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.
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."
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@example.com.