By Tara Dowden
Seventy-eight years have passed since April 5, 1936 when the fourth deadliest tornado in U.S. history ravaged 15 miles of damage through our city, leveling 48 city blocks, killing over 216 residents and injuring 700. Through the years, our city has become accustomed to the tornado sirens that alert us of possible tornadoes. Some of us go overboard on our precautions, like myself; and some of us go grocery shopping minutes before the storm hits to pick up food to prepare dinner for neighbors tucked away in the basement. Even tornadoes cannot thwart southern hospitality.
Regardless of where we are during bad weather, most Tupelo residents are tuned in to Matt Laubhan, the weatherman at WTVA news. Only six months ago, on April 28, 2014, many of us watched the weather broadcast with grave concern. From my parents basement seven adults, six children, and two dogs watched as Matt made his report. “Tornado touch down has been conformed at this instant. This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak, and, this could be deadly! There is a damaging tornado on the ground right now!” The broadcast begins to stall and right before Matt runs off the set, he motions his arm right to left and shouts, “Basement now! Basement now!!”
Michael Gammel had just woken from his sleep, after working the night shift at the Toyota plant and had headed out to grab lunch before picking up his daughter, Ally, from piano lessons. After he received a panicked call from his wife Molly that a tornado had been spotted, he rushed to his car and headed up North Gloster Street. “I realized the projected path was headed directly towards Ally”.
As the sky grew darker, he sped through every red light and recalled Tupelo looking like a “ghost town.” He picked Ally up from her piano lesson and while in the car, she spotted “a huge wall of rain” headed toward them from the Joyner area. Michael took a left on Old Country Club Road, up Lakeshire, and onto Gloster. As they turned the corner, for a few eerie seconds, the skies portrayed a strange color and “everything stood still.” Realizing they could not make it home with clouds quickly churning up ahead, they turned into Lynn Circle heading towards Molly’s mom’s house. Molly explains, “I was on the phone with them and all I can remember is hearing Ally screaming my name, Michael screaming for Jesus, and the roaring sounds of the storm in the background. I literally thought this could possibly be the last time I speak to my husband and daughter.”
Unbeknownst to Michael, the tornado had taken a 90-degree turn and was heading directly towards them. “I watched power lines flap like noodles and trees snap like toothpicks all around me. The car was being whipped around and tossed left and right and then the hair on the back of my neck stood as Ally and I watched the roof of the Reed’s house being ripped off into the sky, like a doll house, and then disintegrate into the storm. Looking back I really believe an angel steered my vehicle,” Michael says. Ally explains, “We were like a toy car and God was holding us.”
As he continues driving, Michael prays, “God you are in control but if anything happens, take me not Ally.” As they pulled in the driveway, the hundred-year-old pine trees began falling like dominoes behind them. One tree landed on the truck bed breaking the axle. Another tree uprooted in front of them stopping their vehicle. This quickly stopped the levitation of the car and grounded them through the rest of the tornado. Michael laid over Ally as they rode out the storm. Ally explains, “It sounded like a train and it just felt like everything was falling in on us.” When the tornado had passed, Michael and Ally quickly climbed out of the truck covered in trees and power lines to the safety of Molly’s mother’s home.
In looking back, Molly says, “Now we fully thank God because I believe and know that God sovereignly protected my family. If he can form the Universe and human beings out of dust and breathe life into them, then holding up a few trees is nothing. Pushing down a particular tree, a particular way, at just the right second is nothing. The sheer fact that he loves us enough to have done that for us in such an uncontrollable circumstance, showed us He is in total control and that is sometimes beyond my understanding.”
Michael’s car was totaled and Molly’s parents’ home took on so much damage that they are currently living in a hotel. Regardless of the material losses, the Gammel family is thankful they survived what could have been a deadly situation. Michael stands in awe of how powerful God is after witnessing the magnitude and strength of the tornado. Ally begins singing the chorus of David Crowder’s song, “Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree…” The entire family chimes in, “bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy, Oh, how He loves us, oh. Oh, how he loves us.”
The night before April 28, Neil and Stephanie May had just finished singing at West Jackson Baptist Church’s “Night of Praise” concert titled “Faithful.” That night their daughter, Taylor, made a video of Neil and their 4-year-old son, Miles, playing with a slingshot on the front steps of their home. Later they headed in for the night.
They started off their Monday morning as usual knowing the day could possibly hold bad weather but were never too concerned. Everyone headed to school and work. While at work, Stephanie heard Matt Laubhan reporting that Tupelo might be having winds in excess of 165 miles per hour and at that point decided, for the protection of themselves and their shoppers, they would close their store, Southern Cloth. Neil and Stephanie headed to lunch and out for a little shopping where they bought Miles a Captain America cape. Then they left for home. They pulled into their drive and went inside where their nanny, Courtney, joked that she updated her Facebook status to, “Surviving the storm of 2014.”
The May family wasn’t sure if the storm would be that serious but for safety purposes decided to take shelter. Fifteen minutes later Stephanie, Stephanie’s mom, Taylor, Alexis, and Miles took cover in the kitchen pantry located under the stairs. Neil, a storm lover, stood on the back porch watching for the tornado. He watched as it hit the Reed’s house then moved towards the Legions Lake area and headed in the direction of his home.
Neil turned and ran towards the inside of the house. “I saw the storm coming, and within seconds of it hitting our house I made a run for the pantry. The glass windows and doors all along the backside of our house were blowing out behind me and as I ran I felt debris hitting my body. The tornado roared, like the sound of a jet engine and I laid across my family in the pantry and jammed my feet against the door in hopes of keeping it closed.”
The tornado then continued to sweep across the house pulling the roof off along with the smoke detectors in the pantry allowing for debris and rain to fall in on the May family. The storm seemed to quiet for a few seconds and then the next cycle of the tornado came through. Miles began screaming and the rest of the family continued praying and asking the Lord for His continued protection.
After the storm passed, the family made their way out of the pantry and took a right turn into open air. Their house was gone. Nothing but two small walls, which stood behind the pantry, was left standing. The refrigerator was torn to pieces and covered in grass but had served as a steel wall of protection from all the debris. Miles explains, “All of my toys were blown away in the tornado, like they all went up into the sky, but I did have my Captain America cape on!”
Even though their new home was a hotel room for two months and their possessions could fit in a 3’ x 3’ box, Neil states, “Our goal has been to let God be glorified and not focus on what happened to us. Our lives were spared and we have more than a lot of people have. We thank God for the experience and how it grew us spiritually and closer together as a family.” Through losing all of her possessions, Alexis has been reminded of Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Throughout this journey, Neil and Stephanie have found themselves repeatedly singing the lines they sang in the concert that Sunday night before the storm, “When there is no way, we will sing Your praise, You are faithful.” There is nothing left of the house where Neil and Miles played slingshot on the front porch. But, in His goodness, God has provided a new home with neighbors that are Miles’ age and Neil and Stephanie are expecting a new baby at the end of March.
The devastation from the tornadoes that hit on April 28, 2014, bears no resemblance to the damage and loss of life on April 5, 1936. Still, our city has been changed by the damage done to homes, businesses, and neighborhoods. In the process of rebuilding, we have realized what it means to be a neighbor and to serve and treat others in a way we want to be treated. We have seen God’s grace and loving mercy in His sovereign timing and protection over so many men, women, and children. We have watched our community serve one another to a point of physical exhaustion. Through the blue roofs and the empty slabs we see His goodness and faithfulness and we are thankful. “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nahum 1:7).
Tara Dowden is a proud graduate of Mississippi State University. She has worked in interior design and elementary education. She is currently an Account Executive for Mississippi Christian Living magazine, a classical ballet instructor, and a volunteer children’s minister. She and her husband, Landon, live in Tupelo where he pastors The Church at Trace Crossing. They enjoy attending soccer games and ballet recitals with their four children: Arabella, Adalaide, Adoniram, and Alastair.