Wadena tornado survivors: 'We didn't have time to get scared'
Before June 17, tornado warnings were more exciting than scary for Jenn Davis, Jeremy Wolfenbarger, and their newborn daughter Isabella Wolfenbarger.
Davis said her last Facebook post before the storm leveled the house was "Baby's First Tornado Warning :)"
About a month and a half after the historic storm, they are starting from scratch and say they are happy to just be alive.
"We lived through an EF4 tornado in a closet," Davis said.
Davis and Wolfenbarger were renting a house in southwest Wadena. The house did not have a basement and was located on what would be one of the worst hit blocks in the path of the storm.
Originally from Vancouver, Wash., they attended rival high schools but did not meet until they separately moved to Minnesota and ended up in the same workplace, Tri-County Health Care in Wadena. In Washington, they did not have serious storms.
All three were in the house when the tornado happened.
"Right as the sirens went off, the wind really picked up and it started to hail," Wolfenbarger said.
"I could hear the roof lifting," Davis said.
Davis told Wolfenbarger they should go to the closet. The latter did not take the tornado warning as seriously.
"I'm like OK, whatever, I'll humor you," Wolfenbarger recalled.
Davis held 3-week-old Isabella and Wolfenbarger held their cat Amaya as they took shelter in the closet.
Wolfenbarger said he realized it was a life-threatening situation when he saw what was happening outside through an open door.
"All at once, the trees in the back yard all lay down," Wolfenbarger said.
Wolfenbarger closed the door and told Davis to get down.
"Before we had a chance to get down, Boom! It was done. It knocked us both over," Wolfenbarger said. "Stuff in the hall fell on top of us."
It all happened in less than a minute.
"We didn't have time to get scared," Wolfenbarger said.
Aside from cuts and scrapes, they were not hurt.
"It's amazing we're alive, what we crawled out of," Wolfenbarger said.
When they climbed from the rubble, the cat bolted.
"She made it through the storm, we just don't know where she went afterward," Davis said.
All three were soaking wet and covered in fiberglass. They were shocked to see it all gone.
Wolfenbarger, who worked the ambulance at the hospital, said he had seen a lot of things but never imagined something like this would happen to him and his family.
A police officer Nick Grabe asked them if they were OK. Wolfenbarger said he asked about the hospital, and the officer told him the hospital was fine.
Within an hour or two, Davis took Isabella to the hospital in case the she had any non-apparent injuries. The baby was in shock, Davis said, but was otherwise fine.
Wolfenbarger said the reality of the situation hit when a tree was spray-painted with a check mark to indicate there were no dead bodies in the flattened house.
Davis said they stayed with a friend the first couple days after the tornado and then went to a motel for about a week.
"My mom came and stayed with the baby because we couldn't take her with to go through stuff and take care of everything that needed to be taken care of," Davis said.
The couple found a house in Bertha to rent because of few permanent housing options in Wadena. This house does have a basement.
For the first two weeks, the drastic changes and lack of stability were hard on Isabella, Davis said. She appears to have been fine since then.
"You don't know what she knows," Davis said. "How much she understood of what happened."
Otherwise, "She's probably handled it better than either one of us," Wolfenbarger joked. "She doesn't have that fear of death on her face when the sirens go off, like we do."
Wolfenbarger said on one of his first Saturdays back at work, another siren went off. It was hard to lock down the hospital knowing his family was in Bertha and he couldn't go to them.
"I've got to say the community, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Community Action Council, all those people were totally amazing," Wolfenbarger said. "Especially having a baby. We've got more baby clothes and strollers and car seats than we know what to do with."
Wolfenbarger said strangers pitched in to help and that the second morning after their move to Bertha, someone had left a changing table on the deck.
Wolfenbarger and Davis said the businesses in the community pulled together, offering water, gift cards and other supplies to people in crisis.
"There's no reason we should be alive, what we crawled out of," Wolfenbarger said. "It all happened for a reason."
Wolfenbarger and Davis lost almost all their belongings. However, one of Wolfenbarger's certificates from work and a CD of baby shower pictures were found in a yard 4 1/2 miles north of town, and a digital camera found in another house was still working. Davis lost her purse, but her credit card was found and turned in. Wolfenbarger recovered his father's flag, his grandfather's flag, his father's ashes and most of his grandfather's medals.
They are still missing Amaya. They contacted the Humane Society and the vet and asked neighbors. Neighbors last saw the seal-point cat bolting from piles by demolition sites. Davis and Wolfenbarger said they returned to their old block, where all but one house had to be demolished, to look for her several times and set live traps. Nothing remains of that house now, and they said the landlord chose to sell the lot.
"Hopefully she made it somewhere and somebody's taking care of her," Wolfenbarger said.
Life is slowly but surely getting back to normal, they said. Davis said it was a "huge frustration" to replace what they lost in the storm. Insurance finally came through, they replaced Isabella's birth certificate, and they recently got Internet access again.
Davis and Wolfenbarger said being inside the house while the tornado happened made it actually less traumatic. Instead of returning to total destruction and wondering what to do with the future, their first impression was being glad to have survived a fallen house with only minor cuts and scratches.
"Things don't really matter," Wolfenbarger said. "It's by the grace of God or whatever you want to call it that we're alive."
"It is a miracle," Davis said.