What would you take?
With minutes — even seconds — to choose, what mementos of your life, your children’s lives, would you save?
As we prepared to take cover during last week’s tornadoes, I was more focused than usual on that question. This fast-moving storm felt different somehow, more threatening, with warnings all around us.
What would we absolutely need in those first few hours if our house was destroyed?
Not just a radio and a game to keep the kids occupied. I grabbed our cellphones and chargers. The laptop and power cord. My husband’s medical equipment. My purse. My daughter’s Teddy.
Then I looked around and thought: What about the baby books and photo albums? The wedding video? How can you possibly save everything?
The answer is you can’t.
And according to several Gifford families who lived through the worst last week, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all just stuff.
When they got home from church, Carrie had “this weird feeling” and told her husband, “The hair on the back of my neck is standing up.”
A few minutes later, she stood nervously looking out the back door as Bill watched from the front.
“The whole sky just looked nasty,” she said. “I’ve never heard constant thunder. It wouldn’t stop.”
Her next-door neighbor, Brian Duitsman, shouted through the wind that he was joining his wife and two young sons in their crawl space. The boys had asked to go there, scared by news of the twister hitting Washington, Ill.
The younger boy brought his dog, his blanket and a couple of stuffed animals with him. The older one took the two iPads.
Brian had been watching TV coverage of the storm when the power went out and the tornado siren blared. He grabbed a flashlight and jumped through the hatch.
“Twenty seconds later, you could hear the house go. It sounded like an airplane landing,” he said later.
About the same time, Bill Mulvaney came inside and told Carrie, “You need to get to the bathroom now.”
Their two girls, Julia, 12, and Gillian, 8, were already there. Gillian clutched the pink blanket she’d carried since infancy.
“My oldest grabbed her damn iPod, of course,” Carrie said. “It’s attached to her hip.”
Bill rounded up the dog and the goldfish. Carrie grabbed her purse. There was no time for anything else.
Bill pulled the door shut, and the family started praying the “Our Father.” Loudly, to cover the sounds of glass breaking and walls being torn apart.
It was over in one verse. The storm had ripped off the back of the house and part of the roof. The master bedroom was now open-air: The nightstands landed in the backyard, the headboard on the neighbor’s lawn, the mattress in a ditch.
But the damage was secondary. Bill ran to make sure their neighbors were OK. Carrie took the girls to their church, fearing the house was unsafe.
Only after that did they inspect the house, which had wildly uneven damage. The family room wall was blown out, but a bowl of macaroni and cheese on the kitchen counter 12 feet away never moved.
Carrie ran upstairs and immediately started taking down a second-floor photo gallery in the hallway, “a shrine to our daughters.” It felt, she said, as though something else might happen at any moment. She had to get the pictures safely out of the house.
Close friends from Collison arrived to pack up anything they could find and put it in their barn for storage.
Miraculously, the Mulvaneys’ photo albums, baby books, and scrapbooks and mementos from Bill’s late parents all survived. Thank heavens, Carrie said, for Rubbermaid.
Many of the girls’ toys from the upstairs playroom had just been packed up and stored downstairs, including their first rocker and American Girl dolls.
“They’ll look back and say, ‘This made it through the tornado,’” Carrie said.
As for the rest, she said, things that were once important to her “don’t matter anymore.”
With one exception. Carrie’s jewelry box was “torn to pieces” in the storm and the contents lost to the wind — except for her engagement ring, which was still inside. Her wedding band was found the next day in the same spot, mired in the mud.
Talking about it days later, Carrie was overcome, covering her face with her hands.
“My heart was lifted,” she said. “It was so significant, so symbolic. I’ve questioned my faith many times. This was a sign to say, ‘Carrie, stop questioning.’”
Next door, half of the Duitsmans’ house ended up in the front yard, including the kitchen. They found most of their scrapbooks and photo albums, albeit a bit damp. They salvaged clothes and shoes, Erin’s computer and some furniture.
But they lost some treasures, too. They had just put up their Christmas tree that day, decorating it with the family ornaments Erin collected each year. She wishes they’d left them safely packed away for a few more days.
Luckily, a friend found a few in the rubble Wednesday, muddy and slightly worse for the wear but still salvageable.
“I usually want things perfect, but that’s going to be kind of different, I think,” Erin said from her parents’ farm south of Gifford, sorting through the family’s belongings.
Both families said they probably won’t replace everything they lost, opting for “a simpler life,” as Carrie put it.
Would they do anything different next time? Not really, though Erin would definitely grab her purse.
“What do you take? Everything’s your stuff,” she said. “What do you pick and choose from a lifetime?”
“Nobody,” Carrie said, “can plan for this.”
What do take with you when there's a weather warnings? Leave your comment below.
Julie Wurth blogs about families and kids and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, email@example.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Carrie Mulvaney sifts through a cabinet where her master bath and bedroom used to be a few days after the Nov. 17 tornado. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette