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Tornado survivors try to cope, prepare for future

By Tammy Keith

This article was published March 18, 2012 at 2:33 a.m.

— t was only about a minute out of his life - but the memories of April 25, 2011, haunt Wilf Schultheis every day.

Schultheis, 54 - crouched in a closet that Monday night with the family dog and one of their cats - lived through the deadly Vilonia tornado.

The tornado tore a raging path through Vilonia, killing five people just outside the city limits, tearing down fences, freeing pets and livestock, and ripping roofs off dozens of homes.

The F2 tornado destroyed the 1903 home his wife’s grandfather built, as well as uprooting 100-year old trees.

The emotional damage was high for Schultheis.

“I really haven’t slept a day since,” he said.

“I don’t know if it was as terrifying when it happens as when you think about it afterward. At the time, you don’t have time to be terrified. I really did think I was going to die, and that was surprisingly not as terrifying as you would think. … It’s reliving it every day.”

His wife, Netta, was at her sister’s home in Vilonia, which had a basement, and their two sons were safe elsewhere when she called home and urged Wilf to get in a closet.

“I just think about when it hit,” he said. “I think about sitting on that couch, watching TV and the lights going on and off, and sounds - and getting in that closet. It’s just about one minute out of my whole life, is what it really is, probably not more than a minute, but it’s like every day … I think about it at some point when I’m driving to work, or driving home, or in a meeting. It’s always there.”

It’s the sadness for the loss of the familiar - their home is gone; the landscape is almost unrecognizable.

“It looked a bomb exploded,” he said in an interview the day after the tornado.

It’s the disappointment when he realized later that some of their belongings that were sitting in the yard a day after the tornado then disappeared - stolen, he believes.

It’s the guilt that he’s having a hard time coping when his wife, Netta, is fine, “and she lost a lot more than I did,” he said.

“I get all the attention because I was in the closet, but my wife lost the house she lived in forever that had been in her family forever, and the kids lost a lot,” he said.

“It was weird. We saved all our pictures, all of our photos,” Netta said.

They were in an antique armoire, which was also salvaged.

Netta’s mother, who lived next door to them in Vilonia, only had roof damage.

Netta said she isn’t nervous about the weather like her husband is.

“He’s the one that’s had the trauma of the house coming apart while he was in it,” she said. “I was safe and sound and didn’t have to see it until afterward.” Wilf said there were positive aspects of the experience.

“It’s amazing the things that happened that were good. You realize how many people are out that really want to help, and do help,” he said. “You realize that what’s important, and it’s not the things that are important;

it’s people.

“Everything turned out pretty good as far as moving, getting another house,” he said.

Netta said friends of a friend had an empty house in Conway that was for sale, and they offered to let Netta and Wilf live in it.

“It was so kind of them; they had no idea who we were,” Netta said.

“We fell in love with the house,” Wilf said, ‘Let’s just buy this.’” One of the first things they did was contact a storm-shelter company.

Wilf said it took months to get the work done, but now they have a storm shelter underground in the floor of their garage.

“The type we got is, they dig a hole in your garage floor - they jackhammer through the cement - get it into the shape of the shelter that’s going in there - a big steel box basically with a sliding cover - with a bench around it.” He said it holds about 12people and has a ventilation system.

The shelter, which is registered with the Conway Police and Fire departments, is equipped with a flashlight, a CB radio, a weather radio and other supplies.

He said the shelter is rated for an EF-5 tornado.

“I really don’t want to find out if that’s true enough,” Wilf said. “I’m a lot different now. Even if it’s just going to rain - I’m not going to say I get upset about that - but I do really pay attention to the weather, and I’ve got a weather radio in my bedroom.”

What surprises him, Wilf said, is that friends and family who know what he went through still don’t have storm shelters.

“I guess a lot of people think, ‘It can’t happen to me,’” he said.

Sometimes it happens more than once, as Connie Lacy of Vilonia knows.

Connie and her husband, George Lacy, also lost their home to last year’s tornado, but Connie’s fear of storms goes back to 1982 when a tornado came through Vilonia and killed her family’s next-door neighbor.

“I’m scared to death of storms - our house was destroyed December 1982, the night before Christmas Eve,” she said.

It was an EF-2, she said.

“A set of storms came through exactly two weeks before that and messed up one of my classmate’s houses,” she said.

Last year when the tornado touched down in Vilonia, Connie was in a storm shelter at her mother’s home, and George was at his mother’s home.

When George came out of hiding after the storm passed, he texted Connie a photo of the damage.

“Trees were down everywhere,” Connie said. “It was just awful. You just get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.”

A tree fell and destroyed the back half of their 1938 home, and she said the roof over their son’s room was gone, and subsequent rains caused water damage.

They salvaged some of their bedroom furniture and most of their photos.

“It turned into a blessing,” she said. “People donated time, food, money and offered up prayers. We can never thank them enough.”

For years, they had wanted to build another house - although this is not the way they would have chosen to do it.

“Looking back, we realize that within the last few years before the storm, God had put people and connections in place in our lives that made it possible for us to get through it, from insurance to moving to rebuilding. No one was hurt. All that material stuff can be replaced,” she said. “We were blessed with this new house.”

Her sister-in-law had a rent house that she’d just cleaned out, so the Lacys stayed there while they rebuilt their home, from the slab up.

And, they added a safe room.

It serves as Lacy’s walk-in closet, but it has a steel door and reinforced concrete walls, and is bolted to the floor.

“It’s not going anywhere,” she said.

“You don’t have to worry about going out to the storm shelter at night,” she said. “It’s peace of mind.”

Inside, she has chairs, candles and other supplies.

Lacy also has “a fire box with stuff we don’t want destroyed or lost in the wind when it comes again - and it will. It’s just a matter of time.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 135 on 03/18/2012

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