Most couples spend months or years planning their dream home before construction starts. Andy and Bobbi Lee don’t have the luxury of time. Their new house sprouted up last week from the spot where – just five weeks earlier – a large pile of tornado-twisted debris had marked the location of their old home.
Andy Lee saw the tornado coming from the front yard of his ROW Road home.
“Before I started seeing debris, it got dead calm and the air got heavy,” he said.
He could see two separate rotations in the sky. Then, when the tornado touched down in the Industrial Park to his southwest, he could see the funnel cloud fill with debris.
His wife, Bobbi had already sought shelter in the basement while Andy was out watching the storm.
“I’m in the basement screaming at Andy, ‘Get down here!'” she said. “The neighbors heard me from across the field, I was screaming so loud.”
Andy made it into the basement with about 20 seconds to spare. As Andy, Bobbi and their 16-year-old son Brandon huddled in the basement, the fury of the storm struck their house.
They could see a big pine tree behind their house through the basement window. It was bent parallel to the ground by the force of the wind.
The brief moment that it took the tornado to do its worst and move on to the northeast seemed like an eternity.
“It lasted maybe a minute,” Bobbi said. “It felt like five years, but it was less than a minute, I bet.”
“It hit the house with a ‘whack!'” Andy said. “Then you could hear glass breaking and nails pulling and stuff scraping across the floor.”
“I could hear everything breaking and I thought a big tree fell on the house,” Bobbi added. “I didn’t really realize how bad it was.”
Most frightening to the family was the way the wind seemed to be trying to pull the floor off the foundation. The bolts that hold the floor to the foundation repeatedly popped up and then the floor slapped back down.
As suddenly as it had struck, the twister passed on to continue its destructive path to the northeast. The stunned family remained in their basement and gathered themselves before venturing out to survey the damage.
“Everybody was so scared, we just sat in the basement for a while,” Bobbi said.
Andy was the first to head up the basement steps. Their basement door faced east and the debris had been blown to the west so they were fortunate to not be trapped in their basement. The first thing Andy saw when he opened the door was what remained of his parents’ house next door – his garage was no longer there to obstruct his view.
Bobbi, not ready to leave the basement, could hear her husband’s reaction to what he was seeing.
“All he kept saying was ‘Oh, my God.’ I was afraid, I didn’t want to go upstairs,” she said.
Andy and Brandon ran over to Andy’s parents’ house and dug out their basement door, which faced West and had been blocked by debris. They also needed to check on Andy’s sister, who lived next door to the west and his brother who lived directly to the north. All family members were okay, but three houses were almost completely destroyed and the other heavily damaged.
Before the family had headed for the basement, Andy had insisted that they all put their shoes on and put their cell phones in their pockets. He said there was just something about the feel of the weather that evening that told him things could get really bad.
“That dead silence before I even saw anything just freaked me out,” he said.
Before law enforcement or emergency personnel could even get to the area, family and neighbors were making sure everyone in the neighborhood was accounted for.
“I cannot believe nobody got hurt,” Bobbi said. “It looked like a bomb went off in our yard.”
Within a half hour, many more members of the Lee family had made their way to ROW Road, clearing a path through roads choked by fallen trees as they came. They brought logging and construction machinery to help clear the way, and enclosed trailers to store salvageable belongings.
The question of where they would sleep that night was answered by a neighbor who offered them a room at the AmericInn. Someone else had the forethought to hook a generator to their sump pump to keep the basement from flooding.
The initial shock of living through the storm and experiencing the aftermath took days to wear off.
“For the first three or four days I just walked around in a fog,” Andy said.
Just trying to sift through the wreckage to locate their valuables proved to be a huge task.
“There was like a foot of debris inside the house,” Andy said. “We had to clean that up first.”
Picking through the mess, they found things they didn’t even recognize.
“We found stuff we knew wasn’t ours,” Andy said.
By the end of that first week, their insurance company had signed off on the house as a total loss, what was left of the house had been demolished and hauled away.
Bobbi said they owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all the family, friends and neighbors who pitched in to help with the clean up.
“We just stood there and they took charge and did what needed to be done,” Bobbi said. “They just jumped in.”
They are also grateful to the community volunteers who supported the clean up efforts.
“We’re lucky the Salvation Army was out there to make sure we ate,” she said. “You’re so concentrated on everything you don’t think of those things.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers who came out and picked all that stuff up,” she added.
And the cleanup continues, more than a month after the tornado, as crews trudge out into the woods and swamps to gather far-flung debris.
Andy and Bobbi have been together for 18 years. They bought their house on ROW Road from Andy’s grandmother in 1996. They had just done some work on the house to get it just the way they’d always wanted it, and in three years their mortgage would have been paid off. Now they’re starting over from scratch.
“It took us 18 years to collect all this stuff and in less than a minute it was gone,” Andy said.
The road from ruin to recovery has been eased for the Lees by the great support of family and a cooperative insurance company. They are fortunate that their old foundation is fit to be built upon and that their septic system was new enough that it can be reused, which smoothed the permitting process.
On May 16, construction of a new home on their old foundation began. The couple spent a hectic week picking out materials for the new house and visiting the site to check on the progress. For the time being, they live out of boxes in a rented apartment. They won’t be there long enough to bother with settling in; they hope to move into their new house within a few months. The insurance money is in the bank, but they can’t really buy anything until they have a house to put it in. So, for now, they live in limbo
In building their new home, the Lees are trying to give back as much as they can to the Merrill community that supported them through their ordeal.
“We’re trying to keep everything local,” Andy said. “We wouldn’t be as far as we are if it weren’t for all those volunteers who came out and helped. We appreciate it.”
Bobbi has taken countless photos of the destruction and the reconstruction of their home, and will put together a scrap book when it’s finished.
“It’s part of our family history now,” she said.