'You Can Overcome Adversities In Your Life'
June 17, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Every day, Sonya Morris, director of the Defense Military Pay Office, makes the trip home to Harvest after work. She checks for mail, sees about her neighbors and does a few things around the house.
And then she drives back to Redstone.
“Home” these days for Morris is uninhabitable. She and her 18-year-old daughter, Brittany, are living in temporary housing on the Arsenal while they wait for substantial repairs " including a new roof, chimney, ceiling and floors " to be made to their home after the April 27 tornadoes that wrecked their Harvest Landing neighborhood. Morris’ husband, Anthony, lives and works in Saudi Arabia. Both are retired military.
For Morris, the aftermath of April 27 is still very much with her as she goes through the process of rebuilding what was taken by the tornadoes. She had to rely on the help of friends, co-workers and even strangers during the initial days of recovery. Now she is waiting patiently while her home damage goes through the insurance claims process. And she is remembering with gratitude the kindness showed to her and her daughter during the days following April 27.
“To see the kindness of the people coming through ... I had never seen anything like that in my life,” Morris said. “Until you see a disaster you really don’t know how hearts are. There’s a spark inside our hearts to do for our fellow man. I got so many hugs, so many ‘Can I help you?’ and ‘What can I do for you?’ It really makes you understand the depths of human kindness.”
Like most Arsenal employees, Morris was at work on April 27. Between the day’s multiple severe weather systems " just before lunch " she dismissed Military Pay employees, hoping each would get home safely. She and co-worker Lisa Brown, who lives in Madison, remained in the office on Hercules Road.
“We kept watching the weather,” Morris said. “The lights went out here. The (exterior) doors were slamming. The wind was rattling everything. The fourth tornado hit (in northwest Madison County) and we waited until that system passed over us before we went home.
“I’m thinking I can go home. I didn’t know the damage had occurred.”
But, as she traveled west on Highway 72, Morris began getting the feeling that something bad had happened. Very few cars were on the road and the wind was very strong, making it feel as though her car lifted off the road several times. When she turned left onto Wall Triana, Morris realized that a tornado had hit the area. Several utility lines were down and utility poles were bent all along the roadway.
It took Morris several attempts to get to her home, having to change routes due to roads that were impassable.
“After about 1 1/2 hours of detouring, we (she and other drivers who had formed a sort of caravan) got close. Now it’s about 4:30. I had told my daughter not to go to work. But, thankfully, she left right before the tornado that we think hit our house. So, she was stuck trying to get back, too,” Morris said.
Although she was close to home, emergency personnel at the intersection of Wall Triana and Yarborough directed Morris to leave her car and take shelter at the Harvest House restaurant because another tornado system was coming through.
“I was so worried about my daughter. She was stuck on Wall Triana in a long line of traffic. She walked through the rain and made it to Harvest House,” Morris said. “I’ve never been so relieved in my life.”
After the last weather system went through, Morris and her daughter walked about a half mile to their home.
“It was dark and there was a narrow path,” Morris said. “Houses all along the way were damaged. Some were missing. Some were actually lifted off their foundations and dropped down. What horror it was. Every house was damaged.”
That damage included their one-story home and Morris’ Dodge truck, which had been parked in the driveway.
“The truck was slammed and shattered. The windows were shattered in the house. I’m so glad my daughter went to work because she probably would have been killed by flying glass,” Morris said. “But, beyond that, we couldn’t really see anything. It was hard to assess the damage because it was so dark. From what we could see, the kitchen, dining room, pantry and laundry room were all under water. Water was pouring down from the ceiling. All we could do was get some bags, grab some stuff and go.”
The two came back to the Arsenal, where Morris had planned for them to stay in her office until the morning. But a friend managed to reach them by phone and provided them a place to stay. They stayed with their friend for about five days until they obtained temporary housing on the Arsenal.
“The next day … to talk about it brings tears to my eyes,” Morris said. “We had to show our IDs to get in the neighborhood. People were in their yards, their hands out to the sky, their homes totally destroyed. One of my neighbors and their 16-year-old daughter died.”
Although her truck was banged up, it still started. Her home’s roof was destroyed and the ceiling had collapsed. The chimney was gone and there was water damage throughout the house. Both Morris’ and her daughter’s bedrooms were torn apart. The backyard privacy fence was gone and someone’s wooden play set was impaled on the storage building. A beloved willow tree taller than the house was gone.
“A contractor tarped my roof. People were in the neighborhood cutting trees and moving debris. A guy came up the road with my chimney in his wheelbarrow,” Morris said. “Co-workers and their friends came in with chainsaws and cut trees out. We boarded up my windows and put everything we could save in a place where it wouldn’t get more damage.”
Harvest House opened their doors to tornado victims, providing everyone affected by the tornadoes, including Morris, with free meals. Donations came from friends and co-workers at Redstone and across the Army who wanted to help. It was a co-worker who suggested Morris contact the Bicentennial Chapel to seek temporary shelter, which led to the Redstone Garrison providing them with a two-bedroom, furnished apartment where they now.
“I go home every day. I don’t want to forget it,” Morris said of visiting her home in Harvest. “There are people who lost everything. But you are in your own little world and what you are thinking about is what you lost.”
Of course, at some point, Morris had to tell her husband what had happened to their home.
“When we finally got in touch with each other, he said he had been trying to call me for days,” she said. “He already had plans to come home for Brittany’s graduation. He wanted to know if he should come sooner. I told him to keep his plans. I didn’t want him coming home and having to deal with what happened. I had done that and I was trying to move forward. So, he kept his plans as they were.”
And life does go on. Even though the focus was tornado recovery, the family was facing other milestones in their lives, many centered around their daughter’s high school prom and graduation. Again, Redstone Garrison stepped up, providing the Morris’ relatives an on-post cottage for their visit at graduation and the use of the Rustic Lodge for a graduation party.
“My daughter is a military brat. She was born in Frankfurt, Germany,” Morris said. “But I never thought I would see her leave from an installation to go to prom or to go to graduation. She was sad at first. But the Lord provided us with a place. I have been overwhelmed with the generosity.”
There are many lessons " both practical and personal " that Morris has gleaned from the horror of tornado destruction. They include: know your insurance representative, have an emergency backup plan, have an emergency kit, put a fire extinguisher in every family vehicle and have patience.
“Something like this toughens you up and lets you know you can overcome adversities in your life,” Morris said. “This is a horrible nightmare. But out of it comes a lot of good. We’ve had well-wishers from around the country, but it’s mostly the military community that has embraced us. I’m in awe how kind people can be.”