CLOSE

Amber Radney, stepmother of Sarah Radney, an 11-year-old who was killed during Hurricane Michael, talks about how Sarah continues to be a part of everyone’s life.
Alicia Devine, Tallahassee Democrat

DONALSONVILLE, Georgia – Every Sunday after service at Pine Hill Baptist Church, Roy Radney visits the grave of his daughter Sarah Radney. Her stepmom Amber and her five siblings lay sunflowers at the decorated grave site.

A year ago, the sweet and “spunky” 11-year-old girl died during Hurricane Michael.

She’d been spending fall break with her brother at their grandparents’ house in Donalsonville. She was gazing out the windows in awe of the storm’s forceful winds, singing “Amazing Grace.”

She then sat down on the couch next to her grandmother, when seconds later a concrete-embedded post, which held up a carport 50 feet outside, burst through the ceiling like a bomb. It smashed onto her head. She was killed.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

On her tombstone, they carved a doe – for their “doe-eyed” girl with the “biggest brown eyes you’ve ever seen in your life,” Amber said, and a piglet, her favorite animal.

One of Roy’s fondest memories of Sarah is an early morning car ride when she was 5. She broke the silence, asking him out of the blue, “Daddy, you know, I dream of pigs all the time?”

So, he got her one.

Disaster expert: Inside Hurricane Michael’s dangerous, unreal world for first responders

Throughout the days and months following the storm, staff, students and families at her school, Washington Middle, Pine Hill Baptist Church and people from all over have showered the family with support.

“It’s been a really rough year,” Roy said. “I never sent out thank you cards, but I thank anyone that’s ever breathed her name.”

Faith, memories and overwhelming support has kept the family going.

Washington Middle’s staff framed a green-haired self-portrait she drew in art class and gave it to her family. Kids wrote notes to Sarah – “we miss you” and “you should have lived longer” – in a yearbook with a full-page photo in her memory. A church group bought Christmas presents for her siblings. A West Virginia woman who read the Democrat’s story about Sarah last year paid off the girl’s trumpet, which her dad wanted to keep in her memory.

“We found out along the way that people want to help out so much,” Amber said. “They want to lend a hand in any way they can.”

‘Unprecedented hurricane intensification’: Hurricanes may pack more of a punch due to climate change, scientists say

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

On Wednesday Aug. 7, Sarah would have turned 12. That evening Roy and his family arrived at church service to find a surprise: The parishioners released 50 monarch butterflies in honor of her birthday.

In a temperature-regulated box, hibernating butterflies came shipped in purple envelopes. Sarah loved purple.

“It was really beautiful,” Roy said. “Now every time I see a butterfly I think of Sarah.”

‘I don’t know how to process this’: Michael leaves Florida’s Mexico Beach in ruins

On the anniversary of the historic storm, her Sunday school classmates planted a butterfly garden dedicated to her.

Tucked away inside her hope chest at her family home in Cairo are various memorabilia: a pair of tiny pink shoes – her favorites – her telescope, dresses and a purple wooden whistle she made with her grandpa in his wood shop.

“I couldn’t get rid of them,” Amber said of the items, adding that she doesn’t “have room for anything else.”

Sarah loved glitter, baking strawberry cake with her grandmother, and acting in school plays.

“She loved everything she did,” said Roy, a welder.

Both Roy and Amber had tattoos inked into their skin dedicated to Sarah: Amber has a wide-eyed doe with a purple bow, and Roy, a portrait of his little girl.

“She didn’t ever really leave,” her stepmom Amber said. “The souls around here … she just touched everybody.”

‘There was no real measure of accountability’: Hurricane Michael leaves path of destruction in Florida counties with older housing, mobile homes

Follow Nada Hassanein on Twitter @nhassanein_.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/21/after-hurricane-michael-georgia-family-remembers-their-spunky-girl/405618500

Real Life. Real News. Real Voices

Help us tell more of the stories that matter

Become a founding member

Subscribe to the newsletter news

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe