Center Snapshot: Donita Almony
Image above: Donita Almony struggles with the loss of precious memorabilia after a tornado hit her Gloucester home in April. She was able to recover a few items, such as this baby shirt. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Denise Lineberry
On April 16, a tornado raced across eastern Virginia. As it passed through Gloucester that evening, it struck Donita Almony's home and took almost all of her possessions along with it.
She and husband Jack were not home at the time. And when they returned, just minutes after the tornado hit, they had to park a mile away and navigate the tree-covered road on foot.
As they approached their home, the image that came into focus was almost too much to bear. Everything in the backyard was destroyed. Massive trees were sucked out of the ground from the roots. The roof and a large portion of the home was missing. The remaining walls and foundation were cracked.
Accompanying the devastation of what
they saw was rejoice for who
they saw – her youngest son, Jackson, who had moved downstairs 10 minutes before the tornado hit.
When Jackson, 21, saw the front door fly open and heard the deafening sounds of wind, he took cover in a closet underneath the stairwell. Donita had told her children to seek cover there for such an event. Still, she never imagined it would happen to her family or to this home.
She was born and raised in Indiana, along tornado alley. "I never have experienced anything of this magnitude," Donita said. "Living here, I would have never expected this to happen."
Earlier that stormy day, Donita and daughter Jennifer, 26, were counting their blessings for making it back into the county safely from a trip to Indiana. After dropping off her daughter, Donita returned to her home to unload some items. She and Jack pulled out of their driveway to return their daughter's truck to her.
When they stopped at a convenience store two miles from their home, a friend called Jack to tell them that tornadoes were touching down in the area.
The power went out and a clerk showed obvious concern when the backup generator didn't kick in.
Then, Donita's cell phone rang.
"Mom, a tornado just hit our house. The roof is gone and your room is a mess. You are not going to be happy," Jackson said.
The news was frightful, but his voice allowed her a sigh of relief. Not all was lost.
The Almonys house was the only one destroyed within her cul-de-sac. But the county was a different story. More than 150 structures were affected and the damage was estimated at $7.7 million.
"I strongly believe that God put my family and me in the right place at the right time. If my son did not come downstairs 10 minutes earlier, he probably would not have been here," Donita said. "If my husband and I would not have stopped at the store, we would have driven directly into the path of the storm. There's a reason for everything."
She struggles with the loss of precious memorabilia.
"I had kept all of my children's baby items when they were born. Their little hands and footprints, their little wristbands, all of that was gone," she said. "My husband is retired from the Air Force. All of his military memorabilia was gone. I found destroyed photos of my grandchildren in my back yard. All of my husband's clothes were gone. It totally ripped out his closet."
Surviving items included her husband's tools, kitchen houseware and a leather sofa and loveseat. Many of the unsheltered items were ruined in the rain that followed the tornado.
Because Jackson was born in Germany, she knew his birth certificate would be difficult to replace.
"I found myself crawling on the floor, digging through piles of insulation and wet sheetrock looking for the manila envelope that held all of his birth documents," she said. "I just had a feeling that it was in there somewhere. Making my way through the entire master bath and bedroom, I finally found it. It was soaked and filthy, but in one piece and salvageable and that is all that mattered."
From the disaster, emerged support.
"Every day different churches, families, and organizations would deliver food and supplies," she said. "I have never witnessed a community come together such as this."
And her NASA Langley colleagues came to her aide.
"A few days following the tornado, a coworker, Rob Wyman, delivered a cash donation collected at work, along with some much-needed supplies," she said. "Having gone through a disaster himself, he knew what items we needed and he couldn't have been more correct."
Also from the disaster, came experience and insight, which Almony was eager to share.
"Keep an up-to-date list of all valuables and personal items. Take pictures or videos and keep it at a friend or family member’s house," she advised. "We didn't do that and trying to document everything that we lost was a total nightmare. We are still remembering items that we have lost."
"Also, never underestimate what a person is going through. Although the Gloucester storms and tornado are small in size in comparison to others around the country, when it happens to you, it's huge," Almony said. "When you lose your home or a family member to a tornado, it hurts just as badly. It doesn’t matter where you are or the size of the storm that hit."
Finally and possibly, most important, she said: "Never take anything for granted because everything can be lost in the blink of an eye. And never, ever forget to say I love you to those that are dear to you. You never know when something tragic can happen."
What was left of her home has been demolished and the lot is clear. They are in the early stages of rebuilding.
"We take it one day at a time … that's all we can do," she said.
Almony is looking forward to the day that she and her family can return home again.
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman