at their houses, offering to bring us food ... it’s been amazing.”
They spent Wednesday night at the home of Barbra’s mother, and Pirkle — who teaches Kindermusik — hopes to return to work on Saturday. Where they’ll stay until arrangements are reached with their insurance company isn’t a huge worry, but what the future holds most certainly is. Because wherever they go, it isn’t the home they’ve known for more than a dozen years.
“It’s just gone,” Pirkle said. “We’ve got our animals and our instruments, but I don’t see any way the house can be salvaged.”