“We all made fun of him,” said his wife Cheri Ellis. “David was called Noah ... We don’t laugh now ... David knew it would happen one day.”
Now the family has added two more storm shelters to the one that saved the entire family’s lives a year ago in April.
Dad and mom, David and Cheri, and three daughters, Maggie, Jilli, and Sarah Jo, now 14, were all at home last April 27 when the storms hit. They had been down in the storm shelter twice already that day when they heard a third wave of storms were approaching they headed for the storm shelter again. The family’s 8-year-old Boston terrier, Mini Pearl, was with them in the shelter. Their sheep dog, Loretta, was outside with her puppy, away from the main house under mom Ellils’ photo studio.
After about an hour this third time, the family heard a swishing noise and then what sounded like a train.
“All of us just put our hands over our ears,” Cheri Ellis said of what they did once they finally closed the door on their storm shelter that fateful day. After the storms passed, and they dared to peak out, they found they were stuck, with only a small hole barely big enough to crawl out of. Neighbors who came looking for the family, screaming their names, heard them and help dig them out from the other end of the storm shelter.
Before the family could survey the damage, neighbors also had to find them shoes. You see, the Ellises never wear shoes in the house.
When the family finally got out, only one floor — the floor right above the storm shelter — remained, and that also had sustained some damage.
“My oldest daughter’s room didn’t have a toothpick left in it,” Cheri Ellis said. “Just air.”
A portion of only one other room of the house remained partially in tact. This was the one room where neighbors found the shoes.
There was an enormous amount of debris.
The water pipes were broken and water was pouring everywhere. So, one of the first things the Ellises had to do was turn off the water. They finally realized everything was gone. They didn’t even have a place to sleep — so they spent the night in a motel. All the cars were totaled and they first had to get a ride. They made one stop at Walmart that day to buy bottled water and toothbrushes and underwear.
“Trees were fallen over. Cedar trees had flown across the property. The porch was destroyed. The roof was gone ... You look for something and it’s not there ... We’d have been gone too,” Cheri Ellis said. After the storm, their electricity was out for two weeks, as well as phone service. A generator was set up in the barn, but phone service couldn’t be restored as quickly.
The family’s third puppy, a border collie named Skiddy, came limping back to his home that wasn’t there any longer — but ever so slowly — with a fractured leg and covered in debris the day after the storms. One puppy, the offspring of their sheep dog Loretta, was killed outright, pinned under Cheri Ellises photo studio that stood separately from the main house in its own building.
At the time, both Cheri Ellis, a professional photographer, and her husband, a Triple E general contractor, had separate buildings for their individual businesses on their property. After the storms, both business buildings were destroyed. But a photo of the Ellises oldest daughter that Cheri Ellis took was found 7 miles away.
The storm also blew the roof off the barn and only one mare out of the many that were caught out in the pasture during the storms broke an ankle and her jaw and had to be put down.
“There wasn’t a stick of fence anywhere on 20 acres,” she said. “... Glass from the old house is still all over the ground ... It breaks my heart I have no photos of my old studio.”
A willow tree given to the family by Cheri Ellises grandma was also lost, along with a pavilion next to which it stood.
“The willow was pulled up by the roots and the pavilion was chopped down to the ground,” she said. “They were beautiful and picturesque. Now, (after the rebuilding) we have 10 willow trees (to remember the original one).
The pavilion also has been rebuilt, but on a different part of the land.
All of Cheri Ellises cameras were also destroyed, along with many of the photographs she had taken over a lifetime.
“I cried for the first three days,” said the youngest daughter, Sarah Jo.
“We were all in such a daze,” mom said. “It was a horrible thing to go through. It was hard.”
But her family also was so strong.
OK, they said after the initial shock. What’s the first thing we have to do now, was their attitude, and they started doing it. And they also got help from friends, neighbors, church members, strangers along the way — all stepping up to help and offer assistance.
“So many called to offer their homes,” Cheri Ellis said. “By 6 a.m. the next day, people were already stopping by and working on boxing things up. All the churches helped. The Lee University basketball team helped. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross brought hot meals. The family especially remembers all the fried chicken. “Friends took the horses ... They all really did well ... People always were there for us.”
Before the storm, the Ellises had loved their old, rustic farmhouse-style home. It had been built by the dad, David Ellis. But the family had always admired the plantation-style, square homes with a porch running all the way around the entire house.
“We wouldn’t have changed it ourselves because we loved our old house,” Cheri Ellis said. The family had lived there for 22 years. But the storm gave them the chance to remake their home into a new vision.
Meanwhile, they stayed in a motor home in the driveway and then in a rental house until they could move into their new home in November. The family wanted “so badly” to be in their new home for the holidays.
Cheri Ellis designed her new home and came to the site every day.
“It was so cool to watch my vision turn into reality,” she said. “I coped with big things by dealing with the little things.”
In the rebuilding, the now 6,200-square-foot house, roughly the same size as the first, faces the opposite direction from the original but now also includes Cheri Ellises photo studio. Repairmen were at the house every single day for the first two months.
“But the house still isn’t finished. And, I still don’t feel settled,” Cheri Ellis said. Much of her time during the rebuilding also was spent sifting through the three Pod vans filled with anything and everything that had been strewn across the land. Grandma’s antique purse. Old quilts. They were grimy and dirty and it took weeks and weeks to go through them, salvaging what she could, and washing everything. The Pods have just been gone about a month.
“I shouldn’t be complaining. But there was just so much to do. And I had to wash it all.”
The family has since bought several more weather radios and televisions to be located around the house to keep track of impending bad weather. During the construction of their new central home, the family not only kept and fixed up the storm shelter in the basement that saved their lives, but also added two more storm shelters, one each on both the first and second floors.
And from personal experience, Cheri Ellis adamantly wants everyone “to take these warnings seriously. Get to the lowest level. In an interior closet. If there had been anyone upstairs last April, they would have been dead.”
But the family came away with other important messages as well.
“We are nervous about the 27th getting here ... It was definitely a life changing event .. But you see you can live through it,” she said. Their faith was strengthened. And they vowed they would go out into the world and help others whenever they could. “We definitely learned so much about how wonderful people are.”
And young Sarah Jo always knew that things happen for a reason, she said. She just doesn’t know the reason all this has happened yet.
But the most memorable things that happened during this past year was all the coincidences. But that’s not what the Ellises call them.
Whenever they needed something, whenever a problem arose, the solution appeared immediately, miraculously the Ellises said. For example, Sarah Jo stepped on a nail and at that very moment, a physician assistant friend of the family’s came driving down the driveway.
“It was a God thing,” Cheri Ellis said and Sarah Jo agreed whole-heartedly.