This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Ashley, her family, and the tornado that tore their home apart.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Ashley. I’m 28 and live in Central Florida, where I was born and raised. I’ve lived other places, but wanted to call Florida home, so I settled down here after graduating from college. I’m a graphic designer and work for a local history museum as an exhibits designer. For fun I like to thrift, read, travel, swap/pen pal, and visit Walt Disney World.
Did you grow up in a tornado-prone area?
Central Florida isn’t a particularly tornado-prone area – not like the Tornado Alley states, that is. Summers are often riddled with tornado warnings/watches due to thunderstorms and severe weather. Florida is also a target for hurricanes and tornadoes sometimes spawn off of those.
We practiced tornado drills in school where you got under your desk and put your head between your knees with hands behind your head. If tornadoes ever previously went through the area it was many, many years before the one that hit my house.
Where were you living when you and your family were hit?
We were living in Kissimmee, Florida. Our home was on an acre of land and we were the last house on a cul de sac road. It was a pretty rural, open area – behind our house was a large wooded area, a creek, and a large pond.
Tell us about the day the tornado hit.
On Saturday, February 22, 1998 my parents took my brother and I to the county fair. I bought a dream catcher and hung it on my wall the minute we got home. I remember watching the movie Casper the Friendly Ghost on television that night. The weather was fine during the day, but around 11pm the storm began.
It wasn’t so bad at first, but got progressively worse. There was a large tornado outbreak across the region. Seven tornadoes in all were reported – dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured. The one that hit our house came just after midnight and claimed the most lives. It was initially rated as a F4tornado, but was later downgraded to a very high F3.
When did you realize the the tornado warning was serious? When did it become a real possibility that it would hit your neighborhood?
Our power went out and that’s when we noticed the eccentric lightening. It was constant, one strike after another, each incredibly bright and close. My brother and I were pretty freaked out, so the four of us gathered in the living room to wait it out together. My mom heard something and opened the front window to look out.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look she had on her face – it was sheer panic. She screamed at us to run into the hallway, the central-most part of our house since we had no interior rooms. I remember hearing the freight train noise that is associated with tornadoes. It sounded like one was going to come barreling through the house at any moment.
What did it feel like when the tornado actually hit your home? What was it like to be inside?
The pressure inside the house grew as the tornado got closer and ultimately caused the house to explode. Before that, the walls were shaking so badly all of the family photos on them were crashing to the ground. A bookcase behind me fell over. I remember feeling the floor wobbling back and forth and hearing my parents screaming that they loved us before being yanked into the air. I was unconscious after that and don’t remember being inside it.
Where did you land after the tornado? Were you injured?
When the tornado moved on, it miraculously dropped us all within feet of each other in the creek behind my house. I heard my dad calling my name and felt him pulling me out of the water. I had lost my glasses and couldn’t see well, but together my brother and I navigated through the downed trees, power lines, and debris strewn all over the road to a neighbor’s house. Air medics came for us since they couldn’t get ambulances out to our area fast enough.
I had a very deep wound above my ankle on my left leg that went all the way to the bone. In the chaotic atmosphere of the hospital that night, my wound was sewn up without a thorough cleaning. My grandma took me back to the hospital a week later because it was red and swollen. I was in emergency surgery within a half hour of arriving.
They performed a wound debridement and removed all the dead and infected tissue inside the wound. I stayed in the hospital for a week, then had to have outpatient therapy where they put my leg in a medicated whirlpool and then packed the wound with gauze. The packing and removal of the gauze is something that still makes me squirm to think about. It was severely uncomfortable and painful, but it helped the tissue grow back together.
I have a sizable scar there now and a little bit of nerve damage from some other deep cuts on my foot.
How did you and your family recover from this?
Our home was completely destroyed. The only things that were left standing were the front steps, our wooden playground, and a stack of National Geographic magazines my dad kept in our shed. Nearly all of our things ended up in the creek or lake.
I have a small porcelain figurine of a cat sitting in a basket of laundry that survived. The cat has a tiny chip on his ear, but it was otherwise unscathed. It was strange to see the things that made it through and the things that were destroyed.
We stayed with my grandma in Orlando and she helped us get back on our feet. I went home in a hospital gown because I had no clothes. Friends and members of my grandma’s church donated clothing and other items for us. I went to a couple of group therapy sessions at my middle school with other kids who were affected by the tornadoes.
We eventually bought a house near my grandma and moved in. We had to start from scratch. I know we didn’t get much money at all from insurance and agencies or charities did not help us out beyond a couple gift cards. Assistance for people effected by natural disasters has come a long way since then.
Have you experienced any long-term effects from this?
I had/have PTSD which turned into an anxiety disorder. Most of the time I’m fine, but when I get scared or freaked out it can be pretty overwhelming. I’m okay with bad weather now as long as I’m with someone. I used to have bad nightmares, but those have subsided.
I do however, think I suffered from something that has caused memory loss – possibly a concussion. I have a hard time recalling events that have happened, even ones within 10 years. Remembering most of my childhood is nearly impossible and makes me feel horrible. My mom will ask if I remember doing something I should definitely remember and I won’t have any recollection of it at all. I’ve met people from my past that I also don’t remember, which can be embarrassing.
I try to have a “live life now” attitude because if anything, the tornado taught me that your life can end in the blink of an eye. You never imagine something like this could happen to you, but it can. I value experiences and memories more than material items because in the end they don’t matter – it’s about the people in your life and the way you’ve lived that do.
What advice would you give to someone else who’s been through a very traumatic natural disaster?
Please seek therapy or counseling. Being in a natural disaster can be a very troubling experience, regardless of the degree to which you experienced it. Being in the tornado effected me in ways I never imagined it would. It’s been 16 years and I’m still dealing with the aftermath. It can be very isolating because most people can never imagine what it’s like to go through something like this. It’s rare to come across someone who has had a shared experience.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Ashley. Have any of you guys been through a natural disaster? How did you recover from it?