Changed Through the Storm

December 2, 2011 • United States

A woman who survived the tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is thankful for her new home being built by Samaritan’s Purse and for her renewed relationship with God

Stephannie Nixon knew a tornado was coming. It was all over the news. But she wasn’t worried.

Tornado warnings are a frequent occurrence in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. While her boyfriend, Greg, sat watching The Weather Channel, she laughed over how serious everyone was acting.

Nixon didn’t think she was immune to disasters. She’s originally from California, and she knows how scary natural disasters can be. She just thought this one wouldn’t be a big deal.

“I was in an earthquake in 1994 in Northridge, California,” she said. “I thought that was going to be the worst thing that ever happened.”

On the afternoon of April 27, Nixon knew that her family would likely lose power soon. She pulled out her candles and told her two sons to take showers while they still could. Then she started cooking chicken and rice.

Greg, who has lived in Alabama his entire life, started to get worried about the darkening sky.

“Greg just never gets really anxious about things, and he never bugs me,” she said. “He kept saying ‘Stephannie, you need to come on. You need to get in the tub. Something’s not right. Something’s coming.’ ”

But Nixon was determined to start boiling the chicken. If she could get the gas stove hot, it would stay that way even if they lost power. Greg went to the tub, but she stayed in the kitchen. Her sons were in the living room.

As the tornado whirled closer, the power went out. Nixon lit candles and continued to cook. It wasn’t until she looked out her window and saw her gate and several items in the yard fly into the sky that she realized the situation was serious.

“OK, the fence just flew; we need to go,” she remembers thinking.

She tried to put the lid on the pot before she left the room, but the storm was moving too quickly. Her 18-year-old son ran into the kitchen, grabbed her arm, and then ran to the hallway.

“As soon as we get to that hallway, all you heard was that freight train coming through the living room, and it was so loud,” she said. “Then you heard the windows bursting, and then you just heard paper ripping. It was literally the house being ripped apart. And then once that happened, the roof came off.”

Nixon’s 4-year-old son was lying under his mother and older brother as debris flew around them and into their mouths.

“I think me and my oldest son thought it’s almost over, one way or the other,” she said. “Either we’re going to die and it will be over, or it’s going to end and we’ll be alive. But it has to stop at some point.”

After what felt like hours, the storm flew past what was left of the house. Greg immediately came running into the hallway to find Stephannie.

“I don’t think he even realized he had come through a room that didn’t exist anymore,” she said.

The family hugged each other in relief. They weren’t sure if anyone else had lived, because no homes were left in their neighborhood. They knew they should get to a building that was still standing, so they headed toward a grocery store. With no houses or trees standing in the way, they could see it from the yard.

During the following days, they found places that were offering clothing, showers, and food to tornado survivors. They slept in the car the first night, and then they floated from place to place. Nixon lost her purse during the storm. She had no money or identification, and no way to rent a hotel room.

“The storm was nothing compared to having to live through those first few days,” Nixon said. “I felt like a panhandler.”

Her situation didn’t improve as the days passed. She found out that she was underinsured, but because she had a little insurance couldn’t receive help from the federal government.

Nixon also lost her business to the storm, making her situation even more difficult. With no job, she couldn’t take out a loan to rebuild her house. Days turned into weeks with no progress, and the family moved into a small mobile home that someone loaned them.

“It’s been a challenge with trying to decide, ‘Should I go back to a 9 to 5 job just so I can get a loan?’ ” she said. “But that’s not where my heart is, and God has been good. I’ve been able to live and take care of myself and take care of our needs for the moment.”

She knew that she had to get the debris cleaned up to avoid being charged by the city. With help from volunteers from different organizations, she started the process of getting rid of branches and pieces of various houses scattered around her yard. During that process, she talked to people about rebuilding.

Eventually, she found Samaritan’s Purse, and she immediately knew she was at the right place.

Nixon has a notebook filled with house plans, floor and counter samples, and design ideas cut out of magazines. She knew that she wanted Samaritan’s Purse to build her home when she saw that the floor plan we’re using to build her house is almost identical to the one in her “dream house” notebook.

On the first day Samaritan’s Purse volunteers showed up to help Nixon rebuild, she and Greg were there and ready to work. She raked and did some smaller jobs while skilled volunteers started to add floor joists to the foundation.

“She was just willing to participate in the process,” said Rob Young, a volunteer who plans to spend the next several weeks working on Nixon’s home. “She was willing to put her family in a position where they were invested in the process. It was noticeable that what we’re doing out there will have a long-term effect with her and her family.”

Although the tornado destroyed Nixon’s possessions, she is seeing and learning things that she never would have had the opportunity to otherwise. Despite not having a home, she volunteered to help others as soon as the storm hit. She’s glad to have been able to offer her time and meet her neighbors that she didn’t know before.

“Even if you’re struggling, you still have enough in you to give back to somebody else,” she said. “I really feel like God is really trying to make us understand that everything is not about you—what you’re doing in your life, and where you’re trying to get and the successes that you’re trying to make. We’re all so self-driven. It really made me realize that even though I thought I was a good person before, I really wasn’t doing enough.”

Most importantly, Nixon now has a closer relationship with God because of the storm.

“Before the storm, I didn’t go to church,” she said. “I didn’t feel like church was that big of a staple in my life. But since the storm, I’ve found a church that I absolutely love. It’s changed me even more than I thought it would.”

Samaritan’s Purse plans build up to 20 homes in Tuscaloosa over the next two years. We hope to not only build physical homes, but also show people that they can have eternal homes in heaven.