For Sam Henle, his mother’s house was always a place he knew he could go when he was in trouble. She had raised him and his brother Charlie there, and had been letting him stay with her since a drunk driver on Route 50 put him in intensive care.
But on May 15, a tornado threw a white pine through the roof of their little Gansevoort home. He, his mother Linda, and his girlfriend Julie drove away from the house with little else but the clothing on their backs.
Since that point? Despite the Henles’ lack of home insurance or cash, neighbors, friends, and strangers are transforming Linda Henle’s home from a disaster scene into proof that a community can support one another after a crisis.
“I didn’t know half of my neighbors,” said Linda Henle, 70, “but I cannot tell you how many people walking around just walk up and say ‘What do you need me to do?’ ”
It was a Friday evening when she last saw her split-level in its familiar state, where she had single-handedly raised her two boys since the 1980s. She was standing on the cement porch, trying to find the source of a sound like a loud train.
“Branches started snapping, and I looked up and all I saw was this blur coming down the road. There was green, which was the pine branches, black sky, and white right above me. My daughter-in-law came up from the basement and just grabbed me.”
They waited in the basement for what felt like hours. The storm passed in a matter of minutes, but didn’t leave the neighborhood untouched.
The white pine in their front yard was forked, with two branches each more than 20 inches in diameter. They both smashed through the house and left most of the top-level rooms open to the air.
“I got a call in the middle of the night that they got a problem, and, ‘Do you know a tree guy?’ The next morning, I came over with my chainsaw expecting to just cut and help pull the tree down,” said James Ackerman, remodeling division director for Bonacio Construction.
That turned out to be harder than expected. The first tree removal company couldn’t pull the tree off with their four-ton crane, so Adirondack Tree Surgeons was called in to make use of an eight-ton crane.
One of the Henles’ neighbors, the Delaneys, wrote a check right on the spot to pay for the tree removal. But when the contractor learned Linda had no home insurance, he cut the price in half.
“He went and got $500 out of his own pocket and gave it to the Delaneys. He said, ‘We want to contribute to this,’ which I’ve never seen another contractor do,” Ackerman said.
Funding and workers provided
Ackerman’s son grew up friends with Linda Henle’s son Charlie, so Ackerman knew she couldn’t afford all the work of cleaning up the house, let alone rebuilding it again. He convinced his boss Sonny Bonacio to let a crew of workers work on the house for weeks as a volunteer project.
The Saratoga County non-profit Rebuilding Together agreed to fund materials for the reconstruction of the Henles’ house, which Ackerman said could total thousands of dollars.
For several days, Linda Henle couldn’t go near her destroyed home. She stayed with her aunt during the initial process of throwing everything inside into a dumpster.
“My heart was leaving with my possessions,” she said. “You shouldn’t attach it to possessions, but it was. I just felt like I couldn’t bear it.”
Now, the house has a new blue roof and fresh drywall. Linda Henle brings cold water, fresh watermelon or chocolate chip cookies to the masked construction workers buzzing around in yellow shirts.
At 70 years old, Henle never stopped being a mother, whether that was to her own children, Sunday School kids at St. Paul’s Lutheran, feral cats in her backyard or exchange students from Italy.
“There’s children that go to the church that come from families that are going through something,” said her son Sam Henle as he looked around an empty room that used to be his brother’s. “These kids live here for periods of time and my mom takes care of them, buying them milk because they don’t have milk at their house.”
Linda Henle considers that typical.
“It’s what you do, honey, when somebody needs help. And it has come back a thousand-fold,” she told her son.
Some of those kids have sent Henle cards with a few dollars tucked inside. The exchange student she hosted years ago wants to send her cash, too.
“She’s been a good mom to me. I’m glad other people recognize that about her,” Sam Henle said.
Linda Henle grins: “Can somebody say that into a recorder? Anybody have a recorder here? You hardly ever say things like that.”
There is no doubt their life will never be the same after the tornado, but Henle thinks now she is able to recognize how all the people in her life she has cared for are returning the favor.
“I used to always leave a message and say, ‘Oh, it’s just Linda, nobody important.’ But now I see all these people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘You are important to us.’
“Now, I’m just really grateful for every little thing.”