Last year the tornado destroyed their home. Today they’re rebuilding their lives.

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 3/29/24


At 4:22 p.m. Friday, Kari Honsey snapped one last photo of the massive funnel cloud on the southwest horizon and then headed down to the cellar. She grabbed her bicycle helmet, a granola …

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Last year the tornado destroyed their home. Today they’re rebuilding their lives.



At 4:22 p.m. Friday, Kari Honsey snapped one last photo of the massive funnel cloud on the southwest horizon and then headed down to the cellar. She grabbed her bicycle helmet, a granola bar, and continued her conversation with her sister, Amy, on the phone.

This wasn’t her first tornado; she lived through one when she was 10 years old, back in her hometown. That sound – the sound of “26 freight trains” – she can neither describe nor forget. And yet within two minutes of taking that photo, here she was, hearing it again.

“It was horrible, but it didn’t last long,” she said. “It sounds like your typical freight train. I heard things cracking, but the sound of the tornado overrode any damage being done.”

Tucked in the basement of her home on Highway 22 in Wellman, Kari saw a sliver of daylight for a second; the house momentarily lifted off its foundation as the vortex roared by. When it was over, she peeked out the window and could see that the detached garage had been leveled, and the shop building reduced to a debris field of mangled steel.

Joe Allen, a well-driller, was on the road 30 miles away, on his way home from a job in Illinois. By the time the tornado trundled through his property, he was driving through West Chester, hail limiting his vision. As he tailed the backside of the funnel those last few miles, he checked in with Kari.

“It’s all destroyed,” Kari told him on the phone. “Everything’s destroyed.”

As he drove over the hill, he could see the house still standing. But as he pulled into the driveway, he saw that half of the roof was ripped off, and all but two of the windows were blown out.

Kari took the bar off the cellar door and Joe came down to find her. Their next concern was the animals: three dogs, six horses, and two cats. Upstairs, they found one of the shed cats had not survived; it appeared she had been blown straight through the house, and they found her under a window. Three of the horses had run away, but Kari and Joe found them, cut and bruised, but otherwise ok.

People driving by on Highway 22 stopped to help, and they began cleaning up the property. Joe got a light tower from his workplace, and they worked until midnight. When they finally called it a day, Kari and Joe slept in the truck at the end of the driveway.

“That sounds crazy, but that’s where we wanted to be,” Kari said. “We wanted to be with our animals and everything.”

That weekend was a blur of cleanup activity. Insurance adjusters from Nebraska and Kansas arrived by noon on Saturday. They inspected the damage and took photos; it didn’t take long for them to deem the buildings unsalvageable and start writing checks.

Red Cross volunteers arrived. They brought water, towels, and toiletries; they provided gift cards for necessities; they wrote checks so lost medications could be replaced. One volunteer brought potted daffodils from her mother’s garden, a gift Kari found especially thoughtful and endearing.

For a week Kari and Joe lived his Joe’s brother’s RV; then they moved to friends’ nearby rental property that could accommodate the horses.

Friends, family, and the entire community pitched in to provide food, wash clothes, and clean up the 10-acre property. They drained the pond and found it filled with debris like bicycles and headboards from other people’s homes. After salvaging their own belongings, they pushed the punctured and twisted house into the basement and burned it.

“It was just overwhelming to think that everything you’ve worked for forever is gone in fifteen minutes,” Joe said.

One year after the March 31, 2023 EF4 tornado, Kari and Joe still live at their friends’ rental property. There are still parts of their own property that need to be cleaned up.

“Scuff, the cat that survived, he roams. He’s waiting for us to come back home,” Kari says.

In a matter of weeks, Scuff will see his people return. They’ve dug new ponds that they will stock with fish; they’ve created new pastures for the horses; and their newly constructed home/shop/garage combination is coming together beautifully.

“He’s amazing to build a house with,” Kari says of Joe. “He’s like, ‘You decorate the house, I’ll decorate the shop.’ I’m like, ‘That’s not fair. You’re going to help.’ We get along pretty well.”

Thanks to Melanie Schweitzer’s fundraising event at Wellman’s North Park last summer, the couple will be a beneficiary of five ornamental trees this spring, which will help replace some of the trees that they lost. Kari can’t wait to get started on new flower beds, which a friend is designing for her.

Kari and Joe’s new home has something a little extra too: a storm shelter in the basement.

“50 feet long, nine feet wide, and concrete on all four sides,” Kari says. “If there’s a tornado warning in the state of Iowa, I’ll be down there. I’m not going to go through that again.”

The experience of having their home destroyed by a tornado last year was a stressful one, Joe admits.

“Life is delicate. You just never know what tomorrow will bring,” Kari says.

But “the people of the community have been amazing,” they agree, and should another storm wreak havoc here, they won’t hesitate to jump in and help where needed.

For now, however, they dream of spending a straight two-and-a-half weeks on their porch, just watching sunrises and sunsets.

“We just want to be home,” Kari says. “We just want to be home.”

March 31, 2023, tornado, Wellman, Iowa, experience, recovery, rebuilding