At night, 5-year-old Jack Akenson often wants to climb into bed with his parents. Her younger sister, Alice, cries in her sleep; before going to bed, she asks if she can sleep on the floor or in her closet, where she can feel safe.
But on Saturday, Jack, dressed in a pink plaid shirt for the holidays, grabbed a basket and ran across the grass to collect Easter eggs. Above the head, 3-year-old Alice, wearing a bright floral dress, pumped her legs and soared through the air on a swing suspended from a tall tree.
The Akenson family joined others from Arabi seeking respite from their tornado recovery work and worries, gathering in the badly damaged neighborhood of St. Claude Heights with a visiting Easter Bunny and lots of trinkets, toys and sweets. Some children made chalk drawings on the sidewalk or used pots of soapy solution to blow streams of bubbles skyward. Nearly a dozen First Baptist Church of Paradise volunteers gave them plates of fried chicken and jambalaya, as a way to give back, as other volunteers had fed church members after Hurricane Ida left their city in ruins on August 29.
Although the streets of Arabi are now clear of debris from the EF3 tornado, many shuttered windows and blue roof coverings are a reminder of the March 22 tornado. Through a gaping hole in the side of a house, owner Ben Wineski could be seen sweeping up and picking up all the remaining belongings, preparing for demolition crews who will soon demolish the irreparable structure.
The storm left other less visible scars.
When tornado warnings sounded on her parents’ phones, Alice was sleeping in her wooden princess bed on the second floor of the family’s Rose Street home. Her parents had finally put her to sleep and, at first, were reluctant to wake her.
Her memories of the disaster include her mother shouting in a terrified voice, “Do you have Alice?”
Meg Akenson was screaming at her husband, Andy Akenson, who ran upstairs as the house shook and the windows shattered. He said he realized the house was taking a direct hit, “inhaling” and visibly exhaling. The winds lifted the roof, leaving a void above the walls. He could feel glass particles blowing through the air. In one room, a fence post blew through the house, from wall to wall.
And her little girl was upstairs alone. It was dark and he hadn’t put on his glasses, but he was determined to get to her.
As he entered his room, he said, it was as if a circle of light surrounded him. He doesn’t know if it was a vision of his adrenalized mind or a guardian angel. Despite everything, she had suffered only a small cut on her leg due to shards of glass. He took her in his two arms and ran back down to safety.
Their lives were turned upside down in minutes.
The frame of their house is twisted to the point that it is dangerous for the family to live there. Outside, Andy Akenson’s van rolled over several times. They’ve vacuumed and vacuumed, but glass dust remains in almost everything they own, from their walls to their carpets to the Hot Wheels toy cars stashed in game room drawers. Additionally, their insurer, Lighthouse Property Insurance Corp., went into receivership earlier this month, leaving them without any payment on their claims.
Yet on Saturday, the family felt grateful for the help that came afterwards: from Meg’s parents, who took them in; neighbors who have helped in other ways; and friends and volunteers who organized an Easter celebration in St. Claude Heights.
Still, Andy Akenson said, “I’m grateful to be alive. I am so grateful that we are all alive.