Broken dreams: A tornado survivor’s story
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Tony Ellis stands in his yard filled with debris and fallen trees, showing the large amount of destruction endured in the January 12 tornado that struck southern Coosa County. Photo by Christa Jennings
By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
Every person has stories to tell, and when a natural disaster hits and leaves significant damage in its wake, all of the survivors left behind have their own stories.
A house being remodeled. An EF-3 tornado on the ground for 82 miles. Trees snapped. Neighboring homes destroyed. Metal wrapped around trees. Power poles broken for more than a mile. Scattered bits of insulation. Nearly two months of silence. Finally, the sound of chainsaws and heavy machinery. This is Tony Ellis’s story.
It was an unusually warm and sunny day on Saturday, March 4, when help finally came for Ellis.
He had been told help would come, and that morning he was waiting for it, cautiously optimistic after so long. Then, it happened.
Warren Tidwell with Hometown Organizing Project of Auburn, and now a member of Coosa’s Long Term Recovery Committee, walked down to speak with Ellis. Tidwell then returned to the top of the driveway, signaling to others that yes, this was the right house.
Hope does not always come quietly or softly. Sometimes it comes in the sound of a skid steer clearing fallen trees from what was once a usable driveway, in the noise of a chainsaw notching and cutting trees, in hardworking hands covered in gloves as they grab and clear debris, in a tarp so large and durable that it is loaded on to a skid steer to be taken up to the house.
There were no knights or heroes wearing capes. But there were retired men in their 70s operating machinery, an associate professor of media studies from Auburn University lending his hands to help, a man in his 40s helping put a plan in motion, young men and women bringing lunches and bottled water for the hardworking volunteers, a young woman returning to her roots to help those in need.
With them, hope finally came for Tony Ellis on County Road 304 in Equality.
While skeptical that help would actually come, Ellis spent part of that morning notching some trees to make them easier to finish taking down with a skid steer, on the off chance that people would show up to help.
His skepticism was understandable. After all, it had been nearly two months since the strong tornado ripped through the area on January 12, and he had barely received any help during that time, unable to even get someone to come repair his roof or provide a cost estimate.
The only help Ellis said he had received was an individual helping put a tarp over a section of his roof that was leaking after a tree fell onto his house. However, that tarp already had holes in it.
Thankfully volunteers came to his aid with a large durable tarp to replace the weathered and beaten-up tarp flimsily covering a portion of his roof.
Ellis stood in his driveway, which had been covered with fallen trees for nearly two months, watching in near disbelief as people came to help. They wasted no time getting to work clearing away the trees so he could finally use his real driveway again, helping clear debris, re-tarping his roof, and helping in other ways before they ran out of time and would have to return another day to help.
“There is a God in heaven, and there are still some decent people around,” Ellis remarked.
Following the January 12 tornado, Alabama Power had created a makeshift driveway to access Ellis’s property in order to replace a broken power pole. Ellis had been using that driveway, rutted and muddy at times, to get by until he could get the trees cleared from his original driveway.
On March 4, when help finally came, one vehicle got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out, and a second vehicle nearly got stuck, having to back up to avoid it. Still, they came, much to Ellis’s appreciation.
He walked individuals around his property, his left arm bandaged in two places as he motioned and talked about the destruction the tornado left behind.
Diagnosed with kidney failure, Ellis has dialysis three times a week in Montgomery. The Equality house was not his full-time residence, but he spent weekends there and was in the process of making it his full-time home.
Now, Ellis is not sure what the future holds for him or the house he has spent so much time remodeling over the last few years.
He just had the roof put on the house two years ago as of this June, using 30-year architectural shingles. The January tornado ripped off almost all the shingles on the back of the roof and removed quite a few on the top and front side of the roof.
One of Ellis’s buildings is completely destroyed, with the roof of the building laying in the nearby holler. A piece of the metal frame is stuck into a tree in Ellis’s front yard, bent down to the ground, a tiny heart-shape hole visible in the twisted metal.
There is a piece of tin wrapped around a tree 30 or 40 feet high. The metal frame of the building is stuck in a tree. Numerous bits of debris of various sizes are scattered all around the property and in the surrounding woods.
Another building to the left of Ellis’s house was shifted, looking as if the tornado had picked it up. Ellis explained that he had that building wired, and he thinks the building was picked up by the tornado with the only thing holding it being the thick wire that prevented it from “flying off in the air.”
Nearby neighbors had put a trailer in less than six months ago, and Ellis said they do not know where it is, that it is just “totally gone.” He said the woman happened to have gone into town for an errand and came back to the trailer being gone.
He just had a well put in during October of 2021, which hasn’t even been used yet. It took Ellis five years to save up the money to get the well dug, and he has not used a drop of water out of it. Now he is not sure if he will be able to anytime soon.
He said the tornado tore it up, and he has to get someone to come look at it to determine whether it can be fixed.
Ellis bought the house back in 2008, before he was diagnosed with kidney failure. Then for two years he did not go up to the house. He said his heart just wasn’t in it.
The grass grew thick, and the area began to look like a jungle. Eventually he began doing some work on it, clearing up the land and putting up the two buildings.
Finally, a couple of years ago, Ellis decided he wanted to finish the house, and he began working on the inside, completely gutting the house and remodeling it. After spending time working on it, he said all he had left was the kitchen counter, which he had not been able to buy yet – then the tornado hit.
The house is mostly okay inside, although the exterior has insulation splattered all over it from the tornado sucking out the insulation under the house and spitting it back out, wet and wind-tossed.
“It only takes a minute to do so much damage,” Ellis said.
He had just put new flooring in the bedroom, which was where the fallen tree left a hole in the roof. The new flooring was soaking wet, and the bed was wet, ruined.
Ellis was astounded by the damage the tornado had caused, while it left other things untouched. He showed where his riding lawnmower had been stored in the building, now open to the elements with the building gone, and said the tornado sucked the key out of the ignition of the lawnmower.
Additionally, Ellis has a little, old, metal bucket he found in the woods of the property years ago that is just hanging on the back porch. After the tornado came through, the porch roof was gone, and the porch was about half gone.
However, the bucket was still hanging off the porch where Ellis had it – a key sucked out of the bucket by the tornado’s strong winds.
With some walls of his house painted in Misty Mushroom, a neutral color to brighten the small space, and a wall made of wood from a 100-year-old fence; of which he took some of the wood, cleaned it and used the best pieces to build the wall piece; Ellis was in the process of making the house perfect.
It was a peaceful home and a getaway from the loud outside world. He enjoyed watching the deer in the winter time from his bedroom window, and once getting a counter, he had a perfect spot in mind for a breakfast nook in the kitchen where he could watch the park area of his yard and enjoy seeing deer, turkey and other wildlife while he relaxed and ate meals.
There he also had a view of his favorite tree – a white oak that branched out into a fork. However, the tornado cut the top out of his favorite tree, and a pine tree that fell in the storm broke the fork of the great white oak.
“I took my time remodeling this house to try to make it perfect,” he said. “I could have had it done years ago, but I’m a perfectionist.”
Now, Ellis is “totally overwhelmed by it,” saying the landscape will never be the same. After spending two years working on the property and fixing it up, his peaceful view is ruined. He pointed out that deer can no longer walk through the property because of all the debris and fallen trees.
“It will never be the same; it won’t even ever look decent,” he says sadly. “I mean, it’ll never look the same. It just makes me sick. I want to throw up every time I pull in the road. Just makes me sick, all the work I’ve done to that little house.”
“Mother Nature took my dream and crushed it,” he said, looking out over the landscape.
This isn’t Ellis’s first bout of bad luck. He is on the transplant list for a kidney and said he got accepted for a transplant, but he needs a donor.
He actually had a donor at one time. However, bad luck struck Ellis again with some of the worst timing imaginable.
He recalled that UAB called him and said they needed him there as soon as possible, that they had a kidney for him. It was coming from California, where a man had died in an automobile crash.
Ellis got ready and called his brother, and the two of them headed to the hospital in Birmingham, hope rising in Ellis’s chest.
However, sometimes fate can be cruel, and the kidney coming from California would not be arriving for Ellis after all.
Upon arriving at UAB, the staff rushed him right in, prepped him for surgery, got him into a hospital bed, and conducted the necessary blood work. A nurse came in and said that the doctor had said Ellis’s potassium was a little bit high, so they wanted him to do dialysis for two hours before surgery, stating that by then the kidney should be there as it was supposed to be in transport.
Ellis did the dialysis, and they carried him back to his room, where he then sat in the bed waiting to go to surgery. He waited and waited.
By then it was 6 a.m., and Ellis said he began thinking there was no way a kidney could be good from California to Alabama after so long. However, they still had him there, and he remained a bit hopeful.
“A little after 6, the transplant coordinator and the nurse practitioner come in,” Ellis said. “I thought they were coming in to tell me, ‘We’re going; it’s time.’ So she sat down, and she said, ‘Mr. Ellis, I’m sorry to tell you this… The kidney’s not going to make it.’ I looked at her and I said, ‘This is a joke, right? You are joking.’ She said, ‘No; what happened was the kidney was coming from California, and Joe Biden shut down the airport. So they determined that the time factor wouldn’t be feasible, and so they gave it to somebody in California.’ I thought, ‘What dumb luck. This was a chance to save my life.’ They said, ‘Well you’re still on top of the list.’ I call and check every now and then, and I still am. It’s just disheartening.”
A frightening diagnosis. Hope for a transplant, only to have those hopes dashed. A home being remodeled to perfection, then a significant tornado crushing those dreams, leaving such devastation behind in its wake.
Ellis sadly remarked, “The last couple of years I’ve had so much bad luck happen to me, I’m just ready to go.”
Finishing his story, Ellis stands in the doorway of his home, looking out over the destruction and wreckage surrounding it.
“They say the Lord will only give you what you can handle,” he says, his voice breaking. “I don’t know how much more I can take. I really don’t.”