Categories: Serving Communities

Community helps bring family ‘home’ after tornado

A few days after a devastating EF-2 tornado ripped through Athens, Tennessee, Lowe’s employee Ryan Newton was on the ground helping to clean up one of the hardest-hit areas. Thirty buildings had been damaged by 130-mph winds, including several homes that were completely demolished.

There was nothing but piles of sticks and scattered belongings where several families once lived. As Newton sifted through the debris, he couldn’t believe what he found: a perfectly preserved ultrasound photo – the only thing to come out of the Newman family home unscathed.

‘Looked like our house had gone through a wood-chipper’

At 1:30 in the morning, April Newman’s phone rang. On the other end, an emergency warning, alerting her that a tornado was in her area. She and her husband, Greg, hurriedly woke their four children – Amber, 18, Natalie Grace, 14, Brooklyn, 11, and Jacob, 9 – and huddled in the master bathroom of their modular home. Within seconds of getting everyone in the bathroom, the tornado hit.

“It felt like an earthquake,” Newman said. “The floors started to buckle and were coming apart. Our house was picked up by the tornado and thrown almost 300 feet.”

Our house was picked up by the tornado and thrown almost 300 feet.
—April Newman

The family was buried under their house when they landed. “There was nothing left,” Newman said. “It looked like our house had gone through a wood-chipper.”

As they dug their way out, they realized they couldn’t find Natalie Grace. “My husband was digging through everything, screaming her name,” Newman said. “It was terrifying.” After a frantic 10-minute search, they found Natalie Grace unconscious, but alive.

The family’s cars were destroyed in the tornado and emergency crews were still hours from reaching them, so Newman set off on foot to her mother-in-law’s house, where she was able to get a vehicle to drive her family to the hospital. In addition to the multiple cuts and lacerations that everyone suffered, and a broken leg and skull fracture for Natalie Grace, Amber was 9 months pregnant and due in less than a week.

Community comes together

As word of the tornado spread the next day, Joy Smith, an installed sales coordinator at Lowe’s of Athens, knew she had to do something to help. Smith knew the Newman family and wanted to do whatever she could to support them. “As soon as the community learned about the family and their needs, they really came together,” Smith said. “A local community member donated a rental property to the family until they could get back on their feet.”
The home was a huge blessing for the family, but it needed some a lot of work, in just a few days, before the family could move in. Smith went to work – scrubbing, cleaning and painting – to get the house ready for the Newmans. And others in the community helped secure furniture, clothing and other items the family would need in the coming days.

“We had no idea all of this was going on while we were in the hospital,” April Newman said. “I can’t even describe what it was like to be there knowing we had no home to go back to. I couldn’t even think about it at that point. I was just trying to make sure my family was OK.”

While she took care of her family, her community was busy taking care of her.

“It is just such a blessing to be able to help a family during their time of need,” Smith said. “I wasn’t the only Lowe’s associate who helped. Several employees went out to the site of the Newman’s house and helped clean up. There was (another) group that helped clean up and set up a local private school that was partially destroyed.”

An unexpected gift

After the Newman family reached the hospital the morning of the tornado, Amber gave birth to Ava Grace. A week early, she weighed in at 6 pounds, 10 ounces and – amazingly – was completely healthy.
When the Newmans left the hospital, they were able to settle into their new home that had come together in a matter of days, with the help of Smith and a group of community volunteers.

“We are so thankful for the help we received,” Newman said. “This is a small community with a big heart.”

The day Amber brought Ava safely home, they came across a small basket of items that had been recovered from the home they had just lost. And what was resting on the top of the basket? The ultrasound photo of Ava, the newest and perhaps most fortunate member of the Neman family.