The Good Friday tornado: 10 years later

Ten years ago our house was badly damaged by the Good Friday tornado. This photo was taken on April 30, 2011, after the tree was removed and tarps were in place.

Ten years ago, the Good Friday tornado smashed houses, uprooted trees, and disrupted our lives.

For our family, April 22, 2011, was like many other Friday evenings. Yoli and the kids were at home, and I was downtown at work. “Wheel of Fortune” was on the TV, and it’s likely that saved Yoli’s life — when the tornado alert was issued, she heard it, and ran with the kids to the basement. Minutes later, the kitchen where she had been cooking was crushed. The fierce storm toppled the oak tree in our backyard. Its massive trunk fell on our house, and its branches poked through the roof of our neighbor Connie’s house.

It was a crazy night. The fallen tree blocked both exits from the basement, so our neighbor Monica helped Yoli and the kids escape through a window. At the newspaper, we heard reports of the tornado, and I received a brief phone call from Yoli, but it was difficult to understand. My coworkers urged me to hand off my work to someone else and go home.

I couldn’t see the devastation that night. It was too dark. But everything was clear in the morning light. Our lives wouldn’t be the same.

The Good Friday tornado passed a block or two north of our home. Strong winds knocked our huge oak tree onto the house, destroying the sun room and kitchen, and damaging other parts of the house.

Over the next six months, we navigated a confusing maze of insurance adjusters, city inspectors, contractors, landlords and more. We moved to a rental house in Woodson Terrace, which the girls loved because it had two big flat-screen TVs, and it was very close to a park.

Throughout this time of waiting, we could see God’s mercy everywhere we looked — especially in the love and help we received from our family, friends, neighbors and coworkers.

In November, at last we could move back into our house. The tornado had made it possible for us to expand it from two bedrooms to three, which made quite a difference for our young family of six. Jadzia and Ludi got one bedroom, Josie and Joseph got another, and Yoli and I got the new one, complete with bathroom and walk-in closet.

All in all, there’s so much to be thankful for. The house became bigger and better. And though the work wasn’t perfect, it was mostly pretty good. This has been a good house and a nice street to spend the last 10 years, watching the kids grow up and having adventures.

One other milestone for the house — we paid off our mortgage last month.

We bought it in 2005, at the height of the housing bubble. But even though mortgage lenders told us “money is cheap!” and urged us to take out bigger loans, we wanted to live within our means. We considered only houses that we could afford to put 20% down on, which would allow us to avoid paying mortgage insurance.

Jadzia always was a bit nosy about our finances, which I thought was a good thing. She went through a phase where she would compare our family with the families of her friends. She wished our family had a big TV, and cable, and iPhones for every kid, but I believe she understood why we didn’t. Last spring during COVID lockdown, I told her that we would probably pay off the mortgage in spring of 2021, and that when we did, it would free up some money that we could put towards things like a better TV, or put in her college savings account.

So Jadzia was looking forward to this mortgage payoff. She didn’t live to see us reach the goal, but I know she’d be celebrating with us.

Anyway, to mark this 10-year tornado anniversary, I put together a collection of nine videos from our 2011 travails. You can see them at vimeo.com/showcase/8076349

Tracking down a hot-air balloon in Ferguson

Finding the hot air balloon at Walnut Gove Elementary.

Editor’s note: The following post is synthesized from accounts by Yoli and Jadzia.

One day after Josie finished her guitar class, we saw a lot of hot air ballon passing over our heads. One of them was getting increasingly larger and closer to the ground, so we decided to chase it. After trying to find where it was going, we saw it land behind the field at Walnut Grove Elementary. The balloon had come from the Forest Park race, even though it’d been cancelled.

The kids helped the pilot, Mr. Mike Wade, disassemble the balloon and put it away. That was quite an adventure, and exhausting to say the least.

The kids help Mr. Mike Wade, the pilot from HI Flight, Inc.

Chess Club: Grandmasters

What a big week we had. On Friday, Jadzia and fellow members of Vogt Elementary’s chess club were visited by grandmasters … and a ton of media. Here is her account of the day:

Jadzia plays chess against grandmaster Jennifer Shahade
Jadzia plays chess against grandmaster Jennifer Shahade

Once upon a time, Jadzia and some of her classmates went to the library. But, this was no ordinary library day. Two (well, more, but you’ll find out later) grandmasters were going to come. Cameras would cram each and every corner and spot, flashing on and off!

It was Grandmaster Friday.

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Merry Christmas from Ferguson

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What does one write in a Christmas newsletter after your little town has suffered civil unrest and become the center of international attention?

I’m not really sure, but here goes.

The first seven months of the year were memorable.

In April, for example, Yoli and I dropped off the kids for their AWANA class at church and decided to get away for a quick date night. We got a mocha latte and a snack and decided to walk along a trail at Creve Coeur Lake. We rounded the corner of the lake and just kept going. After all, how long could it take to make it back? But as the sun went down and bikers and joggers disappeared, we realized belatedly just how long a route it was. Our romantic walk became a race against time to get back to church that we will never forget.

In May, Yoli’s parents came to visit us. It was Don Hector and Dona Lucila’s second visit to St. Louis. They got to see the kids’ final days of school, Jadzia’s violin concert and the kids’ dance recital. We visited new places like the Science Center, the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Magic House. And we had a grand time seeing classic cars in old St. Charles (except the part where Joseph threw up all over everywhere).

In July we headed south to visit friends in Houston and family in San Antonio. It was cool to get a tour of my dad’s new business, called “City Plating.” We played putt-putt golf with mom and dad, the kids found frogs near Nan’s pool, we swam in the Guadalupe River (and so did my iPhone), we spent a morning at Kiddie Park. It was a great few weeks.

And then came August. Michael Brown was shot on Saturday, Aug. 9. That weekend was intense and surreal: I designed the front page of the Post-Dispatch each night, while watching on TV as my town convulsed with anger.
In those early days our family felt so sad and uncertain. What was happening? Many times we had difficult conversations with our kids. We prayed for the Browns, we prayed for justice, we prayed for peace.

I attended city council meetings and residents-only town halls. I learned of the cycle of tickets, warrants, and arrests driven by poverty. My eyes were opened to injustices I had been ignorant of.

It has been a long four months. The struggle in Ferguson has gone global. “Ferguson” is now a hashtag, a symbol known worldwide. Many people think they know our town, but they don’t. There is a resolve here to turn this tragedy into something good. To reform — and to rebuild, as we did after the Good Friday tornado in 2011.

I once heard a resident cite Esther 4:14, saying she believed Ferguson had been chosen for just such a time as this.

It’s hard to imagine a bright future. Yet we agree with her. God can bring change.

Josh and Yoli celebrate their anniversary at the Corner Coffeehouse in Ferguson.
Josh and Yoli celebrate their anniversary at the Corner Coffeehouse in Ferguson.

Ferguson’s children: Our voice

Jadzia and her Vogt classmates pose for a photo in the bandshell at January-Wabash Park after the concert.
Jadzia and her Vogt schoolmates pose for a photo in the bandshell at January-Wabash Park after the concert.

Drums. Singing. Shakespeare. MLK.

What a great afternoon we had enjoying the artistry of Jadzia and other Ferguson kids!

The event was designed as a response to recent events in Ferguson and throughout St. Louis. Students from across the Ferguson-Florissant school district and neighboring districts sang, acted, and spoke in order to bring peace, joy and love through the arts.

Jadzia and a number of her Vogt schoolmates participated. Here is a video I made of some of the highlights:

First Ferguson DOJ town hall meeting

Ferguson residents line up outside Wellspring Church waiting to attend the first DOJ town hall meeting.
Ferguson residents line up outside Wellspring Church waiting to attend the first DOJ town hall meeting.

Monday night, the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service held its first town hall meeting in Ferguson.

The town hall meetings were closed to everyone but Ferguson residents. The media were not allowed. Though I am employed at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I am also a Ferguson resident. I wanted to attend a town hall and I was allowed to.

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Church signs in Ferguson

Just over a week after the Michael Brown shooting, I was struck by the idea of photographing church signs in and around Ferguson. I figured many of them would have messages related to the shooting and its aftermath.

On Sunday afternoon, I drove around for a couple hours visiting churches in Ferguson, Dellwood, Berkeley, Cool Valley and St. Louis County. I found some interesting, relevant signs, but not as many as I had hoped.

Here are some of the signs I photographed:

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Some of these photos were published in the Monday morning Post-Dispatch, and a gallery with more photos is available at STLtoday.com.