Navigating the rubble

Tornado victims cleaning up one month out


On April 26, in a matter of minutes, many lives in Washington County were changed following an F-3 tornado that struck the area in the late afternoon.

In total, more than 400 Washington County residents experienced damage from the tornado, with many homes completely destroyed and in need of rebuilding.

No deaths were reported in the county, though six victims of the storm were injured.

As reported in a story from the May 7 Pilot-Tribune with information from Washington County Emergency Manager Dan Douglas, the tornado entered the county at Dutch Hall Road between county roads 31 and 29, and by the time it arrived to county roads 40 and 29, it was classified as an EF-3, which means it sustained winds of 135-165 MPH.

When the tornado traveled to county roads 36 and 31, the tornado decreased to an EF-1, but increased in diameter to about three-quarters of a mile wide.

In the area of state Highway 133, it increased again to an EF-2 and then again to an EF-3, and was at that point a half-mile in diameter. By the time the tornado left the county by Highway 75, it was classified as an EF-1.

In the aftermath of the storm, a disaster relief center has been stationed at First Lutheran Church-ELCA in Blair, where FEMA is also located to assist individuals in any federal-related relief.

Assistance available for residents

Steve Dethlefs, chairman of the Washington County Supervisors, said more than a month out, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Salvation Army are the primary agencies stationed at First Lutheran Church to help victims with supplies or government assistance.

"I think, for the most part, people have made contact with those organizations," he said. "We're kind of in the process phase where, for the most part, a lot of the cleanup is done... and people are waiting for insurance settlements before they can start the rebuilding process. Everybody is just striving to get to the rebuild phase."

Following the storm, a town hall was held in Kennard to provide information from volunteer and governmental agencies on how victims can receive help.

Dethlefs said while there are no additional meetings of this type being planned in the near future, the county's next step is focused on assessing damage.

"Starting Tuesday, we have 425 reported destroyed property hearings that are going to start," he said. "So, we'll be evaluating people's applications. Pretty much, if the house isn't inhabitable, then a good chunk of the dwelling valuation will go off for the year. That's the immediate thing."

One particular challenge has been debris and tree removal, Dethlefs said.

"We've encouraged people to work with FEMA on achieving that," he said. "The county, basically, we can't go onto private property to execute services. Property owners are responsible for cleanup on their property — the county can't assist in that. We're trying to get the word out that FEMA is the point of contact organization for assisting that, and if their insurance isn't covering it, then FEMA can evaluate what they can do then."

Over the course of navigating the severity of the storm, of which Dethlefs said is the first he's seen, the county has seen many ups and downs, the chairman said.

"It's challenging, it's heartbreaking seeing people's lives turned upside down," he said. "The challenging parts of it is just getting the resources that people need and making sure that they know who's there to help them and where they can go to get help.

"I think when an event like that happens, you find out what your weaknesses are, and I think this event did that for us. We know that we were not as prepared on just an organizational structure."

Dethlefs noted the 2019 floods and the contrast between that weather event and April 26.

"Typically, you know several days in advance (for a flood)," he said. "This type of storm, you have minutes of notice, and quite frankly, I've lived in the county for 30 years and nothing like this kind of damage (has happened)."

Next steps, Dethlefs said, involve the damage assessment hearings, as well as making adjustments to property owners' 2024 dwelling and accessory building evaluations.

"As we get a little more into summer, we'll sit down and do a de-brief on where our strengths and weaknesses were," he said. "We're kind of settling in this stage on getting people in position to rebuild."

Dethlefs said he encourages residents to utilize the resources available at First Lutheran Church and reach out to their county supervisors or emergency management with any questions they may have.

"We're here to help, and, hopefully, we can connect people with the organizations that can assist," he said.

Storm victims recount April 26

One area hit hardest during the storm was at Millstone Estates and Old Mill Drive, located on County Road 32 near Highway 133.

Many homes were damaged or completely destroyed during the storm, including Kevon and Marcie Faulhaber's, Justin and Monika Philps', Greg and Laurie Dondelinger's and Dave Rasmussen's.

Rasmussen, who lives on Old Mill Drive, said he experienced the tornado twice while in his truck on that day.

Rasmussen works out of town and arrived home shortly before the storm hit. He left home and headed into town on CR 32 when a weather alert went off on his phone, but he did not realize it was so close.

He called his son, Jim, who was at home, to tell him to get in the basement.
Rasmussen turned onto Highway 133 just as a red and white "do not enter sign" and another sign blew off. When he saw power lines snapping he turned around and started back just as his rear window blew out.
When he got to Old Mill Drive, within a couple hundred feet of his home, he saw a house at the bottom of the hill blow away. He said he felt his truck rock and thought that maybe his time was up.

"I lived a good life, but did not prefer that it end that day," he said.
Through his windshield he could see the bits of debris in the air. He said it was like watching "Star Wars" and seeing the stars moving by at light speed creating lines.
He remembers sitting in his driveway and calling his wife at 4:10 p.m. to tell her the house was ruined.
Rasmussen personally built his house 20 years ago. He said he is 66 and was going to retire, but, "looks like he has some work left."
Following the tornado, Rasmussen and his son checked on neighbors, including the Dondelingers and Faulhabers.

Kevon Faulhaber said he was working from home when he received news of the incoming storm from his wife Marcie.

"I looked out the window and thought, 'Hey, what's the deal?'" he said. "I went downstairs and out to my back deck and I watched the storm kind of roll in on me."

When Faulhaber realized the storm was headed his way, he took his cat, Jeff, down to the basement. He attempted several times to watch the local weather reports on the TV, but the power went out several times.

The next few moments Faulhaber recalls is hearing "the train," indicating the tornado had reached his home.

"The main support beam was over my head... the house started to violently shake, it started to moan and groan," he said. "I watched our entire house get lifted up straight into the air and then thrown to the west over my head."

Following the storm, Faulhaber, who sustained a few minor injuries, initially thought Jeff hadn't made it, but he was later found hiding in a cabinent that survived the storm.

Due to the storm taking out his entire home, Faulhaber had to be helped out of his basement, where the Rasmussens came into play with a ladder to help.

"All my neighbors directly around me were there to help me get out of the basement," he said. "Everybody's been really good."

The house was taken out to the foundation. The garage was gone, Faulhaber's car was gone and an outbuilding where his boat was parked was gone.
"After the storm, we didn't have anything to recover," he said, adding that he and his family lived in their home for 20 years. "We're working on some plans. Our life has changed."


While the storm is said and done, many residents feel like the toughest aspects of navigating the aftermath is only just beginning.

Laurie Dondelinger said with many of the volunteer organizations returning home, the neighborhood was "like a ghost town."

"Our neighborhood, everyone affected by a tornado... the craziness is just starting," she said. "The first month was really a triage, and it was essentially throwing a bunch of stuff in a dumpster or a tree pile. It was dealing with rubble. Now, it's kind of down to brass tacks where it's really dealing with insurance, what does that get you and what can you rebuild."

Dondelinger and her family are staying with a friend as they navigate rebuilding their home.

"We're just trying to help each other — everybody's got a dog in this fight, so we're all trying to come out as best as we can in a really terrible situation," Dondelinger said.

The Philps residence, which is one of the first homes located on CR 32, was completely destroyed by the tornado, and will be rebuilt.

"The tornado destroyed hundreds of beautiful trees, including our apple, pear, plum and peach trees," Monika Philp said in a message to the Enterprise. "In a hopeful step toward recovery, we planted our first apple tree, kindly left by someone at our house. It’s a small but meaningful step forward, one day at a time."

Tuesday afternoon, Justin Philp was moving tree debris with a skidloader at the home they've lived in for six years.

"Everything's kind of been moving slow," he said. "Getting some machinery in here has really helped out, and it's just getting all the pieces together, like getting trailers and all that stuff. It's not just the stuff that you find, but it's the stuff that you don't find. There's literally tens of thousands of items."

With metal scraps, glass, tree debris, nails and other hazardous material strewn about, Justin said the clean-up process has been a heavy task to endure. Trying to get a brush pile burn going without power or water has also been a challenge.

With the ongoing rains following April 26, the Philp's home is now covered in black mold.

"It's just been relentless," Justin said. "It's making everything so much more difficult and changes the integrity of the house pretty quick. There's really nothing left."

Despite many difficulties, victims of the April 26 tornado said the help of neighbors and volunteers has been "excellent."

"Our neighborhood is pretty awesome," Laurie Dondelinger said. "We all got together a few weeks after, had a nice meal provided by First Lutheran Church of Blair. That was just really nice to be with people who knew what we were going through."

"The church communities in Blair have been overly supportive of us," Kevon Faulhaber said. "I've said this before: I made it out alive, my family was in Omaha, they're all fine. That's the important thing to me."

"Losing so much is hard and still seems unreal," Monika Philp said. "Despite the challenges we're currently facing, I am grateful for the gift called life and God's goodness that shines through family, friends and our amazing community."

"The community, everybody is very tight-knit, and that's why moving somewhere else never even crossed my mind," Justin Philp added. "We've all helped each other out — they're willing to come down any time to help us."