Storming Back: Blanks say they are forever changed by tornadoWritten by Brandi Barhite | Associate Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Toledo Free Press has followed the Blank family of Millbury for the past year as they rebuilt their lives after a June 5 tornado destroyed their Main Street home. This is the final story in the yearlong series.
Julie Blank’s cousin built a steel sculpture to memorialize the tornado victims. Although he did not intend to capture both the heartache and the hope that the June 5 tornado left in its path, that’s exactly what he did.
“It was one of those things I started to build with nothing in mind and it turned into this,” said Tom Zitzelberger.
This dichotomy of emotions reflect what the Blank family has experienced this past year — and will continue to endure — as they rebuild their lives after the tornado destroyed their home.
Ed, Julie and their son Casey are changed, and in many ways for the better. They appreciate every day. Holidays and birthdays are more meaningful. They were grateful their home was rebuilt in time for Christmas. When Julie turned 49 in February, she celebrated all month. She always liked to make a big deal out of her birthday, but this year’s occasion also marked her survival.
The family wants to help others because so many people came to their rescue. Casey still can’t believe all the people, many of them strangers, who showed up in the days after the tornado to help salvage the few items they could find. In return, Casey was part of a group of students from Lake High School who helped the flood victims in Findlay.
The Blanks now realize material goods are meaningless compared to surfacing from a pile of rubble with everyone intact. While they jokingly lament Ed’s lost sweater vest collection, the family only really still misses a few items, among them photos of their deceased parents and a cedar chest from Julie’s mom.
“It was the last thing Julie had that belonged to her mother. It was never recovered,” Ed said. “We could go out and buy it and say, ‘I have a cedar chest,’ but it isn’t that cedar chest.”
That missing cedar chest — likely shattered into pieces by the F4 tornado — is one reminder of what the storm took from the Blanks: a sense of safety.
When it storms, they are terrified. Julie’s heart gets heavy. Ed wants to take action immediately, a change from the man who told Julie on the night of the tornado, “Don’t worry about it honey. They never hit us.”
The Blanks are acutely aware of the pain of those who lost everything in the recent tornado in Joplin, Mo. It is also a reminder how much worse it could have been here.
The June 5 tornado could have hit a more populated area during a time of day when more people were coming home from work. Fortunately, it tore through open fields, not subdivisions. It hit Casey’s school, Lake High School, but the building was empty.
“I do understand the magnitude of what has happened in Joplin and the South. It is tenfold what has happened here,” Ed said. “My heart goes out to those people. I used to say a prayer, but now that isn’t enough. I have sent checks to disaster funds to try to help out. You feel so helpless and you have to do something.”
Ed was always the rock of the family. He didn’t get ruffled. He assumed things would work out for the best. Then June 5 arrived.
The man who would watch the storm from the porch changed forever.
He longs for the days when a forecast for rain didn’t mean a possible tornado. He refers to his Main Street neighborhood as “tornado alley.” It seems like every time there is a storm, the neighborhood gets extensive wind or rain.
A trip to the movies during Memorial Day weekend proved just how much Ed had changed.
“I am the more paranoid one now, although Julie still freaks out” he said. “We were at the movie theater and Julie has apps on her phone so she gets tornado warnings, and we are getting texts about tornadoes, and I just felt like getting up and leaving in the middle of the movie because I was concerned. I was concerned about being in the movie theater and not having anywhere to go.”
His need to protect his family has been heightened. He wants to make sure his neighbors are safe. In the weeks after the tornado, he spoke frequently about the guilt of not going next door to wake up the Walters. Three of the four members of that family died when the tornado tore through their second floor.
Ed remembers Mary and Ryan coming home that night and saying they were going to bed with their children, Maddie and Hayden. It never occurred to him to run next door and warn them, because why would a tornado hit this time?
“We have a table set up with a picture of Mary and Hayden hugging and a picture of Ryan on his own,” Ed said. “When I go outside to talk to Scott Swartz and I walk through the middle of their property, I am like ‘What am I doing? There used to be a house here.’”
Ed grapples with the question of “Why did I live?” Anyone who was in the basement like his family that night was fortunate to survive. The tornado could have picked up a car and dropped it on top of them.
“Anyone who doesn’t feel they were really lucky on that day to survive and doesn’t wake up every day thankful to be alive, they are completely foolish.”
Ed realized his circle of friends is larger than he ever thought.
“Everyone has busy lives and schedules and after it happened, people we might see once per year, people we graduated with that we haven’t seen in 15 years came forward and helped.”
He is particularly thankful for his church family and Pastor Sarah Teichmann, as well as Al Swartz, the interim pastor, at the time of the tornado.
“They have been there and talked to us and sat down and shared things with us, helped us understand why us. Pastor Sarah, whenever there is bad weather, calls and asks, ‘Are you OK? Are you in the basement?’”
Ed used to scoff at the idea of rushing to the basement every time there was bad weather. Not now.
“When the bad weather comes, your heart starts racing. It isn’t like it isn’t going to hit. Now you know it can hit you,” he said.
Julie vaguely remembers what she did in the hours before the tornado. She shopped a bit while Ed golfed at a Lake outing. She set up for Casey’s 15th birthday party.
Julie said she feels older these days. Worn out. Tired all the time. Since the tornado, if she has to make a decision, she sits back and processes it a bit more.
Everything seems more special. She recently said to her friend Becci, “Gosh, can you believe it has almost been a year since we lived with you?”
The Blanks moved in with friend Becci and Steve Bihn and their three children before they got their temporary condo.
“Part of me feels like we should be moving in again,” Julie said. “It was a whole different type of summer. We were consumed by calls, by insurance, banks, buying new cars, closing credit cards, dealing with the builder — every day it was something.”
Julie recently looked at her driver’s license. She doesn’t remember going five days after the tornado for a new one.
Everything was a blur. The morning after the tornado she surveyed the damage and started to feel like she was having a heart attack. She spent a few days in the hospital where doctors determined she had suffered from broken heart syndrome. The syndrome involves a condition where intense emotional or physical stress can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness.
“It seems to flare up every now and then. When the weather goes crazy like it did the other day, my heart starts feeling heavy,” Julie said. “I don’t remember this as a kid — all the tornado tragedies. We very rarely had a tornado siren go off. I don’t understand why it is so severe. It is never a light breezy day, it is severe winds. It is never light showers, it is a downpour.”
A neighbor, Dave Dunaway, gave her thousands of photos of the neighborhood’s rebuilding process. He took photos from Day One from every angle, on the ground, on the roof, in the middle of the chaos.
It was interesting for Julie to see them because she missed some of the initial cleanup efforts. It was also nice to receive photos from Dunaway, a neighbor she had never talked to before the tornado. The neighborhood is closer now, she said. This closeness will be celebrated with a block party at 4 p.m. June 4. But the occasion will also be solemn.
“The tornado is the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” Julie said. “We lost lives and those lives can never be replaced. I walk out of my house every day and I am faced with the lives that were lost. Maddie will grow up without her mom, dad and brother.”
The night of the tornado was Casey’s 15th birthday party. The Saturday pool party was hosted in advance of his June 8 birthday. Ed decided one week before the party that the 35 teenagers attending could only stay until 10 p.m. instead of 11. This decision probably saved lives because the tornado hit shortly after 11 p.m.
Casey remembers taking his gifts into the basement and opening them as the family waited out the storm. His half brother, Eddie, with his son Noah and wife Michelle, came for shelter as well.
At the time, Casey thought they would go upstairs in a few minutes and everything would be fine — except it wasn’t.
“I was in awe. I didn’t know what had happened,” Casey said a few weeks after the tornado.
Almost immediately, Casey decided to move forward.
He just finished his sophomore year at Lake High School, which included serving as a homecoming representative. He found normalcy in playing three sports, golf, basketball and his favorite, baseball.
He is turning 16 and getting his license in a couple days. He is inheriting his mom’s PT Cruiser, which he doesn’t think is the coolest car, but it comes with perks.
“I am excited to hopefully get my license and be able to have a little more freedom and drive places and be with my friends more.”
He is also excited for his junior year, which will once again be at the temporary building in Northwood. Casey is mostly looking forward to his senior year, which is set to be in the new school.
“I am excited to get into the new school. It is pretty state-of-the-art and that should be pretty cool,” he said.
Julie said there won’t be a party for Casey this year because the family is tagging along with Ed on a business trip to California in a few days.
“I think we will be jinxed if we have a big party. That last party didn’t go so well,” Julie said, with a wry smile.
She jokes, but only because others can’t. She knows her family is lucky. They have to live and enjoy life for those who died June 5 and for those who continue to die at the hands of Mother Nature.
“We don’t feel like victims, especially with what has happened in Joplin,” Julie said. “We are nothing compared to those people. Those people are living a hell right now. They have nothing. They can’t even go to their neighbor because he doesn’t have anything, and their neighbor’s neighbor doesn’t have anything. We could have gone to our neighbors. I just feel helpless for them.”