‘Let the storm pass’: Piled in the bathtub, a Cairo family prayed till the tornado spun by

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All told, the twister damaged or destroyed 129 residences and 38 businesses.

CAIRO, GEORGIA — It seemed like an ordinary Sunday night at the Sanders’ house.

Gail Sanders was doing her daughter Naya’s hair in the den. Her son Nijal was playing on his Xbox in his bedroom. Raymond Sanders was keeping an eye on the weather. Tornado sirens had gone off in town. He heard on the news a tornado was close to Bainbridge, Georgia, only a half hour west of town. He asked his wife and kids to put on their shoes.

“Of course they said, ‘Dad, why do we have to put our shoes on?’ ” Raymond Sanders recalled. “And I said, ‘I think a storm is coming.’ ”

The whole family headed to a bathroom in the middle of their brick, ranch-style house, tucked in a neighborhood off Fourth Avenue Southwest. As soon as they closed the bathroom door behind them, they could hear the mayhem outside.

“It was on us,” Raymond Sanders said. “We could hear the rumbling and whistling. I had a feeling it was over my house because it felt like the entire house was shaking, like an earthquake or something.”

They piled in the bathtub, one on top of the other. Gail Sanders laid atop her two children. Raymond Sanders laid across all three, shielding them from what might come. The son of a Wakulla County preacher, he started to pray out loud.

“I was telling the Lord to cover us with his blood, to save us and let the storm pass,” he said.

Nijal, 18, felt a moment of fear as the tornado roared outside.

“But eventually all of that went away,” he said. “Because my dad was praying and stuff like that. I guess it calmed me down.”

But Naya, about to turn 13, was sure she wouldn’t make it out of the bathtub alive.

“In my head,” she said, “I was like, OK, I’m leaving this way. So I’m just going to hold everybody. And I’m going to go home — just go to heaven and be with Jesus.”

Gail Sanders, an operational analyst for the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee, feared for the lives of her kids and husband, who also works in Tallahassee, as a quality assurance coordinator for Capital Health Plan.

“But we know God,” she said. “So we prayed through the whole thing. And by the time we said ‘Amen,’ everything was over.”

‘Couldn’t believe we survived this’

When the awful rumbling finally stopped, Raymond Sanders got out of the tub, opened the bathroom door and shined his flashlight out.

“I kind of looked up and laughed and told my wife, ‘I think we’re missing part of the roof,’ ” he said.

First responders arrived within minutes, shining flashlights through a bedroom window and asking if any survivors were inside. They told the family to stay put because of the danger from debris and downed electric lines.

They emerged from their house a couple of hours later. But they wouldn’t comprehend the scope of the damage until the next day.

“It really didn’t hit me until we came back over and it was daylight and I was able to see,” he said. “And I was just thankful to God because I couldn’t believe we survived this. It was pretty horrific.”

The four walls of their house were still standing. But the entire roof was gone. And nearly everything inside — their furniture, TVs and most of their clothing — was either destroyed or scattered to the winds.

They lost old wedding and baby pictures, school projects and drawings by the kids. Nijal lost his favorite jacket, which he bought last Christmas with his own money. Naya lost her book of poems she wrote.

“It’s the sentimental stuff that you miss,” Gail Sanders said.

The family gathered Tuesday at their house to sort through what was left and toss out what they couldn’t salvage. Gail Sanders clutched a big stuffed bear her husband won for her at the fair in Tallahassee during one of their first dates more than 20 years ago. They named the bear Nijal at the time. Later, they gave their first born the same name.

“He was in the family before the kids,” she said. “I’m so grateful. Both my Nijals made it.”

‘Long recovery’ ahead

The tornado, an EF2 with winds of 120 mph, touched down on Monrovia Nursery on Highway 111 at 7:54 p.m. and tracked 2.7 miles across Grady County, according to the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.

After ripping up hundreds of potted plants in the nursery, scattering pieces of plastic pots all over town, it moved northeast into residential and business areas. Six minutes after it touched down, the tornado lifted northeast of Highway 84.

The twister damaged or destroyed 129 residences and 38 businesses, said Richard Phillips, director of the Grady County Emergency Management Agency. No one was killed. The National Weather Service reported two injuries.

A woman in her late 70s who lives on Second Street Southwest just behind the Sanders family was lucky to be alive after the tornado ripped the red metal roof off her house and knocked down two exterior walls. The woman, whose house was shown on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat, was injured and taken to the hospital after the storm.

The Rev. Dr. Debra Knight, pastor of Bethlehem AME Church, located across the street from the woman’s house, said Tuesday her condition was improving. The woman sings in the church choir, serves on the Stewardess Board and always volunteers to help, Knight said.

“She was the most injured person that was in her house during the time of the tornado,” Knight said. “But thank goodness for the support of EMS and the community members. They were able to get her out and get her to a hospital.”

The church, which has been giving out food, water and tarps, escaped major damage from the tornado. But the parsonage next door was heavily damaged by two massive pecan trees that toppled over on it.

About 4,000 city electric customers lost power after the storm, Phillips said. But by Friday, that number was down to 120; most without power had major damage to their homes. All roads were clear by Friday. A shelter, which no one stayed in, was set to close over the weekend.

“It’s going to be a slow recovery,” Phillips said. “But we are bouncing back. And there’s been a good outpouring of everyone coming together and helping the neighbors. And I would like to thank all the surrounding counties for offering aid and help.”

‘The end of the rainbow’

The tornado left telltale signs throughout Cairo, a small town about 35 miles north of Tallahassee that also saw significant damage during Hurricane Michael.

Pieces of red tin from the woman’s house on Second Street Southwest were left twisted around branches of nearby trees. At the Sanders house, Natural Lite beer cans from somewhere else were deposited in the trusses of their roof. A neighbor found Naya’s seventh-grade yearbook in his yard. A jacket Raymond Sanders left slung over a chair in his dining room was found by another neighbor.

“It’s been kind of crazy around here,” Raymond Sanders said.

Gail Sanders hopes the family can rebuild in the same spot they’ve lived in the past 17 years. They’re staying with family members for now.

“I’ll miss this house,” she said. “I raised my kids up in this house. My kids’ first birthday parties were here. So hopefully we can just get a mansion in this same spot and continue our memories right here.”

Raymond Sanders said a heavy loss adjuster was coming out to determine whether the house could be saved. He expects insurance will cover his losses, including their destroyed carport and damage to their cars.

“I’m just happy that we’re all healthy, nobody actually got hurt and all these things are replaceable,” he said. “God willing, I can regain all of this as long as I have health and strength. So I’m grateful to God.”

He said he’s just asking God for a little more patience right now.

“We’re believing and we’re hopeful that things will get better,” he said. “I truly believe anytime you go through a storm, there’s a blessing at the end. It’s kind of like that rainbow and the gold at the end of it. So we’re just waiting to get to the end of the rainbow.”

by Jeff Burlew (2019, Mar 9) Tallahassee Democrat

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Kyrie Wagner