March 31, 2023 was just another normal Friday for Annsley Garner, as for most people in Little Rock — until it wasn’t.

THE DAY OF: “IT SOUNDED LIKE WE WERE IN A BLENDER IN A CAR ACCIDENT”

That morning, Annsley had come off of one of several night shifts in a row at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), where she was an Anesthesiology Resident Physician at the time. “I got off work at 7 a.m., came [and] sat on my deck — which I almost never do — but I sat out here, because it was really nice […] the sun was coming up, the birds were chirping, and I just prayed and thank[ed] God that I got to live here. And it was so beautiful.”

After her peaceful reflection, she went to sleep and was later woken up by the sounds of alerts on her phone and sirens in the city.

On Facebook, she found a video informing viewers that a tornado had touched down. “It was at Chenal, and it was heading towards Rodney Parham and then Reservoir,” Annsley recalls. “And then in my head, I was kind of like, ‘Well, that means if it keeps going the same direction, that I’m next.’”

Annsley lives with her sister Kippin and their two dogs. 

Kippin wasn’t home when Annsley woke up, so she grew worried.

“So I called her and she was like, ‘I’m at the dog park, but I’m leaving,’” she says. “It was a very long 10 minutes waiting on her to get home.”

Kippin returned in the nick of time. Annsley quickly got everyone in the downstairs bathroom, put pillows over their heads, and kept watching the weather reports. 

“And then the news lady was literally circling our neighborhood. And then the power went out. The door flew open in the bathroom. The house started shaking. It sounded like we were in a blender in a car accident at the same time. And it lasted like 8 seconds, and then it stopped. […] And so then we came out, and everything looked okay on the bottom floor. […] And then when we went up the stairs, I noticed this huge hole in the ceiling in my living room, and all the insulation falling all over the furniture, and water coming in, because it was pouring rain. And I just remember thinking, ‘well, that is not good.’” 

THE DAMAGE: IF HE TAKES CARE OF THE BIRDS…

Annsley described their back deck pre-tornado as “a peaceful sanctuary.” Annsley and Kippin keep it regularly adorned with several potted plants and vibrant flowers. It sits above a steep dropoff, and there were so many lush trees densely packed together that one couldn’t see any of the houses that were across the ravine. 

Now, all those trees are gone. 

Well, all but one.

“He left the bird feeder here and the tree that the birds sit on, so […] I thought of, like, that He even takes care of the birds. So, why would He not take care of me?”

Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Not only was she thankful for the reminder from Matthew, Annsley also knows circumstances could have been a lot worse. “Coming out for the first time, I just felt grateful that what had happened there didn’t happen six feet this way to the house when we were in it.”

She adds that while the scene was shocking and “very traumatic to look at,” her eyes have adjusted in the months since, and she has the perspective that “other people had a lot more damage, and I was blessed to just have the hole in the roof and that’s it.”

THE CLEANUP: “DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO ASK…”

“Someone in the [D-Group] had texted in our GroupMe like, ‘is everyone okay?’ And I just sent one picture, and I didn’t say anything else,” Annsley recalls. “And then I lost service. Um, and it was the picture of my roof.”

Before she knew it — and before she even had the chance to ask — members of her Discipleship Group (D-Group) were arriving at her house to help clean up.

Actually, they arrived about a mile away. The neighborhoods were blocked off, so they walked a bit to get to her house and then immediately hit the ground running. “…they just started doing things without me even telling them to, which was like really relieving, because I didn’t know what to do,” she says. 

Annsley was overwhelmed with gratitude. “[It] felt like a gift from God that they came and started taking pictures and stuff for me and just like being my brain because […] I still hadn’t eaten from like 48 hours ago, because I worked and then went straight to sleep when I got home. [I] didn’t have my teeth brushed; my hair was a mess, and all sorts of stuff. I was in my pajamas. So it was very comforting to have like familiar faces that went out of their way to, like, come straight here — even before they went to their own houses, because some of them couldn’t even get into their own neighborhoods.” In that immediate aftermath, Annsley says, “I couldn’t have even known what to ask for.”

Starting on the day of the tornado, and then for a week and a half straight, her friends consistently showed up to:

  • Pack items
  • Move living room furniture into the garage
  • Bring food 
  • Bring an ice chest
  • Pack clothes
  • Clean furniture 
  • Organize additional rooms (since Kippin and Annsley were living in the other half of the house post-tornado)
  • Clear the front yard
  • Ask, “What can I do?”

Annsley felt the weight of their self-sacrificial service. “I know that their life, you know, didn’t stop. They still had jobs to go to or things to take care of.” Thinking back on that time, she says the one word she’d use to describe her D-Group is “there.”

AN UNEXPECTED BLESSING

Much like in the early days of the pandemic, when quarantine prompted many folks to spend more time outdoors on walks and meet their neighbors for the first time, so it was with Annsley during this time. 

“Things just all worked out in a way that I couldn’t have orchestrated. And this isn’t something that, like, I would have planned at all for my life, but I got to know my neighbors better,” she says. “Like I know every one that lives in all of the houses. […] I feel like we all went through something together that I would have never met them or, you know, cared about what they were going through, unless this happened.”

POV ON COMMUNITY: A RELUCTANT ROLE REVERSAL  

For the entire year prior to the tornado, Annsley had welcomed her friends into her home for regular D-Group gatherings. “…I felt like it was a blessing to get to host them here and cook for them and serve them and become close with people.” (This was a far cry from two years ago, when she didn’t even want to be in a D-Group, let alone host and lead one, something she never expected to do.)

So, Annsley said she certainly had a fun community of fellow believers in which she was regularly engaging, but it took this citywide natural disaster for her to feel its value in such a profound way. “I was used to taking care of them. I don’t really like to be taking care of myself. So it was a little like a role reversal and that I guess I needed to learn something, and I did.” She adds that it broke down her resistance to asking for help. “It’s okay for you to not always be the one taking care of other people.” Indeed, on the other side of a traumatic event, Annsley has realized that a D-Group serves as a built-in support system, ready to be mobilized whenever a member is in need. 

More than that, though, has been the realization that community is God’s design. “Any time you’re thinking, or I’ve thought, ‘I’m better off by myself,’ that has just been a lie from the devil,” she says. “[…] you might be able to be alone and things are going good, and you might be able to be self-sufficient on a normal day. But on one of the worst days of your year? […] if you don’t already have that network or community built up, then it might feel unbearable. And God doesn’t want us to be alone, He wants us to be in community.” 

Annsley’s word to the wise? Join a D-Group, “because you never know when a tornado might hit your house.”