Recovery a Long Process for Victims of Wyoming Tornado

By Patrick Filben | July 3, 2019

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Sherri Morris was standing in the front yard of what used to be her and her husband’s home in Oriva Hills.

There are tractor tire marks in what’s supposed to be the front lawn, half of the shop’s roof is still missing, the shell of a new home sits on a foundation that was put in over Memorial Day weekend and more than 380 days after their life was swept away, their home is still a project in progress.

“Not quite what you expected a year later, aye?” said Sherri, a year’s worth of exhaustion in her voice. “Yeah, it isn’t for us either.”

Sherri’s husband John, sitting in a patio chair under the shade of a large tree, brushed the long, gray and white hairs of his beard with his hand and smirked. The last time John shaved was May 31, 2018, the day before the tornado hit.

“Last year I said I ain’t shaving until I get my house back,” he said.

At work, people will think to ask if they’ve finally moved back in, he said. All they have to do is look at him and know they haven’t.

On June 1, 2018, a category EF3 tornado tore through the Oriva Hills subdivision west of Gillette, the strongest ever to come through Campbell County. That category of twister brings winds between 136 and 165 mph.

In the months that followed, hundreds of people from the community helped clean up the debris from the dozens of homes that were affected, taking time out of their lives to help, and then they kept coming back.

Cleanup drives were organized, nonprofit organizations and churches pitched in to help, money was donated, the Salvation Army and Red Cross played key roles in the aftermath and the people affected tried to keep their lives as normal as possible.

As the community at large put the tornado behind it as time passed, for the residents in Oriva Hills, the wrath of the tornado persisted.

The twister touched down about 2 p.m. that Friday afternoon. Contrary to first reports from the National Weather Service, officials days later confirmed the tornado actually had winds speeds of about 136 mph and that four tornadoes had touched down in the area, not one.

Matt Mcquin watched the roof of his house tear off. His mother, Connie, didn’t make it to the basement and was upstairs when it hit.

She said she clung to a bedpost, spinning around about 10 times as furniture flew across the room. She was eventually thrown from the house and was the only person taken to the emergency room because of the tornado. She was released the next day after being treated for a minor head injury.

Grant McClure was thrown from his house after sitting down to watch a movie. He initially thought he was hit in the head with an air conditioner. He landed in the grass a few feet from his trailer, which the wind had picked up, blown 50 feet and smashed onto its side.

Russell Haley was home when the tornado ripped through his home. A fuel tank and refrigerator were thrown around in his garage as he and four of his dogs hid in a bathtub.

Many people were at work or away for the weekend, which is likely why there were so few injuries, the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office reported at the time.

Scott Drown’s flatbed trailer and pieces of his home are the reasons why the National Weather Service office classified the tornado as EF3. The way it was described to him, Drown said the meteorologist said that two of the four tornadoes “tag-teamed up on my place” and completely leveled his home.

Drown, who works in the oil fields, was in North Dakota when the storm hit. He got a call from a neighbor that said he should get home as soon as he could.

Drown’s home was picked up and blown over a hill. His Jeep was moved 30 feet. His shed was gone. To this day no one has ever found his mattress.

He owns too many cars to count but luckily, with the help of volunteers, he said he found every set of keys except one.

Drown took a pretty big loss on the vehicles. A lot of them are still sitting out on his property and he guessed not having full vehicle insurance on all of his rides cost him about $30,000. He knows some people got off worse.

One thing Drown didn’t mention a year ago and still doesn’t like to talk about that often is that he had a pretty expensive collection of baseball cards that were swept away in the storm.

“I didn’t want to announce it back then and felt kind of shallow talking about it,” he said. “For some reason, as a kid I started collecting them and had no idea they’d be worth what they were. I was too stubborn looking back to get a safe box for them.”

Drown said that he’ll now always think twice about leaving anything of value unprotected.

“Now I have two gun safes with no guns in them,” he said.

Sherri Morris is still glad she has the huge tree in her yard.

“This is half of what it was, but I’m glad it didn’t come down,” she said. “It didn’t die.”

John and Sherri have been living with their son a few hundred yards away from their house that was lifted off its foundation 5 feet during the storm. Luckily, their son’s home was mostly unscathed.

It was hot Wednesday afternoon as they reflected on how that tornado last June not only upset their home, but their lives.

“I would get you something cold to drink but we don’t have a refrigerator yet,” Sherri said.

It wasn’t quite as hot as the day the Morrises, along with dozens of volunteers, hauled their old house to the dump.

“It’s been a long, tough year,” Sherri said.

The family also has run into more bad luck since the tornado hit.

“The most important thing that people can take out of this whole thing is visit your insurance man every year,” John said.

They had full coverage to replace their home, which they bought for $120,000. However, their coverage didn’t include inflation, so to replace that same house today, they needed about $178,000.

That put them in an unexpected financial hole as they’re still climbing out from under the rubble.

A crew from South Dakota delivered a new house in late May, but not before a snowstorm stopped them near Belle Fourche and other inclement weather along the way delayed the delivery more than a week.

John said that when it was finally put on its new foundation (basement included, a welcomed upgrade), “the house was delivered with a bladder on top of it to protect it from rain so if it sat, it would be OK.”

He then let out a deep, sarcastic laugh.

“That didn’t work,” John said.

Instead, rain leaked into the new house, damaging three rooms. Now drywall and carpet has to be replaced before the family even has the chance to vacuum or hang photos.

“Right from the beginning, nothing has gone quite right for us,” Sherri said.

“It’s been one terrific fiasco,” added John.

The couple hopes to be in their new home sometime this summer. They stopped guessing at when because the date has changed so often.

Will Snyder and his family have had an easier go at getting back to normal than others. Snyder’s home was partially destroyed by the tornado. The whole back side of their home was torn off, the garage and shop were destroyed and the family was displaced from the home for six months.

Luckily, their insurance agent was able to get them a rental in downtown Gillette.

“The kids were close to the City Pool so they hung out there all summer,” Snyder said.

The most frustrating part for Will and his family was the constant wait-and-see timeline of when they would move back in to a new house. The house was delivered in September and then sat for a month at the site. The foundation was built and then the family waited another month.

“It really hasn’t been too bad for us,” he said. “We know a lot of people had it tougher than us.”

His daughters, Taylor and Jadeyn, dealt with the tornado differently.

Jaedyn, the older sibling, had a tough time saying goodbye to all the memories she had made in the home she grew up with.

Taylor “is fascinated with weather,” her father said, so it was a complicated time for her.

“She’s obsessed with the Weather Channel, but now when she hears those sirens go off, she panics,” he said.

If Snyder can come away from it all with one lesson, he said it’s that “anything can happen to anybody.”

Ask any of the dozens of people who dealt with the Oriva Hills tornado and one of the first things they’ll mention is all the community support that kept them afloat.

The first thing Drown brought up was Georgia and Steve Barbour. Steve was at Drown’s house for weeks on end, tirelessly cleaning up debris from several homes in the area, and he would not quit.

Georgia, Steve’s wife, spent hours on June 15, 2018, cleaning up debris and fixing fence in the subdivision. Georgia had heart complications that day and tragically died the next day. She was 72.

Drown spent more than year at a friend’s place without a home. He had possessions in three storage units scattered around northeast Wyoming and lost many personal possessions.

He recently closed on a house in Moorcroft and spent most of this past week moving things in.

But when he thinks about Steve and Georgia, and what that family lost, it puts his situation into perspective.

“Steve Barbour kept coming back,” Drown said. “He lost his wife. I never got a chance to thank all those people for all that they did. That’s the biggest part of this for me.”

When John and Sherri look back at the tornado, they picture the 30 people who scampered around their property helping clean up the mess. They think of the community that gave constant support throughout.

“It was overwhelming,” Sherri said.

John and Sherri both lit a cigarette after giving a tour of the bones of their new home.

“From all this, we both picked smoking back up,” John said.

Sherri had quit for 15 years. When the new house is up, the beard and cigarettes will go out together.

The last time the News Record talked to John Morris, a photo was taken of him with his arms raised at an oncoming storm after the tornado hit.

John remembers that moment vividly.

“I remember raising my hands out there and saying, `Bring it on,”’ he told the sky.

Looking back at that moment, John said he would reconsider his bravado.

“I think I asked for a little too much.”

About the photo: Christopher Morris, left, and his father, John Morris, work on material that will cover a shed at John Morris’ home in Gillette, Wyo., which was destroyed in a 2018 tornado. More than a year later, the Morrises are still working to repair the home. (Rhianna Gelhart/Gillette News Record via AP)

About Patrick Filben

Patrick Filben wrote this for the Gillette News Record.

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