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Tornado victims face a lost sense of home

He had hoped to retire to the little white bungalow his grandfather built in 1929. Now Jerry Smith was working through its roofless shell — picking, sifting, searching for signs it was ever a home.
Storms Pieces of Home
Jeff Smith carries objects from the home his grandfather built in Clinton, Ark., on Wednesday. People across a devastated swath of the South are coming to grips with a deeply shaken sense of home. Danny Johnston / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

He had hoped to retire to the little white bungalow his grandfather built in 1929. Now Jerry Smith was working through its roofless shell — picking, sifting, searching for signs it was ever a home.

In a kitchen drawer he found two small boxes of 3-by-5-inch file cards — 70 years of recipes his late mother had gathered, even the one she clipped from the newspaper, for the brown-sugary pecan cookies he'd loved as a kid.

Here were the notes his parents had given to each other — "Tears are in my face now, because I love you so much" — during the Great Depression as Christmas gifts, because those were the only presents they could afford.

"There's no words to tell you," Smith said of his sense of loss. "There's maybe 100 years of memories here."

When an outbreak of tornadoes roared across the South on Tuesday, the modest houses where families once gathered to watch football games or cook meals became the places where people huddled for their lives in bathrooms.

Homes that once bestowed a sense of security, of family, were reduced to shattered piles where people picked through wood and glass to find a treasured cookie recipe, a broken picture frame.

As they mourn the dozens killed in the nation's worst tornadoes in more than a decade, people across a devastated swath of the South are also coming to grips with a deeply shaken sense of home.

Hunting for things 'we cherish'
On the night of the storm itself, David Derreberry spent two and a half hours picking through the remains of his house, collecting sodden clothes for his kids. His wife, Jaclyn, sat in the car and begged him to come in from the rain.

Just one more thing, he told her. He had to find just one more thing and he'd quit.

And then there it was, caked in mud but intact. The white gold, double-banded diamond engagement ring he'd placed on her finger eight years earlier during a sunset stroll on Virginia Beach.

"That was a comfort for me to find that for her," he said. "I have mine, and she didn't have hers. It's bad enough that we went through this, to not have little things we cherish."

A loss for words
In a house in Lafayette, Tenn., a town that took some of the storm system's fiercest wrath, 78-year-old Dorothy Collins survived the tornadoes by taking cover in a bathroom. The storm blew away the garage and peeled off part of the roof.

Collins was not hurt, but neighbors had to help free her after the storm passed. They took her the next day to see what was left, and all she could do was cry.

"It's hard to imagine this is the place where we all come and hang out every Sunday," her daughter Melissa Bryant said. "We had a lot of good times here. A lot of good food — ham and biscuits, watching football games together. Words can't explain what this is like."

In the path of destruction
The storms that ripped through five Southern states killed at least 57 people and destroyed hundreds of homes — 525 in Tennessee alone.

What they left behind were deformed fragments of homes that were once complete. A reclining chair from a living room, suddenly lit directly by the sun. A bed's footboard and bare mattress standing, as though someone had simply stripped the sheets for the wash, amid a carpet of broken wooden boards.

And they left thousands of victims searching for a physical place to live and wondering whether they would ever be able to regain a sense — more ephemeral but no less important — of home.

The everyday rhythms of these places, footsteps through halls and running showers and children playing with toys, have been replaced by loud, buzzing chain saws chopping up pieces of trees and other debris to be carted away.

In Atkins, Ark., Barbara and Billy Nunnelly's "dream home" was nearly realized. It had custom copper shrouds on the two chimneys, Italian glass tile in the master bath, hardwoods and granite counters throughout.

From the outside, it looks as if the three-story stucco home weathered the killer twisters with little more than some missing coppering and a few lost shingles. But inside, seams have opened up along the cathedral ceilings, and roof joists have been twisted apart.

It will most likely have to be razed.

Barbara Nunnelly had tears in her eyes, irritated by smoke from nearby debris fires, as she contemplated what was lost.

There were the material things — "I put the very best of everything in this home," she said.

But there was also the memory of something simpler and more profound: "It's just something we've done together, me and my husband."

Most of the homes lost were far more modest. Pam Whitaker, 54, who was already disabled with a serious muscle ailment and now has oozing eyes from broken glass that flew into them in the storm, lost the mobile home she shares with her mother.

Whitaker said the most important thing she lost was a cedar chest. Inside it was baby clothing and the death certificate of her son, who died 30 years ago of pneumonia at age 3 months.

For now, the women are living at the National Guard armory in the town of 23,000, where Whitaker, hobbled by the foot injury, nevertheless sets up cots as newcomers arrive and helps serve meals.

She's worried about what happens when the shelter closes.

"We have no home," she said. "Unless a miracle happens, me and my mother are homeless."

This is not to say that the people who survived the killer storms have lost sight of the fact that the most valuable things recovered from their homes were something else: Their very lives.

In Lafayette, Mike Clark was using a metal detector, without much luck, to find class rings and other jewelry missing from what was left of his brother's home. The brother was in a Lebanon hospital. He was sucked out of the house by the storm and tossed 20 yards away.

"Considering there isn't even a floor joint left in the house," Clark said, "I guess they're lucky to have their lives."