One year later: Standing Rock family rebuilds after tornado destroys home

Published 10:18 am Friday, January 12, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Amber Williamson will never forget Jan. 12, 2023, a day where just seconds might’ve been the difference in life and death.

It started as a normal day, one spent going back and forth between patients’ homes as a traveling, mobile nurse, that quickly turned sour as the skies turned black.

Her supervisor called and told her to get somewhere safe. Williamson, who worked for Chattahoochee Hospice at the time, recalled driving under a dirt brown sky to her mobile home in Standing Rock. The other residents of her home weren’t there, and she went in to take a shower and wait until the weather passed through.

Email newsletter signup

Her husband, Jimmy, kept calling, and she ignored it until his third attempt.

“He said, ‘There is a tornado that just crossed over 431. And I panicked, I got back dressed and grabbed my dog, and I got in a truck and I was like,’ Oh my goodness. I forgot my keys. I forgot everything,’” Amber said.  

She started to go back inside to get her keys, so she could start the truck. 

“I remember telling him, ‘I can’t hear you.’ I said ‘You’ve got to talk louder, there’s a train coming by, I’ve got to go back in the house and get my keys’. He said ‘Do not go back in … that is not a train,’” Amber Williamson said. 

Jimmy told her to just push the ignition button and get out. Amber listened and the truck started. She would later find out that her keys were in the truck the entire time. As she began driving, she looked in her rearview mirror and saw the tornado. 

She said it looked like the dirt patch took the place of the sky. She drove slowly as her truck rocked, and limbs were hitting it as she went. When Amber finally arrived at her friend’s house down the road, she knew she had been through the tornado. 

In the aftermath, the Williamson family went back to their property to find the trailer completely thrown to the side and their belongings scattered all over the ground. 

Neighbors, coworkers and even strangers slowly congregated at the scene, sorting through the house’s contents. People took bins, washed them, and brought them back to where the Williamson family was staying. Some churches and organizations donated appliances for a new home. 

The Williamsons stayed with friends from January to October, when they had a housewarming party only a short path from where their old house stood. The old house was replaced quickly to house their daughter, Joylyn Pike, and her family. Pike had just found out she was pregnant when the tornado hit. 

“No one ever thinks it could happen to them,” Pike said. “I didn’t realize all I had until it wasn’t there.” 

When Pike went to Miller’s Mobile Homes in Opelika, hoping to expedite a home, the owner, Gary Miller, asked why there was such a rush. When she explained the situation, Miller told her his wife had asked their Opelika Church to pray for the family who lost their home in Standing Rock. Miller had a home delivered within a couple of weeks. Amber, a nurse, would deliver her grandson in that new home, an experience Amber and Pike agreed was a very bright spot during a tough year.  

Amber said she only took one day off of work as a nurse at Chattahoochee Hospice, citing a love for her patients as the reason. However, she found it difficult once she returned and put in her notice.

“I had to leave a job that I love because I was having to drive back and forth to see patients … I can’t handle the anxiety of those storms,” Amber said.

Being out in the elements, especially driving, is hard for her. Amber said she couldn’t stop working for financial reasons. The house destroyed in the storm was one they had recently moved into, and they had not gotten homeowner’s insurance yet. 

A doctor who Amber had not worked with since the 1990s called her work and asked them how she was doing. When Chattahoochee Hospice explained that she was struggling with being in her car and in the elements, the doctor offered her a more sedentary job at a clinic. Amber has been there since.

During the clean-up, the family came home from work and spent time cleaning up their land. Amber credited her husband for working seven days a week at WestRock, then coming home at night to clean. They cleaned most of the debris away, a pit behind the house was filled with their old home and recently was covered. A few appliances, like a bathtub, sit beside the new home. 

While Pike and her family were living in the new mobile home, the rest of the family began rebuilding. They started converting their barn into a home. They once planned on housing farming equipment in the corrugated metal building for a poultry farm they were about to break ground on. 

After work, the family taught themselves how to do electrical work, carpentry and other skills necessary to make a barn into a home. They had a housewarming in October, where the coworkers, family and friends who helped them sort through the remnants of their home got to celebrate the Williamsons and their future. 

“It’s taught me not to take the weather for granted … But it’s also taught us not to take life for granted,” Amber said.

Amber still said she gets nightmares and panics when storms are forecasted. The one-year anniversary combined with a severe weather advisory on Friday, made the week increasingly difficult. 

Today, two houses stand on the property where a year ago there were none. Pike, her husband and children, live where their old house was. Up a short rock path is a beautiful three-bedroom house that the casual onlooker would not realize was a barn except for the large rolling steel doors on either side. 

The home overlooks some still fallen trees. There’s also a large empty space, where the family finally broke ground on their poultry farm. They expect to have two chicken houses up in a few months. The farm will be run by the whole Williamson family.