Alabama tornado survivors three months later: home is where the Weavers are

During the past three months, many readers from all over the world have stopped in at my blog to read up on the Weavers, a family who made an unexpected trip down the yellow brick road this spring when a tornado destroyed their Alabama home on April 27, 2011. Their story, which I first wrote about here, tugged at many hearts, especially for those of us who are animal people and have strong bonds to our pets. We shared their grief and their joy.

This is the story of how they continue to heal, three months after one of the worst storms in Alabama’s history changed everything.

Ten adorable baby ratties are trying out one of their very first grown-up meals: a plate of spaghetti.  Julie steps right onto the plate.  George meticulously nibbles on a single kernel of corn. Hannah eats a noodle from beginning to end. Now 21 days old, these Fourth of July babies were part of the package when the Weaver family adopted three rats, one of whom was pregnant, from nearly 200 abandoned pets at the Mainely Rat Rescue.

It’s three months later. It’s not the same, but the Weavers are slowly rebuilding their lives, reestablishing what it means to have a home. Coziness. Comfort. A sense of safety. And lots of loving pets.

Three of the newest members of the Weaver household: baby ratties George, Hannah and Dolley play in a soda box during their very first floor time. Photo by Marsha Weaver.

The first two weeks were overwhelming in their immediacy. Shock. Pain. Grief for all that was lost, especially so many of their beloved guinea pigs and rats. Needing clothes to wear the next day, food for the family, a place to sleep. Injuries to recover from. They needed to replace their vehicles and finish cleaning their land. As time passed, the initial trauma gave way to the long-term questions. Where would they go? Could they rebuild? Did they want to start over somewhere new?

The Weavers were starting over from scratch.

It was different than moving away from home for the first time. When you left home, you had your clothes, a few pieces of furniture, and those tangible little things that you cherished as your own. But this was worse. As they sorted through their belongings, they learned the hard way that in addition to losing their pets, they lost many of those treasured things. “I know it’s just stuff,” Marsha wrote, “[but] it means something to me.” The worst part was that unlike when they left home, they didn’t get to pick what survived. The rocking chair Marsha held her children in when they were babies, Doug’s very first mother’s day present to her, vanished. The handful of Doug’s late mother’s things were also gone. All of the family videos were destroyed. “It’s strange to know you had those items,” Marsha wrote, “and poof, they are just gone.”

Some special things did survive.  Marsha’s cedar chest, a gift from her parents, was damaged and could not be saved, but many of the contents could. Her own Christening gown. The outfits her children wore when they came home from the hospital for the first time.

Yet while so many items were missing or destroyed, the compost heap of guinea pig litter remained completely intact, proving what all guinea pig owners already know: guinea pig poop is completely indestructible. “Obviously,” Marsha wrote with humor, “the tornado could not find a use for it either!”

The surviving pets are settling into their apartment surroundings, even if they are a bit less spacious than the old house. The four surviving guinea pigs, Allie-Belle, Holly, Jasmine, and Emma, are learning to share a cage. Shelby, the dog who survived surgery by flashlight, is coping with hiking the stairs to a second floor apartment.

Allie-Belle, Jasmine, Emma and Holly line up for one of the first family portraits shot by Marsha since the storm. Photo by Marsha Weaver.

Of the five surviving rats, two had a difficult time. Olivia, the little girl who was found more than two days after the tornado, continues to struggle with asthma.

Sweet old Wesley, the elderly rat who wasn’t expected to survive at all, lasted long enough to help his humans and rattie friends through the worst of the aftermath before his own health failed and he crossed the rainbow bridge.

Still grieving, but so full of love and compassion, the Weavers opened their home to new critters, sweet little rats they could love and cherish. The Weavers needed them as much as the rats needed the Weavers. New life, new discoveries, new joys. Not the same as before, but still beautiful. Still important.

Every day after the tornado has been a marathon. Balancing what absolutely needs to be done while establishing a new sense of normalcy takes strength and courage. Overwhelming amounts of paperwork. Arranging to have temporary electrical service at the damaged property. Turning in rental cars. Making list after list after list of everything they can ever remember owning for the insurance company while getting dinner on the table and picking the kids up from school.

One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Some days are better than others. Other days, like when news spread of the disasters in Reading, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri,  and the sirens went off in Alabama–those days were hard.

Marsha had never intended to gussy up the apartment.

But the Weavers are nesters, and as the weeks passed, Marsha knew it needed to be their special place, even if it was only for a little while and it had to be done on a very tight budget. A few decorative pillows, a rooster canister set. These little touches made their temporary space cozy. Even more, it gave them some control over their lives.

The Weavers want a home of their own again. They don’t know where that home will be yet. Some days, they’re sure they want to rebuild, better than before, complete with a storm shelter and emergency lighting. Other days, they visit their lot and see the homes to which their neighbors never returned, and they aren’t so sure. They’ll have to decide soon, but not yet.

For now, the Weavers have each other and their strengthened ties with family and friends. The Cozy Cavy has not yet reopened for business, but nearly 1,500 people share in the ups and downs of post-tornado life with Marsha and her family at the Cozy Cavy Facebook page, and thousands more connect with her through GuineaLynx.

During a shopping trip for towels, Marsha picked up a framed picture and hung it on her apartment wall. The words on the sampler epitomize the courage and heart that is integral to being a Weaver:

Having a place to go is HOME

Having someone to love is FAMILY

Having both is a BLESSING.

The Weaver family is proof that despite horrible loss, there is hope, and that every day is full of little miracles.

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