MAYFLOWER, Ark. -- Lauren Watts sifted through the wreckage of her possessions Monday morning after a tornado churned her mobile home into an unrecognizable heap of debris.
As a National Guard helicopter hovered overhead Watts, 26, picked through the debris with guardsmen and other volunteers from her church and managed to find some valuable jewelry, wedding photos and videos among the muddy, water-logged piles of planks and tree limbs sprouting leaves.
But so much more was destroyed.
The tornado that tore through town Sunday night--part of a deadly run of twisters that killed 16 in three states-- flung pieces of her home against nearby trees, snapping them and wrapping ribbons of aluminum around the shorn trunks.
She and her husband, Zeth Watts, 26, had rented the mobile home from her parents, who own the property. He worked at the neighboring RV dealership. At the sound of tornado sirens Sunday night they took shelter in the basement of the dealership’s office with their 3-year-old blond lab, Lucille.
But when they tried to seal themselves inside a closet, Lucille balked. The tornado was fast approaching, and they had to shut the closet door without her.
They couldn’t see the tornado pass, but felt the pressure on the closet door. When they emerged hours later, the basement ceiling had collapsed around them. Only a few walls of the office remained.
Their two cars were crushed and flooded. None of the roughly 60 RVs survived, shredded into heaps of ribboned metal.
“It was pretty much all gone,” Lauren Watts said.
Watts is a mental health therapist. She has tried to keep her loss in perspective. Scores of others lost their homes to the tornado, but some had lost their lives.
“I’ve had my breakdowns,” she said, “But I keep thinking of the families that lost their babies. I think of those worse off than me—that’s what’s getting me through.”
She worried about her husband of six years. He was already reeling before the tornado after his grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer this winter. Now he faced the loss of his home, his sales job, precious keepsakes including his church journals, and his beloved dog.
“I’m not sure how much more he can take,” she said.
In rain boots and work gloves, long red hair pulled back in a ponytail from her freckled face, she combed the remnants of her life under gray skies that threatened rain.
As long as the weather held, she would keep searching.
A friend found one of her wedding videos, with the smiling couple on the front. She salvaged a glass bowl, miraculously untouched. There were glass balls from the Christmas tree, a black pea coat, a blue ceramic rose, rainbow polka dot flip flops and a zip lock bag of Altoid breath mints.
One of the books that escaped tornado damage: “Married for Life.”
“If you see any notebooks—he has years and years of them,” she told the volunteers.
Next door, Danny Brown, the owner of Mayflower RV, was talking to his insurance agent. Brown said he is insured against acts of God, but had not determined whether he would be repaid for the tornado damage.
Brown, 47, had owned the business for only a year. Two weeks after he bought it, an oil spill shut down the road out front. Now this.
He knew the tornado was coming, but never expected such destruction.
“I’m from Arkansas—we hear the warnings all spring,” he said.
He lives in Little Rock and rushed out Sunday night to survey the damage after a general manager told him the dealership had been destroyed.
“The trailers are gone. We can’t even find them. There are two across the road on top of a store,” he said, gesturing across nearby Highway 40.
He’s not sure what to do with his two dozen employees. They are approaching peak season. He has two other locations, but they can’t absorb that many people.
He posted an American flag on a downed tree limb out front to encourage volunteers.
Zeth Watts approached. Brown asked how he was doing.
“Can’t find Lucille,” he said, and stalked off.
Outside the office where he had survived the tornado, a friend embraced him.
Then he picked his way through the shattered building to a doorway the lead to the basement.
He shouted into the darkness.
Then he whistled.
But their blond lab never came.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times