A deep rumble rattled the Shimmin’s house late one evening. The sudden, deafening roar resembled the rolling yet sharp sound of a rifle. It was like an explosion had just gone off, obliterating what little peace the Shimmins had left into a million tiny, lifeless, shards of hopelessness. All the fury of the world was being pelted onto the newly purchased home. Flash after flash illuminated the empty windows, which were not yet adorned with curtains, and the eerie-yellow light was followed by more crashes from the heavens. Aside from the piercing lightning, it was pitch-black outside. The rain could be heard but not seen. It was just a common thunderstorm, nothing special. Sam, the family dog, put her tail between her legs and whined for some comfort. She didn’t want to be alone. Her mournful eyes darted from one person to the next. The family of six was huddled on the couch, excluding her. She still remembered. She still remembered the destruction, the panic, and the chaos that could accompany the sound of thunder. The kids decided to pause the movie they were watching to wait out the storm.
“Mommy?” eight-year-old Elaina Shimmin called. “When will the storm go away?”
“Soon, Sweetie,” her mother, Valerie Shimmin, responded, pulling her pouting daughter into her arms. “It’s not going to be like the last one."
“Can’t we just bring the bunnies in?” eleven-year-old Jaden Shimmin begged Valerie. “What if the storm gets worse?”
The wind and rain outside were already beginning to get stronger. The whole day had been dark and dreary, but the worst was yet to come. The weather forecast predicted heavy thunderstorms and strong winds, nothing too unusual. Several tornado alerts popped up on Valerie’s phone, but she just shrugged them off. Tornado alerts happen all the time in Pensacola, Florida. Nothing ever comes from them, right?
“Jaden,” Valerie replied, rolling her eyes. “It’s probably not going to be that bad.” Jaden looked to be on the verge of crying. Her long blond hair stuck to her runny nose as she continued begging her mom to bring her two rabbits, Midnight and Dotty, inside.
The rabbits lived outside in a handmade wooden hutch. It was nearly five feet tall and had withstood many storms before. Needless to say, it was pretty sturdy. To Valerie, there was no reason to bring the bunnies inside because they would be safe in their cage, like always. But Jaden was persistent and continuously nagged her mom with pleading eyes.
Relenting, Valerie permitted the bunnies to be moved into their spare cage in the garage, just in case. Jaden immediately began carrying her precious pets through the pouring rain into the garage. She held each one close to her as she dived into the safe covering of the bottom half of the house. The Shimmin’s garage was built under the rest of the house, making it the lowest point while simultaneously connecting to the outside. Jaden caressed Midnight and then Dotty, trying to comfort them from the storm. The bunnies’ indoor cage was hidden in a small corner beside the stairs leading to the kitchen. The garage was so messy, you wouldn’t even be able to see it if you weren’t looking for them.
By that time, severe weather alerts bombarded Valerie's phone. Still, the
weather app liked to cry wolf, so there wasn’t too much concern. The peak of the storm wasn’t supposed to hit until eight, which was still a few hours away. But as an extra precaution, she ruffled through drawers and searched through the closet for rain boots and flashlights. She placed a pair of rain boots for each of her four children at the top of the garage stairs. They would be easy to slip on and should offer enough protection if something were to actually happen.
“Everyone in the living room!” Valerie shouted in no particular direction. “Who wants to watch something?” She paused to count the number of yeses that echoed across the house. Jaden, Gabriel, Elaina, and Logan came running from every direction. Their feet made their own little thunder as they trampled across the carpeted floor and collapsed in front of the TV. Sam wagged her tail and slowly climbed into five-year-old Logan’s lap. The kids settled in a pile of blankets and pillows spread out on the floor and put in Finding Nemo.
While the kids were engaged in the movie, Valerie made herself comfortable in the next room. She grabbed a hot cup of tea and settled down in her armchair, constantly monitoring the weather channel. A loud, piercing ring vibrated from her back pocket. It was a tornado warning. She shut off her phone and tossed it aside. It wasn’t yet near the time the weathermen predicted to harbor the most tornados.
Minutes passed. The wind howled, and rain pelted the sides of the house from all directions. The American flag on the front porch flapped wildly. Another tornado alert flashed across the screen of the TV. The loud obnoxious buzz blared in Valerie’s ears. Then, there was darkness. Black. Everything went black. The sudden loss of sight only intensified the sounds of the storm raging outside. Along with the wail of the wind came the wail of her four children.
“Mommy!” they all screamed in unison. Valerie grabbed one of the flashlights she had prepared and rushed to the screaming voices in the living room.
“Get your shoes on, then go downstairs,” she commanded, trying not to sound panicked as she felt. If her tone gave away her true feelings, the kids would be in a terrified frenzy. Valerie wished her husband, Marty Shimmin, wasn’t away on a business trip. She didn’t want to be alone in a potentially dangerous situation.
“What’s going on, Momma?” nine-year-old Gabriel asked. His face was partly illuminated by the flashlight, causing his eyes to glow wildly.
“Grab the dog, Gabe!” Valerie dodged his question. She maneuvered the four kids and one dog to the top of the stairs with nothing but a flashlight and urged them to quickly put on their shoes. Darkness oozed out of the opening to the garage and spilled across the kitchen floor. The wind was getting louder.
“Should we set up beach chairs down there?” Jaden asked.
“There’s too much stuff down there to fit enough beach chairs, Jaden,” Elaina sassed.
“What, so you want to sit on the floor?” Jaden replied.
“Hey!” Valerie interrupted. “Just get your shoes on. I don’t know where we’re going yet.”
The kids each grabbed a flashlight and shuffled their way down the carpeted stairs. As Valerie was shutting the kitchen door, they heard it. The deafening sound of a crashing wind. It was a sound she still can’t even describe today.
“Words don’t do it justice,” Valerie said when asked to describe the sound. “It was just very, very loud. It’s something I hope to never hear again.”
The moment they heard the monstrous sound was the moment reality sunk in. They knew they were in danger, and there was little they could do to protect themselves. In one corner of the garage, they began to frantically dig a hole through the hoard of items piled on the floor. Valerie threw baby toys, strollers, empty cardboard boxes, lawn supplies, and other miscellaneous items to the other side of the garage. It created just enough space to allow her four children to squeeze underneath the large, wooden workbench that was bolted to the wall. The wind was still raging overhead, getting louder and louder. Somehow, in the chaos, Sam got loose. She ran, but there was no time to find her. Whimpering, the kids crawled into their makeshift den, the only place that offered a hint of safety. Valerie knelt down to shield as much of them as she could with her body. The garage door flew off, glass exploded from the lone window in the stairwell, and various objects whipped by overhead. No one dared to turn around. The ruckus behind them intensified as unidentified objects crashed and slammed together. Debris came in from the now open garage and mingled with the items inside. Valerie, Jaden, Gabriel, Elaina, and Logan stayed still until the noise stopped. Even then, they didn’t know if they wanted to see the damage.
“Don’t move,” Valerie told her four children in a shaky voice. She stood up to survey their surroundings. The garage was even more of a wreck than it was to begin with. Tree limbs, glass, pieces of metal, and various indescribable piles debris added an extra layer to the Shimmin’s storage area. The seemingly sturdy outdoor rabbit hutch had slammed into the garage. Luckily the bunnies were brought inside and, miraculously, left untouched.
Valerie shimmied her way to the stairs. “Sam!” she repeatedly called their missing dog’s name. She excepted to reach the main level of her house and walk out into the kitchen, but what she saw made her jaw drop.
“Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw,” Valerie said later. “The phrase ‘looks like a tornado hit the place,’ took on a whole new meaning.” The entire dining room wall had been ripped completely off, so she was looking straight outside. The rest of the house was covered in grass, water, insulation, leaves, dirt, and random household objects. Large branches were protruding from all over the house. One even went straight through the couch. The Shimmins didn’t even have any trees in their yard. The house was barely recognizable.
Later, the Shimmins would realize that most of their belongings were gone. They either blew away with the tornado or were ruined from the rain and other debris. None of the furniture could be salvaged, and one bed was even snapped in half. The only noteworthy object that survived was Valerie’s heirloom wooden piano. Somehow, it wasn’t harmed. It still works, and her children play it daily.
Right after the storm, Valerie stood awestruck for several seconds, just taking in the destruction and mourning the current state of her house. She was relieved to spot Sam running toward her, unharmed. They both returned to the kids in the beaten-up garage. Frantically, Valerie attempted to call her husband, praying that the call would go through. Her husband, Marty Shimmin, couldn’t believe the horror story he was just told.
“I can only just thank God that no one was hurt,” he had said later. “It obviously wasn’t ideal that we were essentially homeless and living out of suitcases for more than a year, but my family is the only thing that really mattered.”
Houses across the street were left untouched, but the house just next door had been completely flattened. If the tornado had been any closer to the Shimmin’s residence, Valerie and the kids probably would not have survived. It’s funny how your life can be drastically changed just by the course of the wind.
After the storm, the Shimmins sought temporary housing from at least four different locations. The entire family lived with Valerie’s sister, Christy, in her apartment for about a month after the initial event. Then, they bounced around between various apartments and Grandfather Shimmin’s house. For around six months, their church even let them live in the house reserved for missionaries.
“Out of all the places we’ve lived the past year, I think the missionary house was my favorite,” said Valerie.
The “tornado house,” as the family liked to call it, had to be completely gutted. It took months of restoration for it to be an eligible candidate in the marketplace. Luckily, multiple offers were placed during the first week, and the newly renovated house was sold. Because of that sale, they had enough money to buy their dream house. It was larger and more modern than the “tornado house.” It had a much bigger yard, and it even had a pool. The Shimmins quickly fell in love with their new house. The bitterness and hardships of the past year had melted away, and they were happy.
“When something like that happens to you,” Valerie said. “it puts everything into perspective. It just makes you appreciate the little things.” Walking away from what could have been a tragedy, brought the family closer than ever. They now savor the mundane activities of everyday life. For the Shimmins, life will never be the same as it was before the tornado.
“There’s not much you can do to prepare for another one,” Valerie said. “I’ll just always pay attention to my weather alerts now. I think that we’ll all be scared of storms for a long time, but it doesn’t matter if we lose our house again. I just don’t want to lose my kids.” The Shimmins will always remember that material possessions are just that—material. Even though they might spend future thunderstorms hunkered down on the couch, they are thankful that the experience brought them closer together. Some things, like family, are more important than material things.