Victims of the Dec. 18 twister are learning that disasters bring people and communities together, but they also can attract those who prey on the vulnerable.

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PORT ORCHARD — Kjell Svarthumle used to think that some of his neighbors didn’t care much for him.

There were people, he said, who’d never waved or spoken to him in the seven years he’s lived alone in his manufactured home on Southeast Serenade Way in Port Orchard.

But the tornado that hit a swath of homes in south Kitsap County, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, changed his mind about that.

Like many others in his neighborhood, Svarthumle 70, is learning that disasters bring people and communities together, but also can attract those who prey on the vulnerable.

His home was among 20 that were red-tagged, or determined to be uninhabitable, after the Dec. 18 tornado. The EF-2 twister carried peak winds of 120 to 130 mph, was 250-300 yards wide and traveled 1.4 miles. It was the strongest tornado to hit the state since 1986, according to the National Weather Service.

Although he owns the land he lives on, Svarthumle had stopped paying for homeowner’s insurance because he thought it cost more than his place was worth.

The former commercial fisherman and underground utility worker is living on a fixed income and doesn’t have the $4,000 it will cost to remove the wreckage of his old home, or the means to buy a new one.

But his spirits have been buoyed by hugs from neighbors and the meals brought by strangers. Friends he hadn’t seen in years unexpectedly showed up to pull trees from his yard, salvage what could be saved and get things into storage. Another friend started a GoFundMe account for him that’s intended to help get him back on his feet.

“It’s been a real blessing to have people come and help,” he said. “It just goes to show that things like this really do bring us together.”

Best and worst

Two weeks after the tornado touched down, those affected are moving from the first phase of recovery, which was dominated by emergency response and assessments, to longer-term recovery, which takes planning, according to Dave Rasmussen, spokesman for Kitsap County’s Department of Emergency Management.

A sign at the entrance to  Southeast Tiburon Court in Port Orchard where a tornado recently touched down. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
A sign at the entrance to Southeast Tiburon Court in Port Orchard where a tornado recently touched down. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

City and county officials held a Town Hall on Sunday to discuss the recovery measures already taken and the initiatives planned.

It’s important that volunteers work in an organized fashion under the county’s management because there’s a potential for accidents or additional damage, according to Tim Blair, a chaplain with South Kitsap Fire and Rescue.

“We don’t want people out there with chain saws or excavators operating on their own and possibly causing liability issues,” Blair said. “If they’re working with the Department of Emergency Management, they’ll be covered.”

Of about 250 homes in the path of the twister, 20 were destroyed and 28 were severely damaged, Rasmussen said. He said that the majority of homeowners had insurance that will cover the damage, but there are some homeowners and renters who were uninsured or underinsured. The Red Cross of the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas has opened 28 cases for people needing assistance, he said.

Chris Matthews, left, and neighbor Aaron Crain have been standing guard at night to prevent looters in their Port Orchard neighborhood after a tornado hit it and did damage to many homes, cars and property. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Chris Matthews, left, and neighbor Aaron Crain have been standing guard at night to prevent looters in their Port Orchard neighborhood after a tornado hit it and did damage to many homes, cars and property. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Late last week, Southeast Tiburon Court neighbors Aaron Crain and Chris Matthews were outside, looking for Crain’s missing cat and talking about what they’ve learned about human nature in the last week or so.

Disasters bring out both “the best and the worst” in people, said Crain.

Many people are generous and want to help, they said. The community has come together in a way they haven’t seen before, and local construction, tree service and mitigation companies who were on the scene almost immediately have been mostly “awesome,” said Matthews.

But on the other hand, they’ve had it with the “looky-loos, the looters and the scumbags,” said Crain, whose family is staying with in-laws while they wait for their insurance company to find them a rental for the year estimated to fix their house. Their street was clogged with work trucks and gawkers and they joked that they ought to put a gate at the entrance to their cul-de-sac and start charging for tours.

The two are among a group of neighbors who’ve been standing guard overnight to prevent thefts, they said.

On Thursday, the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office was called in to investigate a report of looting at a red-tagged home where a 55-inch television was reported stolen.

“Who would think of a tornado?”

Svarthumle said he was at home in his living room with his dog, Sammy, when he heard a loud noise and the roof flew off suddenly. Then a tree fell on his house. He was squatting near the front door and couldn’t decide whether to stay put or run outside. Honestly, he said, he thought it might be the end of the world.

“I thought maybe it was the wind from an atomic bomb. Who would think of a tornado in Port Orchard?” he said.

From left, Cindy Collins, Laura Fry, Tammy Avery and Val Stueven, members of the Port Orchard Church of Christ, walk back from a home Friday after delivering sandwiches, water, chips and snacks at a house on Southeast Serenade Way in Port Orchard. A tornado had recently touched down and did damage to many homes, cars and property. The women were taking food and water to home owners and people who were helping them working on and cleaning up their properties. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
From left, Cindy Collins, Laura Fry, Tammy Avery and Val Stueven, members of the Port Orchard Church of Christ, walk back from a home Friday after delivering sandwiches, water, chips and snacks at a house on Southeast Serenade Way in Port Orchard. A tornado had recently touched down and did damage to many homes, cars and property. The women were taking food and water to home owners and people who were helping them working on and cleaning up their properties. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Once the wind stopped, he put Sammy in one of his cars and then ventured outside to listen for cries for help. He climbed over big trees to get to the end of the road and then made his way to the nearby Walmart to wait for his son.

At some point, he had pain in his chest, wasn’t able to breath and thought he was having a heart attack. He now believes it was the rush of adrenaline and shock.

Along the way, he was hugged by tearful neighbors he didn’t know.

Svarthumle is not saying that he’s glad the twister came through. He really did lose just about everything he owns. On the other hand, he says, he feels a little better about the world in a funny way.

“I didn’t realize I had so many friends and people that cared about me.”