Deadly Tornado Outbreak

Tornado Aftermath: Survivors Horrified by Damage, Grateful for Lives

Image: People search through the rubble of destroyed houses a day after a tornado hit the town of Vilonia

People search through the rubble of destroyed houses a day after a tornado hit the town of Vilonia, Ark. ANGIE DAVIS / Reuters

Looking on the Bright Side

Everything she’s salvaged from the home she bought just a year ago could fit in a few shopping bags, but Michelle McGee is looking on the bright side: at least she found “polka dot” and “cow.”

Those are the nicknames of her children’s loveys – her daughter’s pink dotted blanket and her son’s pillow pet – that they need to go to sleep every night.

They were the first things the kids asked for after they were dug out of the rubble and dropped off at their grandparents’ house. And they were the first things McGee pulled out when she began picking through the pile of splintered wood and shattered furnishings.

“It meant everything to me,” she told NBC News. “As long as I had cow and polka dot it was going to be okay.”

As the tornado swirled toward Vilonia, Ark., McGee, her boyfriend and the kids hunkered down in a hallway between three open doors.

“It was absolutely terrifying. You hear it sounds like a train – it really does,” McGee said.

The three doors creaked toward each other until they formed a kind of teepee over the family. “Like angels holding those doors,” McGee said.

When the storm passed, the home was in pieces but they were all alive.

“I knew as long as we were together we were going to be okay,” McGee said.

Searching for a Samaritan

He can’t remember her name, but Shawn Riddle wants to thank the woman who put him and two of his kids in the back of her truck and drove them to the hospital after their home was wiped off the map on Sunday.

“It was amazing,” the Vilonia man said of the help his family received after all of them were injured by flying debris.

Riddle broke a finger and was gashed and bruised elsewhere on his body. Two of his sons were also cut up. His youngest boy was seriously injured, suffering a broken rib and a bad cut on the back of his head. His wife busted her pelvis and had several bad lacerations.

“We were just thrown about… and when it was over all I could do was start hollering for them,” he told NBC News. “They were under debris.”

Once everyone was located, a woman came by in an SUV and took them to a staging area. An ambulance took Riddle’s wife and youngest to the hospital.

He and the other two boys didn’t have any way to get there until the good Samaritan with the truck, who was in the area to look for a friend, gave them a lift.

“I’m hoping to find her and thank her again,” Riddle said.

Little things, lost and found

Susanne Brunner, a reporter with NBC affiliate KARK, was looking for a story in Mayflower, Ark. Instead, she found a way to bring a smile to a tornado victim’s family.

After finding a photograph near a tree, Brunner walked over to a woman whose house was damaged and asked her if might be hers.

“My daughter!” the woman said, giving Brunner a hug before walking back through a debris-strewn field.

Second time around

A 2011 tornado damaged Scott Barrier's home in Vilonia, Ark., but he could not have imagined the destruction he found after Sunday night's tornado.

"It's gone. Everything's gone," he told NBC affiliate KARK.

Barrier fled the home with his three kids as soon as he realized it could be in the twister's path. They returned to a jumble of wreckage.

He picked through the mess looking for anything that could be salvaged, finding what looked like a toy but was actually far more important.

"My grandfather passed away last year," he said. "These are all his collectible cars."

Finding a reason to smile

Jessie Green's Mayflower home was lifted off its frame and dropped a few feet away. But as she surveyed the damage on Monday, she was all smiles.

"I'm alive," she explained.

The 83-year-old had scrambled into a closet just as the tornado sucked up her home.

Despite the direct hit, she had another reason to be as happy as one could be on such a day: Her great grandson, Jason Immel, 6, survived by crawling under a bed in his family's home in nearby Vilonia.

Storm shelters: Saving graces

Storm shelters may have been the difference between life and death for some Arkansas residents. That's certainly how Sharen Carter of Plantation Estates felt when she emerged from hers.

"My neighbors homes are gone. My roof is severely damaged, open to skies!" she said in an email to KARK.

But she was unscathed.

"Best $4,000 investment I ever made," she said of the shelter.

NBC News' Charles Hadlock contributed to this report.