Storming Back: No spin factorWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
This issue features the 50th and final story in the yearlong series about the Blank family rebuilding after the June 5 tornado.
Every week, for the past year, when I filed my story, I put the number with it — and usually a message to my editor.
“I almost blew the streak. You would think prom was top secret.” (No. 43)
“I changed my story this week because I found out that Lake is going to help Findlay flood victims.” (No. 37)
“My Blank story is done with a hole or two in it. The fam just got back from vacation and I am trying to reach them for an additional quote.” (No. 7)
So when I say “Whew,” I mostly speak for Ed and Julie Blank and their son, Casey. I called them all the time. Sometimes we met in person. We emailed and texted when I needed to double-check a detail. When I couldn’t reach them, I got on Facebook. Casey quickly responded to that.
I phoned the Blanks when they were out of the country — and they answered. I called Julie when she was giving Casey a driving lesson. In between a terrified scream or two, she asked if we could talk in a few minutes. I even interviewed Casey about going to the Lake High School prom. I then called his date (Casey loved that).
To be sure, the Blanks won’t miss me. I invaded their lives when they didn’t need distractions. I asked questions they didn’t want to answer. I asked questions they didn’t have time to answer. I asked questions they never thought they would have to answer.Can you tell me about your neighbors who died?
How did it impact you knowing you survived and they didn’t?
What is left of your belongings?
People always asked me how I came up with stories week after week.
Sadly, it was easy. When you lose your home, your neighbors and the high school your son attends, the storytelling could go on forever.
That’s what a lot of journalists forget. The story never ends; we just stop paying attention because the next big story arrives. Murders, deficits, elections, car accidents and other tragedies — it all trumps the tornado after awhile.
So when Toledo Free Press Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller gave me the chance to write a story every week for one year with guaranteed space, I knew this was a rare chance to teach people that stories are never as simple as we try to make them.
The Blanks showed everyone that rebuilding from a tragedy is an ongoing process — both physically and emotionally.
The smallest things in life become a big deal when the rest is so uncertain.
That is why I cared so much when Julie finally had a new closet for her clothes. That is why I cared when Casey’s classmates voted him a homecoming representative. That is why I cared when Ed bought a motorcycle, something he stopped waiting to do. That is why I cared when they found their missing cat Rippy after the tornado separated them. That is why I cared when they moved home into their newly rebuilt house in time for Christmas.
I also wrote about the people close to the Blanks and therefore also affected by the tornado. People don’t walk their lives in a straight line without touching other people.
That’s why I wrote about how Julie’s aunt and uncle, pseudo parents, supported them after the tornado. That’s why I wrote about the Bihn family, who let the Blanks live with them. That is why I wrote about Ed’s grandson, Noah, needing therapy after being at the house on the night of the tornado. That is why I wrote about Casey’s baseball team and how the sport was an escape.
The empty lot next door
If I could change one thing about the series it would be a few people’s reactions to the Blanks. Some readers thought they were rich or their house was too big or they should not have gone on vacation. To those people, I say: The Blanks lost a house in a nice middle-class neighborhood, so they rebuilt a home that was almost exactly the same. Did you want them to rebuild smaller to play into your idea of how victims behave?
Despite the Blanks losing nice things in the tornado, some people also complained that the family bought nice things. To those people, I say: The Blanks would return everything if it meant one less person died in the tornado. I know this because I know the Blanks. They invited me into their lives for one year and held nothing back, especially their sorrow.
Seven people died from injuries sustained in the tornado, three of them lived right next door to the Blanks.
For the Blanks, the loss is always visual. The empty lot next door.
One of the comments that stood out from this series was when Ed said, “Why did we live?”
It was with that comment I knew I had selected the right family for this yearlong series because my selection had, in fact, been random.
My husband teaches at Lake High School, and Casey plays on his baseball team. The day after the tornado, my husband went to survey the damage and saw Ed standing among the rubble. They exchanged a few words, including a comment about Ed wearing a Tigers shirt — the right shirt, according to them both.
I noted that conversation in a column and, a few days later, I was offered a chance to follow a family for a whole year.
Now, I just needed a family.
When I called Ed Blank, he was enthusiastic and willing. He said something along the lines of “this needs to be done.”
He was right. It needed to be done. For once, the story needed to go on. It needed to be longer than a few days of coverage.
Even now, the story isn’t done. The series might be finished, but the Blanks’ rebuilding goes on. If I could write story No. 51, I would continue with the tradition of picking the smallest routines of life and putting them into perspective for a family that is just one year into a lifelong process of rebuilding.
It would make us feel better if the Blanks had moved on. We want them to be OK — for us and them. We want life to go back to normal. But after finishing this series, I have realized the Blanks haven’t moved on; they have just kept moving — and that is a feat in itself and a story worth telling.
Brandi Barhite is associate editor of Toledo Free Press. Contact her at email@example.com.