“I don’t want to do it again:” Tornado victim recounts his story
April 12, 2023
Mike Ellis walked through the ruins of his childhood home after surviving two tornadoes in a single day, moving the last of his mother’s belongings out of her house. As family and friends carried out boxes of salvaged and sentimental items, Ellis stood in the kitchen without a roof over his head and recounted his experience of that night.
“It started when we were in Little Rock with my dad having surgery,” he said. “We were over there sitting on the ninth floor, he just came out of surgery and recovery and that’s when the first tornado came through Little Rock.”
From the hospital windows, Ellis watched the EF3 tornado move through the town, but with his mother alone in Wynne, he and his son decided to race across the state to be with her when the second storm came through.
“As soon as we got out of the car, the sirens were going off,” Ellis said.
He found his mother in her living room chair and told her they needed to get to safety. Helping her up, Ellis and his son walked her to the bathroom closet where she waited out the storm.
Without other interior rooms in the house, Ellis and his son, Nathan Ellis, grabbed a mattress from one of the bedrooms for the two of them to hide beneath.
“It was probably another 3, 5 minutes, once I got Mom in the closet. Nathan was outside, looking and watching, and he thought that it was just going to be close, you know, you could see it, and about that time, I could see the tornado on the other side of the church coming through town and I knew that it was going to be bad,” Ellis said.
He called to his son to come back inside where they laid down on the hallway floor, and Ellis pulled the mattress over them.
“The first thing that started happening was you could hear a little bit of wind noise and the wind was starting to pick up and you could start hearing things hit the windows, and then your ears start popping and I knew then, I said, ‘Nathan, this is gonna be bad,’” Ellis said.
From under the mattress, he heard glass shattering and wood splintering as the tornado erupted over the house. Windows shattered, loose belongings smashed into the walls and the roof was ripped from the building.
“It was just violent. That’s all it was. That’s all I can describe it as,” Ellis said.
As the storm continued to tear through the house, Ellis and his son held tight to the mattress, huddling together for shelter, but the tornado lifted the mattress into the air, pulling Ellis off the ground with it. The mattress was ripped out of his hands and he fell back to the ground where a glass shard cut into his arm.
He scrambled to get the mattress back on top of him and his son and waited for the storm to pass.
“Time stands still and it seems like it’s never gonna end,” he said.
When the winds eventually died down and he thought it was safe, Ellis called to his mother in the bathroom closet.
“I said, ‘Are you okay?’ and she didn’t answer,” Ellis said. “Then two or three times and she finally said, ‘Yeah, I’m okay.’”
Once he knew his mother was safe, he and his son crawled out from under the mattress and looked up from the hallway to see a gray-blue sky.
“I knew the house was gone,” Ellis said.
He went to his mother, who was still tucked away in the bathroom closet, which was nearly untouched by the storm, and prepared her to see the wreckage of the house. Mud and glass were littered across the rain-slick floors, chunks of the ceiling were scattered around the kitchen, and her belongings were thrown about the house at random, but the three of them were safe.
“There’s a sense of fear and there’s a sense of how out of control you are in life, and there is nothing I can do. I am at the mercy of everything that’s about to come through here and I can’t do anything else,” Ellis said. “And I think that was the biggest takeaway that I had in my head right then, and it is whatever it is, I can’t do anything about it, I’m out of control.”
Being from Arkansas and also living in Oklahoma and Florida, Ellis was somewhat used to severe weather, but nothing had prepared him for this. Though he had lived through countless storms and even hurricanes, he had never seen a tornado until March 31, when he lived through two.
“So that happened on Friday when we were at the hospital and I was like, ‘Oh, I can mark that off the bucket list’ because we were safe and it was okay, obviously we were sending thoughts and prayers to those people that were affected by that, but I thought, ‘Okay, that’s great, I get to see one,’” Ellis said. “And then I get here and this and that’s a little too close.”
Ellis’s sister, Melissa Staggs, joined him and their mother in Wynne shortly after the tornado hit.
“This house is 55 years old,” she said. “After I was born, we moved in here and he [Ellis] came five years later.”
The two siblings grew up in the house. It was where they had sleepovers with their friends and family meals during the holidays.
“The main thing was physical life was ok,” Ellis said. “Once I got through all that… then the next step was, we’ve got to get all of her stuff and secure it, and things that can’t be replaced, the pictures and the mementos and things that are personal, so we tried to do all that, but then yesterday when I was walking around the property and just kind of looking, I think that’s when the adrenaline finally slowed down and the emotion took over and that’s when it finally hit me that this is the house I grew up in and it’s gone.”
Once they began searching the house, though, the family was surprised to find that a lot of the belongings stayed with the house, however tossed around. Keepsakes from their childhood were found in various places and some things never moved at all. A glass vase from Staggs’ bridal shower was perched on top of one of the kitchen cabinets, and though the roof had been ripped from the room, the vase didn’t break or even budge.
“I think the thing I grabbed Friday night first, and I went desperately searching for, Momma got my nana’s Bible when we separated her estate. I found it, I carried it, it stayed with me, it’s in my house right now, I don’t know who it’s gonna go to, but I’ve got it saved,” Staggs said.
As they began finding sentimental things from their childhood, Ellis thought of the holidays spent in the house and how they will change now that the house is gone.
“When my kids and my grandkids come and we want to have Christmas and we want to have it here, but it’s not here anymore. This is the house that you always remember it in and now that’s not anymore,” he said.
Through it all, the family has remained positive, repeating that the house is only a house and that their lives are immeasurably more valuable.
“There’s just so many little moments that let’s me know that God is in control and took care of us,” Staggs said with tears in her eyes. “Number one in the fact that Michael was even here to save Mom,” her voice trembled. “She’d have been in that chair in that den. Number two, they survived.”
Having now seen the destruction of a tornado from afar and felt its strength first hand, Ellis urges others to take storm warnings seriously.
“I don’t want to do it again,” Ellis said.