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Amid the rubble, laughter and tears for one family devastated by tornado

Kael Alford for NBC News

From left to right: Amber Bowie, 37, Johnny Knight, 66, Rebecca Garland 63, Janis Knight, 62, Jana Portell, 32, Todd Portell, 31, Chase Shelton, 15, and Dan Garland, 65, pose for a portrait around the underground storm shelter that saved their lives during the tornado that struck Moore, Okla., on May 20. The storm destroyed their 3000-square-foot home.

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — A little treasure in the debris of a home that once welcomed Rebecca Garland's four grandchildren gave her such a delight as her friends and family scoured the mountain of rubble for any mementos left behind by Monday's powerful tornado.

“This is where we measured the kids' height!” she exclaimed as her son Lee held up a piece of a wall showing the rising tick-marks as his three boys and little girl grew taller and taller — her "sugars," she calls them. “Oh! Oh! ... That's priceless.”

“Little stuff like this,” said Lee, 41. “It can go in the new house.”

Such was the talk among the Garlands, their two adult children, and the many friends who stopped by on Wednesday — with brownies and cupcakes, plastic boxes and a couple of hugs and laughs — as the couple contemplated the road ahead after Monday's tornado tore apart their house, which was built by Rebecca's husband, Dan.

The pair, who have owned a construction business for more than 30 years, also built the homes next door for Dan's 91-year-old mother, Bobbie, and his neighbor, Ron Bowie.

Those houses were destroyed, too, as the tornado tore a devastating swath through their scenic neighborhood of rolling green hills, century-old trees and farm animals.

Kael Alford for NBC News

Lee Garland found a piece of sheet rock marked with the heights of his children from his parents' home May 22 in Moore, Okla. He cut the piece out of the wall when going through the rubble to save and install when his parents rebuild.

Bobbie won't rebuild, but Bowie said if he does, he'll enlist his neighbors again.

“It's kind of an emotional thing,” said the Garlands' other son, Max, 36, as he stood next to the many jagged and splintered pieces of wood that once made up his parents' one-story home. “We framed and built these houses.... Part of your life is destroyed in a way.”

The Garlands plan to rebuild, which could take up to nine months — depending on when they get started. For now they are bunking with Max, and they'll soon head to the house of family friends — the Portells — who hunkered down with them during the tornado in their storm shelter.

“What's good about this group is you can always find a blessing in disguise,” said Todd Portell, 32, who works in sales and whose wife, Jana, has known the Garlands since she was a child. “Through the rubble we've always found something to laugh about, something that's good.”

There were many laughs and giggles among the group of friends and family, especially from Rebecca, 63. As a wind picked up two cardboard boxes, swirling them through the air, she cracked: “Oh, look at a wind tornado! How dare you!”

“Hey you little pipsqueak, we're not scared of you!” Dan, 65, chimed in.

“We've laughed a lot,” his wife noted. “We've cried, too, but we've laughed.”

As they scrolled through items like their wedding album and a scrapbook (“Here we are when we were king and queen. And here we are as Sonny and Cher,” Rebecca mused of the photos), Dan had a difficult moment.

“There's sentimental value, and that makes it a little more touching and a little more emotional. (Other stuff) is just scrap and junk that you can replace. Memories ... (it's) hard to replace those things,” he said as he choked up.

“At least they're in the heart,” Rebecca said.

“Yeah but, I mean, it's the end of things,” Dan said.

That ending began Monday, when the Garlands, Bobbie, seven friends and two dogs sought safety in the storm shelter at the foot of their house.

With the more than 200 mph whipping winds, Dan struggled to hold the door shut, and Portell and another friend jumped up to help him. That door, dated in pen "05/1/01" for when the shelter was put in, is now bent, revealing the precariousness of their safety.

Kael Alford for NBC News

Rebecca Garland is comforted by a friend outside their house on 149th Street that was destroyed in the tornado that struck Moore, Okla., on May 20. The family hid in their storm shelter with neighbors.

“The whole storm shelter was vibrating. We thought it was going to suck us out of the ground, the whole thing. It was the most frightening thing I've ever experienced in my life,” Rebecca said. “The sound was 1,000 times at least louder than airplane jets. Your ears were popping, just, pop, pop, pop.”

That the storm shelter barely held has Rebecca making the case for a storm cellar built into the basement of their new house, although they don't know yet what the rest of their new home will look like. Dan had always resisted going in the detached storm shelter during tornadoes, but he is now angling for a safe room.

“I prefer the safe room on top of the ground if I can convince her that that would be safe,” Dan said.

“I was underground, and I didn't feel safe, so I'm not sure,” Rebecca said.

But first, they'll have to finish scouring the debris for mementos, bulldoze everything to the street, take out the footing, foundation — everything — from the house, Dan said.

“We're starting from scratch,” Rebecca noted.

Insurance should cover the cost, they hope.

“If I think about this ... the work and the time spent, it's emotional ... just emotional,” Dan said. “I'm not as young as I used to be. I'll do it over again, that's it.”

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