THE SANDERS FAMILY portrait of Raymond, Gail, Nijal and Naya. (photo courtesy of Gail Sanders)
Two weeks before the tornado, Gail and Raymond Sanders had enjoyed the sight of their newly installed metal roof. They had also removed a large tree in the yard that had stood near their brick ranch home on First Street S.W. They had put fresh paint on the walls inside and were planning to pressure wash and paint the exterior. Then, the March 3 tornado happened.
“It was just a regular Sunday. We went to church. My Mom that afternoon went to a movie with a lady and I went and sat with my Dad at their house with my brother,” says Mrs. Sanders.
Knowing rain was on the way, she rushed home when her mother returned from the movie.
“My husband was pacing near the window, and he said, ‘put your shoes on.’ I was in the den doing my daughter’s hair, and I said, ‘put my shoes on? For what?’”
Suddenly, her phone sounded in alarm and the community’s emergency siren blared its loud warning. She called her parents and brother to alert them as her 18-year-old son, Nijal, and then 12-year-old daughter, Naya, sought shelter with their father in an interior bathroom.
“As soon as I closed the bathroom door, we heard it. It was like somebody was beating up our house,” Mrs. Sanders recalls.
The entire family was stacked one on top of the other in the bathtub, the children on the bottom then Gail and Raymond.
“My husband went to praying. We were holding hands and hugging while the house was shaking. It was sort of calm while we prayed and by the time we said, ‘Amen,’ it was over,” she says.
When Raymond Sanders opened the bathroom door, he looked up and saw stars in the night sky. The roof with the new metal was gone. The hallway was strewn with debris, but Mrs. Sanders says she saw someone’s City of Cairo trash can in her kitchen. The Sanders later found their own trash can in a neighbor’s yard. Trapped in their house, the family waited and soon heard first responders yelling to them. Because so many utility lines were down, the emergency officials told them to stay put until they could make sure it was safe.
Gail Sanders recalls, “I said, ‘Jesus, I know you’ve saved us, thank you, but please don’t make us have to spend the night like this.’”
About two hours later, they were able to leave the house and walk to the Downtown Plaza shopping center on MLK Avenue where her brother picked them up. Luckily, Mr. Sanders had grabbed four pairs of his own shoes before the tornado struck, and his family, who had failed to heed his advice and were without their own shoes, were able to wear his as they walked out of the devastation.
“I had on a blue jean skirt and big white tennis shoes. I looked like a hot mess,” Mrs. Sanders says with a little laugh.
“God spared your life. You’ve got to smile. He could have taken my whole family. You might have your days, but you’ve got to get up. Life goes on,” she says.
And since her daughter turned 13 Sunday, Mrs. Sanders says she put on a smile and helped her celebrate with friends on Saturday. Naya Sanders is a 7th grade student at Washington Middle School. Nijal Sanders is a senior at Cairo High School.
Some small bright moments included Mrs. Sanders finding her pocket book, and Naya Sanders finding her glasses, which she had taken off while her mother worked on her hair.
Still, the house where the family has lived for the last 15 years, will have to be torn down, says Mrs. Sanders, who works for the Department of Corrections in Tallahassee. Mr. Sanders works at Capital Health in Tallahassee. A decision on whether they will rebuild is still undetermined. ‘We’re praying on it,” she says.