Rebuilding After a Tornado: A Home Owner’s Story

Michelle and Mike Kellenberger’s tornado-ravaged home appeared on the cover of REALTOR® Magazine’s March/April issue. Learn how this family kept their hope alive through disaster, and how they’re planning to rebuild.

April 17, 2014

The view that Michelle Kellenberger, her husband Mike, and their daughter Erika saw as they emerged from their basement on the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2013, will be forever ingrained in their minds.

“I looked out our back window—I can still put myself there and feel the shock I felt that day— all of our neighbors’ homes were gone,” Kellenberger says.

The EF4 tornado had destroyed more than 1,000 homes in the small central-Illinois town in a matter of minutes. The Kellenbergers’ home was just on the cusp of the destruction, and was photographed for the cover of the March/April issue of REALTOR® Magazine. Today, their home embodies the loss and survival of a community that’s now on the road to recovery.

The Kellenbergers purchased their home in 2011 and lived there with their six children who currently range from 9 to 17 in age. The home was originally built in 2008 by Marc Wells, a REALTOR® and builder who was also featured in REALTOR® Magazine after his home was destroyed by the tornado. 

Pieces of the Kellenbergers’ roof was ripped off, some walls were torn down, and debris penetrated every room—but after the storm ended, their house and their family were still standing. Michelle, Mike, and Erika had found refuge under an overturned basement couch, and their other five children were with family that day about 2 ½ miles away—all were safe from the tornado’s path.

“We wanted to put a message out there to say we appreciated the help that was there when we needed it,” Kellenberger says. So she and Mike painted a heartwarming message of hope on the plywood covering their home: “We are ‘blown away’ by everyone’s kindness and generosity. W Strong.”

Volunteers—some they knew from the community, and others who traveled great distances simply to help—gave the Kellenbergers a hand cleaning up the debris in and around their home. They helped sort salvageable items and provided them with warm food, drinking water, and storage bins.

“We’re kind people. We give to different organizations, adopt families in need of Christmas gifts over the holidays, but this was an eye-opener that we could do more,” she says.

The family of eight spent nearly a month after the tornado living in hotels, as rental properties were a hot commodity and difficult to come by. Kellenberger is an in-home daycare provider; thus the temporary loss of their home also caused a hit to their income. Her husband’s job in medical supply sales was luckily unaffected.

Through a campaign launched by Kellenberger’s sister-in-law, they were able to raise more than $6,000 in donations, which helped the family bridge their lost income while living in hotels and paid for the children’s new mattresses. 

Today they’re living in a rental home in Metamora, Ill., about 10 miles away from their Washington home, and Kellenberger’s daycare business is back up and running. They’ve had to adjust from living in a 4,000-square-foot home to a 1,300-square-foot rental with three kids to a bedroom, but the Kellenbergers are rebuilding the home that they love.

They briefly considered buying another house, but there wasn’t a lot on the market in Washington for a family of their size, Kellenberger says. Most of the homes that did become available following the tornado were either purchased or rented immediately.

“We prayed about it as a family and we’re just ready to move forward with our lives,” Kellenberger says.

Demolition on their home, which they’ve taken on with a team of family and friends to save costs, is mostly complete. Because there is a $30,000 discrepancy between their insurance coverage and the actual rebuilding cost, they’ve decided to do what they can themselves when the house is rebuilt, such as flooring and painting.

Most people who were displaced by the tornado are staying in Washington, relocating within town or rebuilding on their current lot, Kellenberger says. The ties in the community are strong, she says, and there’s a lot of support among residents. For instance, there are several Facebook groups set up by and for Washington residents where they can offer one another resources, household items, and transportation. Kellenberger says she helps out by picking up at least three other children from school every day.  

“There’s a lot of encouragement, and a lot of celebrating for those getting back in homes,” she says. “There’s also prayers for those still struggling.”

The Kellenbergers hope to be back in their home by this fall.