Devastating tornado twisting on a road with dark clouds and lightning
Grief & Trauma

I Survived a Devastating Tornado at Eight Years Old

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”

– Laurell K. Hamilton

Trauma is a topic I’ve been putting off writing about for a while now. It’s so complicated and delicate. It usually isn’t something that people like to talk about. And because of that, I’ve been hesitant to write about it. 

There are so many differing opinions about trauma that it can feel like you’re walking on eggshells.

But I wanted to break the ice and finally document my personal trauma. This is mainly for myself – to hopefully have some healing. But I also wanted to provide my readers with some context behind most of my mental health struggles.

I must warn you it doesn’t end well and it’s not a pleasant story to hear. It’s literally taken me 25 years to finally put this into words and it’s not a story that I take pride in sharing. This trauma is what leaves a constant hole in my heart that will never be filled, no matter how many years pass by.

I don’t think that many people have heard my side of the story. To be honest – I haven’t been given many opportunities to share it. When I have tried in the past, people have dismissed it or acted like I was too young to remember. But unfortunately, it is still a vivid and painful memory that I hold.

So, to anyone who is listening – here is my story of the day I survived a tornado at just eight years old. It isn’t pretty, but it’s the story that changed everything for me.

The Calm Before the Storm

Things seemed relatively normal and almost too perfect for most of the day – at least that is my perception. I lived a sheltered and simple life due to my family’s religious beliefs. Even though I am no longer religious, it was all I knew at the time and remember feeling content and happy. 

It was Good Friday 1997 and school was out for Spring Break. It was a warm, sunny day with the feeling of Spring in the air. Easter was coming up and I was determined to make my own gifts for my family that morning. I don’t even remember what I made, but I do know I was so excited about making them.

My family (my dad, mom, brother, and I) took advantage of the nice day, hopped into our station wagon, and hit the road. We picked up our mamaw (Southern girl here) and visited numerous yard sales that I’m sure my dad found in the newspaper classifieds.

The best thing I remember about that day was that we were all happy and at peace.

By late afternoon, we traveled back to my mamaw’s house. I vaguely remember my dad doing some light remodeling to her bathroom and he continued to work on that the same afternoon. It was also tax season, so my parents visited their tax preparer down the road while my mamaw watched my brother and me. 

A Direct Hit

While our parents were gone, my brother and I spent some time outside playing. Cloudy skies began to roll in and my brother started teasing me that a tornado was coming. It’s so crazy he said that. Who would’ve thought that would actually happen? 

I looked up at the sky and became sick to my stomach.

My class had recently learned about weather in school, and I knew exactly what a tornado was. My heart dropped as I was already fearful of them. I ran inside and asked my mamaw if she thought a tornado was coming and she said no. Something I came to learn she heavily carried on her shoulders for years after that night.

My parents eventually made it back to my grandma’s. I am unclear of the timing, but I recall we were preparing to head back home. I was at the kitchen sink “washing” dishes because I loved playing in the water. 

At some point, my dad stood behind me looking out the kitchen window. I then heard a panicked yell, “get under the table!” I don’t remember anyone specifically saying there was a tornado, but somehow, I just knew. 

It was that fast. No warning – no nothing.

I honestly don’t even remember it storming or any weather sirens being blasted. My grandma also had the habit of turning the TV off when it stormed. I’ve been told that lightning fried her TV in the past, so she was always super cautious after that.

Plus, this was the late 90s – we didn’t always have advance notice that a tornado was headed our way. We were completely oblivious to what was going on. 

My first instinct was to head to the bathroom and hide in the bathtub. But my dad swept me up as everyone else was running towards the dining room table. While learning about weather in school, I remembered being taught that the bathtub can sometimes be a safe place during a tornado.

Thank goodness my dad grabbed me – the bathtub was never found to my knowledge.

Once we were all under the dining table, it was nothing but chaos and darkness. Everything was shaking and all I could hear was glass breaking. My dad was holding onto me, and I could see objects flying past us in my peripheral.

I remember my dad saying something, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. It was too loud. My mom says he was praying.

Darkness & Turmoil 

For me, it was absolute nothingness for a while until I found myself staring up at the dark, night sky. I remember screaming at one point for help and someone talking to me, but I don’t remember who. That’s about it until I was at the hospital.

I’ve heard and read several stories over the years that have alluded to the fact that I was conscious at other times during the evening, prior to being taken to the hospital. But a lot of it is a blur for me. 

The reality was that my mamaw’s home had been completely destroyed.

Shortly after the tornado, Shelby Ennis AKA W8WN, reported that the damage to my mamaw’s home portrayed a “very weak foundation, bent over telephone pole, and a pile of debris 50 yards away. It probably had been no more substantial than a mobile home.”

Every time I read this sentence – I get chills. My family and I were scattered in that debris. 

What was left of my grandmother’s home after being hit by the tornado. Photo Credit: Shelby Ennis
The rubble of my grandmother’s home (what my family and I were found in). Photo Credit: Shelby Ennis

My brother has told me that he helped me up and we were walking around at one point. But I don’t remember that at all. I’ve also read a newspaper article within the past couple of years that causes my stomach to curl each time I think about it.

The article set out a vivid account of the turmoil that unfolded after the tornado swept through. More detailed than anything I’ve heard to date.

Apparently, some of the quotes within the article were spoken by me. There is one in particular that literally gut punched me. Something like, “I can’t believe this is happening, I can’t believe this is happening! My dad is lying over there dead.”

It’s often incomprehensible to think I likely was conscious during those tragic moments after the tornado swept through. I’m scared to wonder what I truly saw.

The Hospital

My first memory away from the devastation was at the hospital. I know I was transported by ambulance, but don’t remember any of the trip.

I woke up to hospital staff asking me to hold my breath, likely for a CT scan or MRI. Everything was white and bright. I was in a white machine and could see white walls outside the machine. The brightness came from the harsh fluorescent lighting that saturated the entire room.

And then it was just some more darkness and nothingness for a while. 

Before I knew it, I woke up in a hospital bed with some of my family standing around me. It was a wonderful way to wake up. Not alone – but surrounded by family.

I had scratches and bruises, overall soreness, and some glass in my feet. I also had cuts in my mouth from my braces that were recently put on. I was relatively unscathed.

However, my injuries were nothing compared to the rest of my family. 

I immediately knew what happened when I woke up, which still confuses me to this day. I didn’t see the tornado or hear the tornado (until it was hitting us). So how did I know what really occurred? 

I don’t know if it’s real or not, but I swear I had a dream while I was unconscious that a tornado was heading toward us, also at my grandma’s house. However, it was heading towards us from an entirely different direction than it did in reality.

Whether that dream occurred or not, I do remember laying in that hospital bed hoping that my current reality was just a part of that dream – a nightmare that didn’t actually happen.

I don’t really remember much else from that night except asking about my family. I wasn’t given much information at the time, I’m sure in an effort to protect me. But my whole world and everything that I knew had been turned upside down.

The Next Morning

A family friend was staying with me at the hospital while other family members were tending to the rest of my family. I woke up the next day to being in my own room and feeling incredibly sore and banged up. I also woke up with an understanding that I just went through something horrible.

I eventually took a much-needed shower. It was a rather slow process as it hurt like hell to bend over or raise my arms to wash my body and hair. It was a soreness I had never experienced before and haven’t since.

I looked down at one point and the entire bottom of the shower stall was filled with brown, muddy water. Mud was coming out of my hair and out of all the crevices of my body. It was unreal.

I remember feeling extremely lonely and vulnerable for some reason. I’m pretty sure I was alone for the most part as I believe I was given space to give myself my own shower. But it felt completely fake. It was as if my current reality wasn’t actually happening and that I was going to wake up any minute now.

But it was very real.

The next moment I recall is laying in the hospital bed surfing TV channels until I landed on a cartoon special about Easter. And also incessantly asking our family friend about my family. Nothing was really being shared with me at that point. If it was – I don’t remember what was said.

Looking back, I feel so sorry that our sweet, family friend had to bear the brunt of my questions. It must’ve been truly difficult and heartbreaking to endure knowing the true outcome.

I’m fairly certain I was discharged from the hospital that same day. And I believe one of the first stops we made was at Target. I’m not sure what we stopped for but do know it was my first time being in a Target.

We also may have ran some other errands that day – possibly Easter dress shopping? But this is definitely a point where the order of events becomes blurry for me.

Easter Sunday

As a child, Easter to me was time spent at church and with family. We always went to church as a family. But this Easter Sunday was different. Instead, I spent it with our family friend and her family by visiting their church without my immediate family.

My first memory of this day was of me sitting in the pew around a larger congregation than I was used to. My family and I went to a small, country church where my brother and I were the only kids. 

I turned around at one point and noticed a classmate from school was sitting behind me with another girl I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t say anything and I don’t even know if I smiled or why I turned around. But at that moment, I felt like everyone was staring at me. And that they all knew something I didn’t know.

At the end of the service, kids at church were preparing for an Easter egg hunt. I was asked if I wanted to join, but I didn’t have it in me to participate. I’m naturally reserved, but this was different. It seemed pointless to run around and pretend all was well.

I just couldn’t be a kid at that moment and instinctively knew I had to take a step back from being one for a bit. Even if I didn’t want to.

Visiting Family

The next thing I remember was being at the hospital to finally see my family. I could totally be getting this confused with another day, but it’s how I remember it. Seeing my family for the first time since the tornado, it was obvious right away that their injuries were more severe than mine. 

My brother was already at the hospital after being discharged from another area hospital. Both us kids were sent to different hospitals from one another, and all the adults were sent to another as their injuries were more serious.

I’m pretty certain the first family member I reunited with was my brother in the waiting room. He had a broken collar bone, so he was wearing an arm sling. He also had a large gash at the top of his forehead that had been treated with staples.

I was allowed to visit my mom briefly.

She was conscious but couldn’t speak and had a trach in her throat. We had to communicate by writing everything down on a notepad. She also had a broken pelvic bone. While this was bad, it was even worse for my mom. She had previously suffered a stroke in her early thirties and was already partially paralyzed on her left side.

I don’t recall being able to see my grandmother as she was still in bad shape. I’m also not entirely sure of the extent of her injuries, but I do know she almost didn’t make it. One of her leg bones had completely shattered. And like my mom, she too had to spend a significant amount of time in the hospital and in rehab.

The Moment When Everything Changed

I had a feeling something all along was terribly wrong. But was never sure what that might be.

After visiting with my mom, I was taken into a dimly lit room at the hospital. Most of the lighting in the room was coming from the window. There were stacks of chairs and a table or two. A few chairs had already been unstacked and placed throughout the room.

I looked around and noticed a lot of my family was there. I thought it was odd how we were all just huddled in this room and couldn’t figure out what was going on.

But that uncertainty didn’t last long. My other grandmother looked at me crying and told me the most gut-wrenching words I’ve ever heard, “honey, your dad didn’t make it in the tornado.” 

My heart dropped and broke into a million pieces. 💔

I knew exactly what she meant and knew my dad was never coming back. In that single moment, my world as I knew it had completely changed. Nothing would ever be the same again. 

I looked around the room to see everyone looking at me. At least that’s what it felt like. Feeling a wave of emotions, I immediately ran to someone to hug and cry on. I don’t even know who I ran to – I just ran to someone.

That’s all I remember from that day. Everything else is just blank.

Time to Say Goodbye

With everything else going on, a funeral still had to be planned for my dad. It’s my understanding that my mom planned out most of the funeral at the hospital with my uncle, of course by writing everything down. 

What I remember most from the funeral was the number of people.

It was unlike anything I had ever seen in our small town. People were lined down the sidewalk to get into the door. Any time I think about that, I do gain some comfort. While I already knew it, the line of people out the door confirmed that my dad was a remarkable man, and I was lucky to have known him.

The funeral itself was a huge blur for me. I sat on my older cousin’s lap while I stared ahead in a complete daze. It felt like it wasn’t happening. My dad’s friend officiated the funeral. There was music and one of my uncles sang a song.

Due to the extent of their injuries, my mom and mamaw couldn’t make it to the funeral to say their goodbyes. They were still in the hospital themselves.

The drive to the burial site was unsettling and what felt like one of the longest drives of my life.

My dad was being laid to rest in the cemetery at a small, country church where my parents got married. This meant driving directly by what was left of my grandma’s home and farm. It was the first time I had seen it, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The destruction was unbelievable.

The walk up the hill to my dad’s final resting place was what made it real for me. I realized everything really did happen and I wasn’t going to wake up from this terrible nightmare. Even though I wasn’t ready, I had to say goodbye to my dad and begin to learn to navigate this world without him somehow.

Looking Back

Any time I think about that night, I can barely fathom that I survived a tornado. 🌪️

Like it did back then, at times it feels as though it was just a dream. But then I’m reminded how real it truly was any time my dad isn’t around for something. I often wonder what he would think about the world now and if he would be proud of me.

Living through a tragedy often comes with a lot of survivor’s guilt, and is something I’m still working on coming to terms with.

For some reason unbeknownst to me for now, my dad was taken away from this world way too soon. I often think it isn’t fair that this happened to my family. And that a wonderful man had to lose his precious life in the process. But as we all eventually come to learn – life isn’t fair.

Being a survivor can often mean feeling lonely and misunderstood. Since you’ve already been through hell, people expect you to be strong or simply get over it. But that just doesn’t happen. 

If you are a victim of a natural disaster, I hope my story has been of help to you in your journey. It always helps to have someone to relate to, even if it’s not exactly the same thing. And if you’re not a victim of a natural disaster, I hope my story spoke to you in some way. 

Instead of ending with a question, I wanted to end today’s post with a picture of my dad. He was a remarkable man and did all that he could to keep his family safe.

My Dad, Ronnie

Are you or anyone you know a victim of a tornado?

If so, consider joining our private, Facebook Group, Tornado Warriors, to share your story and connect with others who have experienced the same.

Being a tornado survivor can oftentimes feel isolating, but Tornado Warriors provides you with a safe place to talk about your own, unique experience. Plus, you will be welcomed with open arms!

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27 thoughts on “I Survived a Devastating Tornado at Eight Years Old

  1. Wow Amber… very profound. My heart broke for that little girl, and it still breaks for your pain, life isn’t very kind to us sometimes. You are a most amazingly strong woman, with a heart as big as the sky. I know it has been a battle, and may continue to be, but you have got this, and you are not alone, ever. I love you sweet girl… <3

    1. Thanks Deb! You’ve been around through some of my hardest times and thank you so much for always being there.

  2. Amber, I think about these events often. I wasn’t there but it still had a profound impact on my life. I remember the aftermath and the cleanup and the heartbreak. Your dad was a wonderful man. I tell my kids about him and what happened and about you and your brother to keep his memory alive and to keep you in our prayers. I still have a toy truck he got and assembled for me one Christmas—it’s always been a cherished gift. Know that you are loved, missed, thought about, and prayed for. We’re always here for you.

    1. Thanks Joel! That makes my heart so happy that you tell your kids about him. One thing I remember most about that dark time was family being around and I’ll be forever grateful.

  3. I have had the pleasure of calling your brother friend since I moved to the area in 2010. I knew how you lost your father, but as I read your words I realized how very little I knew.
    My heart breaks for you, the little girl you were, and the woman you are, who lives with this every day. And I cheer for you—brave you—who shared her story.
    I was very moved by your story and I know it will stay with me, and when I recall it, please know I will think of you and be sending good thoughts your way.

  4. Amber your dad was my Sunday School teacher and one of the greatest men I have ever known. His life touched many people. You are blessed with great parents and I’m sure he would be very proud of you 💗

  5. Love the photo of your father…and so sorry for the trauma you’ve endured after surviving a tornado. I definitely wouldn’t dismiss your story that you were too young to remember or experience trauma. We lost our home to a fire when I was nine and it definitely has created some lasting anxiety for me over the years. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Oh goodness. I’m so sorry about your dad and all that you went through. My city, Joplin, MO, was hit by a tornado in 2011. Luckily, I went to my husband’s work with the kids when we saw the weather going bad. He is an RT in a hospital. We, the kids and I, rode out the tornado in the basement of the hospital while he worked. The other hospital in town took a direct hit, so his hospital immediately got casualties. Many people we triaged in other parts of the area and sent to other hospitals in other cities. The kids and I weren’t harmed, thankfully, but walking out of the hospital was like walking onto another planet. I took me hours to get across the city to our house which was still half standing, but we couldn’t live there. It was six months before we could return home. We lived in another town 30 miles away during that time. My story isn’t nearly as tragic, but I understand how everything can change in a moment. Our city still has signs of what happened. Thank you for sharing your story. I love that picture of your dad.

  7. I can’t even begin to imagine what this felt like and what it still feels like today. I am very much a daddy’s girl.. and the thought of losing him at all, much less in a situation like this is so devastating to me! Thank you for sharing your story. The trauma is hard to get through, but your story will help others who have been in a situation like this to know that you can make it out of the darkness.

    1. It’s a tough one to write because I was a daddy’s girl too. But it helped me process a lot of the pain I had been holding onto for years.

  8. I am so sorry for your devastating loss. I went through the Joplin tornado in 2011. My house and two other family members houses were all in the path. We all survived. I lost friends and colleagues that day though. And I still react to strong winds and the sound of glass breaking. We had to live elsewhere for 18 months while our house was repaired. My daughter’s house was completely destroyed. I still have nightmares about tornadoes.

    My heart goes out to you. An experience like yours is one that you never completely heal from. It shapes your life in ways people can’t understand. I hope you continue to thrive as you share your story and cherish the memories of your dad.

    1. I have heard of the Joplin tornado and the devastation was unbelievable! I am so happy that you and your family survived, but am sending virtual hugs your way for the friends and colleagues you lost. I’m sure it was a strange time to be away from your home for 18 months. The winds are what still gets me anytime it storms and I am too very sensitive to loud sounds, such as glass breaking or pots and pans being shuffled around. Thank you for your kind words.

  9. What an amazing story. Living in the northeast, I can’t even imagine what that must have been like to live through a devistating tornado. You are a brave person.

  10. Oh, Amber! This is heartbreaking! You have been through so much! I live in Indiana and often fear an outcome like this when I hear of devastating tornados headed our way. They are so powerful and so unpredictable! I’m sure anyone would have PTSD after living through that!

    1. I know there have been some pretty devastating tornadoes in Indiana. The one in Henryville stands out to me.

  11. Oh my… You are the 1st person I know that that was a victim of a tornado. I am so glad there are groups where other can talk about it.

    1. That’s one of the pros to social media these days. You can create support groups for various needs.

  12. Oh my God. That’s shocking. I can’t even imagine what complete fear and shock you felt as that tornado roared through your life. I am so, so sorry you had to go through that.

  13. Growing up in Oklahoma, this is reality. I have seen t o F5s it was nightmaresish! So sorry for your loss.

  14. Wow, I am so sorry for this devastating experience you had to go through. I recall very specific details about some really bad storms while growing up, but never knew anyone personally to go through something like this. Prayers.

  15. Coming from Eastern and Northern KY along the Ohio River we have witnessed our share of tornadoes and massive river floods. We are so sorry about your father. Thank you for finding the courage to share your tragedy.

    1. I’m sure! There was some really bad flooding in eastern KY just last year. It wasn’t an easy post to write, but it was definitely therapeutic.

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