As Hurricane Isabel rumbled and tumbled her way through the region Thursday night, Tatiana Jeromskaia just wanted to get some studying done in her darkened South Reston home. At the height of the storm and with the power out, Jeromskaia, a first-year student at the Georgetown University Business School, tried in vain to prepare for her upcoming statistics midterm exam, the first of the new semester. By candlelight, Jeromskaia waded through the dense textbook as her frightened Golden Retrievers huddled under the desk, at her feet.
Then, in a scene played out in all too similar fashion around Reston and other communities from North Carolina to Maryland, it happened. Snap. Behind her Pinoak Lane house, Jeromskaia and her husband Andre Fatianov, heard it. "We knew immediately, it was coming down, but we didn't know where it would land," Jeromskaia said, touring the wreckage behind her battered residence Friday morning. "It took like five seconds from when we heard the noise to when it crashed. It seemed like forever."
And crash it did, like a bowling pin. Friday, Jeromskaia could only shake her head as she looked at the fallen oak resting perilously in her family room. "Thank God, the power had gone out because if it wasn't my husband would have been sitting right there on the couch watching television," she said, shaking. "He could have been killed."
While many residents in Isabel's wake struggle without power, water and answers, some are content with the knowledge that it could have been worse.
"Despite everything," Jeromskaia said, "We are lucky."
JEROMSKAIA AND FATIANOV were not alone. Not too far from the Russian couple's home off Lawyers Road, two other Reston homeowners and neighbors, John Callaghan and Carole White, faced similar struggles with trees that once towered overhead but now rested atop, in and through their Pony Lane homes.
"What are the odds? We have four homes on this cul-de-sac and two of us were hit," Callaghan said while picking up debris in his front yard on Friday. "We're both Irish, I guess God wasn't looking out for the Irishman last night."
On Friday morning, workers pried the Callaghan's rental car from their mangled carport. Rosa Callaghan had been driving the rental car because her own car was totaled in an accident earlier this month. "First our car and now the rental car and carport are all demolished," Callaghan said, laughing. "Yeah, we're ready for October."
Shortly before a tree sliced through their Pony Lane home that they have owned since 1996, the Callaghan's had been sitting on their front porch watching Isabel's methodical march. It was about midnight, the Callaghan's were safely ensconced in the bedroom on the west end of their home, when a tree came crashing down on the east end of the house atop their carport and kitchen. "I thought the whole house was going down. It was that loud," Callaghan said.
Even those Reston residents who managed to avoid tree trunks in their living rooms were happy to see Isabel leave. Richard and Bobbie Kennedy have lived in Reston for 29 years and neither one could remember a more powerful storm. On Friday morning, the Kennedy's joined other neighbors in the Waterview Cluster, where they have lived for the last 13 years, to help clean up the leaves and branches that littered the cluster that overlooks Lake Anne. "It was by far the worst storm that I have ever seen," Richard Kennedy said, leaning on his broom. "To my knowledge, we've never been hit directly by a hurricane. It was something else."
Bobbie Kennedy compared it to this past winter's record snowfalls. "I am a registered nurse, and I was marooned at the hospital during the blizzard," she said. "So, honestly, I am just glad to be home, safe and sound."
IN A SCENE REPEATED up and down the eastern seaboard on Friday, Callaghan, like other victims of Isabel's fury, spent the better part of Friday talking on the phone with already swamped insurance agents. Less than 12 hours after the tree had landed on his roof, Callaghan watched as workers, armed with ladders, ropes and chain saws broke up the tree, tossing pieces of bark and logs to the lawn below.
Callaghan wasn't the only one watching the cleanup. He said that a number of cars had driven by his small cul-de-sac off Glade Drive looking at Isabel's aftermath in South Reston. "I don't know how the word spread but there were so many people who heard about our block. I guess I should have sold tickets," he said.
Across the way, Carole White waited for the workers to descend Callaghan's roof so they could ascend hers. At around 11 p.m. Thursday night, White said she heard a loud bang while sitting in her downstairs family room. White assumed some branches or debris sent airborne by Isabel had hit her two-story brick colonial, a home she shares with her son.
While White said it was "easily the worst" storm she has seen in her nearly 35 years in Reston, she said she went to bed thinking she and her home had survived Hurricane Isabel, bruised but not broken.
On Friday morning, White received a call from her neighbor asking if she and her son were OK. They were, she said. It was then that White found out about the tree lodged into her upstairs guest room. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "Thank God, nobody was in that room and no one was hurt, that is the important thing. It could have been worse, besides everything else can be replaced."
While White has lived in her Pony Lane home for more than three decades, she says the tree, which now leaned precariously in and against her house, was there when she first moved in back in the 1960s. "It's a loss," she said, looking at the fallen tree. "It was a considerable size even back then when I first moved in."
In 1987, White watched as two smaller trees fell against the back of her house during another storm. "If that didn't chase me out of here, nothing will," she said. "I've lived here way too long. If I was going to move from here, I would have left back in 1987."
LIKE WHITE, Jeromskaia said she isn't going to be run out of the neighborhood that she and her husband have called home for eight years. In a driving rain, hurling winds and darkened debris-strewn street, four neighbors were at Jeromskaia's damaged front door less than two minutes after a tree, more than 40 inches around, parked itself across her back porch, living room, kitchen and front lawn. "They were checking to see if we were OK, that is why I love this street," she said. "We are like one big family."
After the tree fell, Jeromskaia called 911. Authorities told her to evacuate immediately. She said she and her husband grabbed a few pictures, a change of clothes, their two dogs and her statistics textbook, before finding shelter in a neighbor's home. "You never know what you are going to do in that kind of situation," she said. "We grabbed what we could."
Because of the backlog of similar cases, the insurance company told Jeromskaia it could take up to 10 days before a crew could clear the tree from their home. In the meantime, the couple was told to stay out of their house because the damage was so extensive, Jeromskaia said. With a massive cavity in her roof and splintered pieces of her home's frame littered about indiscriminately, the destruction looks like it came from a bomb, rather than an uprooted tree. "It could be tomorrow, it could be two weeks," she said. "Nobody knows."
On Friday, Jeromskaia and Fatianov were briefly allowed to tour their battered home. "Not all was lost," a smiling Fatianov said, poking his head out of the ceiling-less kitchen. "Look what I found."
Just inches away from the trunk that split his home down the middle, Fatianov found two intact bottles of vodka. "Well the important stuff was saved," said Jeromskaia, who moved to the United States in 1991. "Of course we are Russian, so this will help a lot."
Inside their home, piles of pink insulation, watered-down dry wall and shards of broken glass lay between a disfigured sofa and an untouched big screen television. Branches of the mammoth tree poke through the entryway floor and into the ground level family room. Now Jeromskaia and Fatianov try to pick up the rain soaked pieces. "The firemen said they had seen a lot of trees in houses, but that ours was they worst they had seen," Jeromskaia said, while touring her condemned home. "There is just so much structural damage, it's unbelievable. I don't know where we go from here. It's just surreal. It is such a shocking feeling."
Jeromskaia and her husband plan to stay with her mom in Herndon until their house is ready. But, like White, they will be back. "Absolutely, we will rebuild. We love the trees," she said, pointing to her wooded backyard. "That's one of the reasons we were attracted to this neighborhood in the first place. We loved the wooded area and the creek."