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Moving On

Last year, a tornado decimated a small Colorado town and one unfortunate family. Now the residents of Holly are slowly rebuilding their homes and lives the only way they know how—by looking ahead instead of revisiting the past.

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Click here for a slideshow with commentary from survivor Gus Puga.

Gus Puga opened his eyes to blackness, the raw scrape of a tree against his skin, and the intense chill of settling turmoil. Suddenly suspended eight feet above the ground, he heard the cries of his three-year-old daughter, Noelia, and reached out to feel his wife, Rosemary, beside him. He could see nothing, but he remembered, seconds earlier, the terrifying rushing noise, like multiple trains bearing down on his family. Noelia had been asleep when the storm came. He’d grabbed her and Rosemary, wrapped them in his arms, and curled into a ball on the living room floor.

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When the fury passed, Gus dragged himself down from the perch near what, moments earlier, had been his family’s house. The tornado had lifted the entire frame of the mobile home from the ground and hurled it into the tree. On the ground, battered and bleeding, Gus called out to no one as his daughter’s screams pierced the night. She remained trapped in the branches next to her unconscious mother, who was pinned by the metal framework that wrapped around the gnarled tree. “My wife,” he mumbled. “Help my wife.”

Half a block away, Rodney Anderson stepped outside his house. The power had gone out as he and his partner, Sherie Phillips, heard the ominous roar. The wind knocked a travel-trailer through a wall of their sturdy World War II era house, but they escaped unharmed. Scanning the ravaged neighborhood, Anderson heard crying. Without thinking, he took a flashlight from a neighbor and stumbled down an alley toward the sound.

Anderson quickly reached Gus, who was hurt, incoherent, and unable to help. Shining the light upward, he found the source of the screams and started up the stout trunk to get Noelia. After securing her, he climbed down and tried to hand the terrified child, covered in blood, to her father. But Gus, injured and in shock, couldn’t take her. “He was gone…lost,” Gus’ mother, Aurelia, would say later.

Anderson left Noelia with a neighbor who’d arrived to help and climbed back into the mangled branches, around metal shards, shredded insulation, and railroad spikes that had been ripped from nearby train tracks. Rosemary dangled upside down, her leg trapped by the metal house frame. Shaking, Anderson braced himself, his legs against one branch, his back against another, and held Rosemary’s head in his lap. There was nothing to do but wait. When a local firefighter finally reached the scene, it took 90 minutes for the two men to free Rosemary. All three Pugas were taken to a hospital in nearby Lamar before being airlifted to Colorado Springs; Gus and Noelia were released several days later. Surgeons operated on Rosemary for four hours before she succumbed to internal injuries the following morning. Anderson went to her funeral a week later. There were so many people at the small church that he couldn’t get in.

Rosemary Puga was one of two fatalities caused by the tornado that ripped through Holly, a southeastern Colorado agricultural community of about 1,000 people, on March 28, 2007. Around 8 p.m.—the lazy stretch between dinner and bedtime good for flipping channels and playing board games—the twister touched down. Within two minutes, 150 mph winds damaged and destroyed homes, crushed cars, and severed power lines before churning beyond town limits and eventually dissipating into the plains.

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Today, a simple homemade memorial, adorned with colorful flowers and a cast of the Virgin Mary, marks the spot where the tree beside the Puga home once stood—a tree that held so much pain for the family that they had it bulldozed within days after the tornado. Repaired railroad tracks lie across the uneven street, the only border between the town and the rolling plains that stretch to the southern horizon, where the twister tore through the open fields, gathering its deadly momentum. Overgrown brush has cropped up behind the small altar, sitting 20 feet from the still-outlined foundation of the Puga home.

Renewal and rebirth have become the focal points of Holly’s recovery mission, but its remoteness has hindered progress. The town has one grocery market, one convenience store, and two taverns, and folks drive the half-hour west to Lamar or 20 minutes east to Syracuse, Kansas, to dine out, shop, or see their doctor. Holly’s lone claim to fame is as the hometown of former Governor Roy Romer.

If Holly ever had a boom, it came and went with the Gateway racetrack, where horse racing once drew reasonable revenue before the state lottery arrived. Once gambling became as easy as walking to the corner store, the track shut down. Anderson, 43, is one of several horse trainers who live in the area but travel frequently to wherever the races dictate. “This place is like a black hole,” he says. “All the radars pretty much miss it.”

Some Holly residents are ready to push forward; others can’t get past what used to be and remain skeptical about a comeback. The tornado was, after all, just another setback, coming soon after the biblical December blizzards that hurt the area’s cattle supply and much of the region’s economy. “We are isolated,” says town administrator Marcia Willhite, a farmer’s daughter herself. “It’s sometimes hard for people to grasp what is possible for us. They’ve just learned to do with what they have for so many years.”

The Holly Recovery Task Force, formed after the storm, organizes relief efforts, provides mental health services, and coordinates low-interest loans for residential victims. The tornado destroyed 48 structures, damaged another 114 buildings, and temporarily displaced 58 families. As of press time, 10 of those families had left Holly to start over in Lamar or Kansas. Sixteen families still were waiting to return to permanent dwellings, either living in FEMA trailers or staying with family. “People are still willing to stay here, even through the hard times,” says Mary Rushton, a task force case manager. “It’s been slow for some, but they just keep saying, ‘We’re gonna make it.'”

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Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, helped by grants and corporate and private donations, is funding about $7 million of new projects. These include water and sewer pipe repairs, new zoning regulations, moving the Main Street electrical system underground so streetlights won’t have wires hanging overhead, and a first-ever building code that recommends storm shelters for certain public facilities. Willhite empathizes with residents who are frustrated by the state’s response time. “It’s amazing how quickly we’ve moved forward, but the public doesn’t know all this,” she says. “It takes time for everything to come into play, get approved, and be engineered. The bureaucracy at the state level got a little overwhelming. It was horrifying—it didn’t move. Every day people aren’t in their houses, they’re making plans to leave Holly. And in a little town, you lose one family and you notice.”

With a shy smile, four-year-old Noelia Puga lifts her arms in the air, prompting Gus to scoop her up off the floor of his mother’s living room. After the tornado, the Pugas—Gus, Noelia, and Gus Jr.—moved into the modest one-story house down the street from where their own home once stood. Gus’s mother, Aurelia, and eight-year-old Gus Jr. weathered the twister here; though some windows shattered, both escaped unharmed. Noelia, with her long, dark hair and mischievous brown eyes, the picture of childlike giddiness, squirms out of her dad’s grasp and skips into the other room, giggling.

Gus remains silent, his brown eyes glazed with a faraway look as his family members recount their struggles and small victories since the tornado. Gus’ brother Jorge—in town from San Diego just before Christmas for the funeral of their father, Pablo—recalls how quickly the community and its neighbors cleaned up the debris, and Aurelia frets about Gus Jr.’s newly developed fear of rain and wind. Her two beloved parakeets, roosting in a cloth-draped cage in the corner, chirp away obliviously. They’d been right next to one of the windows that was destroyed, but nary a feather was touched.

Sitting across from a photograph hanging on the opposite wall—a framed memory of smiles, two parents and two kids against the portrait-blue background—Gus perks up at the mention of Rosemary. He struggles to describe the months following the storm before finally managing, “I still wasn’t used to her being gone. I couldn’t accept it. Come 3:30 every day, I’d turn and look at the door and expect her to be walking in from work.”

Though Gus can’t avoid driving by his old house, until recently he’d never stopped there. He’d rather not think about that night, things he’s blocked out so he can resume his daily routine: waking at 3 a.m., driving his truck sometimes as far as Nebraska, and returning home, every evening, by dinnertime. He’s made no attempt to replace his old home, the will to start over stalling under the sheer burden of the effort. That, however, began to change after his children saw workers rebuilding on the lot behind Aurelia’s house. “The kids thought it was for them,” Gus says almost guiltily.

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He lifts his shirt to reveal tan skin branded with a pattern of angry-looking scars, cruel reminders of the jagged tree branches and shrapnel from his own home that lashed his back as he clung to the tree. The scars are finally fading along with his recollections of the tragedy. While he may never be able to completely face the memories, Gus is getting by, continuing his work, and providing his children a good life—and eventually maybe even a new home. “My son wants his own room again,” he says of rebuilding. “It’s not so much that I want it, but for them.”

Gravel crunches beneath the wheels as Rodney Anderson swings his white Ford pickup toward Holly’s park, the harsh winter light casting a desolate glow on its deserted swing set and picnic shelter. Thick Chinese elm trees are planted in soldier-like rows down the four-block-long expanse of green. The forked branches once supported shady canopies, but now the treetops look like they’ve been buzz-sawed in one clean swoop.

The storm’s path of destruction is easily traceable from the south side of town by the Pugas’ home, through the park, and out toward a corner of Holly where an entire street bursts with new development. This is no brand-new neighborhood, no hopeful sign of an economic boom; all but two houses there were demolished by the tornado, and they’re being rebuilt—all of them, this time with basements.

Driving the streets with the ease of habit, Anderson and Phillips check on their old neighbors’ recovery efforts, noticing, at their old house, that the landlord has finally fixed the living room wall where the trailer hit. Phillips now lives in Syracuse, Kansas, where Anderson joins her between race-training stints. Thinking back to that night, he hesitates. Though he never doubted his actions, he says the aftermath took a toll on his faith. “You start to question yourself a lot,” he says. “Could I have gotten her down sooner?” He’s received counseling, and a nomination for a bravery citation, from the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, a group of traveling chaplains that aids trauma victims in horse communities.

Yet Anderson may never get to close the circle on that harrowing night: A year after the tornado, Anderson and Gus Puga—two men forever linked by a moment of chaos and loss—have yet to meet again. “I haven’t even talked to him,” Gus says. “I really didn’t know him, [even though] he was one of the first ones to actually show up.”

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In the cab of the pickup, Anderson turns his gaze from his old house. “Everyone was saying, ‘You’re a hero,'” he says. “No. I was just the first guy there. I’d like to think anyone else would’ve done the same.” His kind, serious eyes wander toward Aurelia’s house. “I’ve still never met Gus,” he says a bit wistfully. “It doesn’t really cross my mind. They’ve never sought me out, even though I lived a few houses down for two months after.”

Tornadoes devour everything in their path before spitting them out again, forcing their victims to overcome the upheaval any way they can. For Anderson, this means focusing on work and maintaining his faith. For Gus, it’s about facing ongoing reminders of the tornado’s aftermath, including such indignities as a recently settled red-tape dispute with the town about the size of Rosemary’s headstone, and fighting the sick feeling, the anger, when his son came home from school to tell him about classmates wearing T-shirts that bragged, “I survived the tornado.”

It would be easy, even justified, for Puga, Anderson, and all of Holly’s residents to feel victimized. Instead, they’re making sense of a senseless tragedy by putting things behind them—sometimes even the very people who helped them through the ordeal. On this battered and unforgiving landscape, they plug away in the hope that change, however slow moving, remains possible.

Small signs of renewal are cropping up around town, even at the site of Gus Puga’s old house. When the storm hit, a semi trailer filled with corn sat where he had parked it. The angry gusts tipped it over, spilling kernels across the street and lawn. Now, in the unlikely area where dirt and pavement meet, shriveled stalks of corn whip around in the biting wind, a reminder of the unplanned growth that arose from one horrible night. m

Julie Dugdale is an assistant editor at 5280. E-mail her at [email protected]

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