Slow Road to Recovery
By John W. Kennedy
July 15, 2012
Even though severe storms had been swirling around the area for a couple of days, Mike Dunn didn’t feel the need to vacate the mobile home he, his wife, Joyce, and two youngest sons occupied. After all, the family dwelling had weathered driving winds and pummeling rains many times before.
But on April 27, 2011, a boss sent Joyce, an administrative assistant for a nonprofit that administers Pell grants, home early, leery of the threatening skies over Moulton, Ala. A friend who lived in a brick home a mile away offered to provide refuge for the Dunn family that late afternoon, but Mike thought it unnecessary because the damaging storms usually followed the Tennessee River near Courtland, Ala., about 12 miles from their home. Joyce wouldn’t leave the mobile home without her husband of 37 years.
It had been a difficult two years for the family, who had two teenage sons living at home in addition to two older married sons living nearby. Joyce entered the workforce because Mike couldn’t find employment after being laid off from a construction job. Subsequently, the family had cut corners on budgetary items such as insurance.
Fourteen years earlier, oldest son Mikey, then 14, and second-oldest son, Chris, then 10, had started attending church on their own. Eventually a bus from New Life Assembly of God in Moulton picked them up for activities every week. Mikey got involved in the youth group, Chris in Royal Rangers.
“I was sending them to church; I wasn’t going myself,” Joyce recalls. “I would call my mom whenever I had a crisis.”
But in 1998, Joyce accepted Jesus as her Savior and became involved in church herself, doing everything from typing the bulletin to watching kids in the nursery. Mike had a vague belief in God, but no interest in attending church.
With the storms swirling on April 27, 2011, Mike and Joyce were in the living room, Brandom was in the kitchen, and Dakota, in the hallway. Around 4 p.m., all the windows of the home imploded. Joyce fell to her knees and cried out, “Jesus!” She saw the floor and walls of the trailer start to separate and Mike being blown across the room.
The trailer took a direct hit from an F5 tornado, with winds exceeding 260 miles per hour.
Joyce awoke outside, near where the home had sat moments earlier. Hail and rain pelted her. She couldn’t speak because of gravel, dirt and debris in her mouth. Her right foot bled along an 8-inch U-shaped line at the ankle. The gash went as deep as the bone.
Although immobilized, she heard her husband calling out to Brandom and Dakota. The twister had flung them into the yard. Joyce couldn’t see the rest of her family, and all of them couldn’t move because of injuries and debris on top of them.
Joyce then heard Mike call out to God, repeating, “Oh, Lord,” several times.
Soon a paramedic appeared on the scene with promises of assistance. Rescue workers loaded Mike as well as Dakota, who suffered a separated collarbone, into ambulances destined for the Moulton hospital. Brandom, with a fractured pelvis, went in the back of a fire truck, and Joyce traveled in the rear of a pickup truck.
So many had been injured in the tornado that emergency vehicles couldn’t transport them all.
Mike died of blunt trauma as the ambulance arrived at the hospital. He held Dakota’s hand, told his son that he loved him, and breathed his last.
The sons had to make funeral arrangements as Joyce remained in intensive care for four days. Friends didn’t recognize her with bruises, cuts, black eyes and a swollen face.
New Life AG Pastor Greg Standridge broke the news to Joyce that her husband had been killed in the third-deadliest day of tornadoes ever in the United States. A record 178 twisters across 14 states left 327 people dead, including 230 in Alabama.
Joyce sat in a wheelchair at the funeral. She believes Mike made a commitment to Jesus before his death. She says he had an uncharacteristic look of peace on his face at the mortuary.
“It was God and God’s people praying that got me through,” says Joyce, 59. “I should have died, too.”
The Dunns had nothing left of their wind-tossed possessions beyond a few tools and photos. Joyce even had to borrow clothes to attend her husband’s funeral.
While recuperating, the injured family members went to live with Mikey and his wife, Holly, in their double-wide mobile home. They later moved into a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Joyce contracted an infection from her wound and remained on antibiotics for six weeks, after which she needed a skin graft. She returned to her job two months after the tragedy, but continued to live in pain despite rehabilitation.
When an orthopedist examined Joyce’s foot in August, he discovered it had been broken as well as cut. She must walk gingerly as the foot continues to give her problems.
“I’m thankful I have my foot,” Joyce says. “It was close to being cut completely off.”
Joyce is grateful she could return to her job, which provided good health insurance benefits to cover her medical bills.
Yet periodically she questions the randomness of the disaster that April day. The brick home where the family could have sought sanctuary was unscathed.
“At times I have an overwhelming sadness because Mike is gone,” Joyce says. “But I get alone and cry awhile. God doesn’t even mind if I get mad.”
The Dunns had less than $30,000 worth of insurance coverage on their home, possessions and vehicles when the tornado touched down. The cyclone damaged their Buick Century and Ford Explorer beyond repair.
A Christian acquaintance donated a 15-year-old Oldsmobile Delta 88 to the family, but the engine blew up this spring.
Joyce now is driving the 80-mile round-trip to work and back with Brandom’s car. He left home in April for Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to begin an eight-year commitment with the U.S. Army. Dakota, 16, is still in high school.
After the disaster, members of New Life AG faithfully visited the recuperating family members, cleaned up their property, donated clothes and provided meals.
“I could not have asked for a better church family,” Joyce says.
Patty Standridge, wife of New Life’s pastor, says Joyce remains a faithful member of the congregation.
“We love this family,” Standridge says. “Joyce is one of the most devoted ladies I know. Her faith has stood strong, but she has had some really tough times.”
Joyce and Brandom must be out of the FEMA trailer by November. Joyce’s sons and Mike’s brother and brother-in-law, along with others, are constructing a modest home with funds from the insurance settlement.
“God is faithful,” Joyce says. “He has taken me through this. He will not leave me now. God is my source and my strength.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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