WAYNE — Now and then, Jodi Slonecker gets a whiff of an odor that mentally takes her right back to the pile of rubble that was once her home.
It was the smell of “musty basements, corn and gas ... and death,” Slonecker said. “If there is a smell to death and destruction, that’s what it is.”
The stench rose out of the splintered wood, broken furniture and shredded clothing that had been in buildings blown apart by the EF4 tornado that nearly wiped out the town of Pilger on June 16, 2014.
“I don’t want to smell it again,” Slonecker said.
Slonecker, who at the time was working for Ameritas from her home in Pilger, had just shut down her computer and was about to make supper that late Monday afternoon. Her children, Camron, 10, and Samantha, 9, at the time, had been outside most of the day and were in the basement playing video games.
The air hung thick and heavy; black clouds swirled overhead.
“Tanner (Slonecker’s older son) called and said, ‘Get the kids, get downstairs, there’s a tornado headed your way,’ ” she said.
Slonecker and her children did as they were told. Then she thought about her purse and went back upstairs to retrieve it.
“I could already see it (the tornado),” she said. “The hair on my arm was standing up.”
Slonecker rushed back downstairs, and she and her children huddled together on the bottom bunk of Camron’s bed. Within seconds, the town’s warning siren went off, the ground shook; glass shattered; wood splintered.
“I bear-hugged my mom and sister and held on with all my might,” Camron said. “I remember thinking, don’t let us die.”
Slonecker and her children clung to the bed frame and each other all the while trying to stay under a mattress so they wouldn’t get cut by flying debris.
“It felt like a train was going by,” Slonecker said. “After a few seconds, there was a suctioning noise. The house was being lifted off (the foundation), and we were inside the tornado. Stuff was flying, and I was thinking, ‘Don’t let my kids die.’ I felt like it was never going to end,” she said.
But it did.
When the roar subsided, Slonecker took one look and knew the world as she had known it was forever changed.
“I thought, ‘This is not real. Everything is gone,’ ” she said.
Now, five years later, Slonecker and her children have made a life for themselves in Wayne. Slonecker works for the Wayne Veterinary Clinic; Camron and Samantha attend school in Wayne.
They have acquired another house, filled it with furniture and other amenities. A giant TV fills one end of the living room; pictures hang on the wall; clothes hang in the closets. Duke, the family’s Great Dane takes up almost as much space as his owners. But his docile personality is warm and inviting.
Yet, as nice as it is, it isn’t quite home.
“I had lived in that house in Pilger for 30 years,” Slonecker said. “This house will never be what we had. I want to go home.”
But home isn’t there anymore. It’s a barren lot that is a grim reminder of what once was.
After the storm, Slonecker, with the help of friends and family, gathered what belongings she could.
“We walked down the streets ... going through stuff,” she said.
Slonecker’s mom, Jan Schulz of Wisner, took clothing home to wash it. They loaded other items in a trailer that Slonecker’s brother took temporarily to his home. But in the end, she said, most of their belongings were beyond repair and had to be discarded.
“Now I wish we would have dug through the basement more,” in hopes of finding such things as the children’s special Christmas ornaments, she said.
For a while, the family considered rebuilding in Pilger, Slonecker said, but “the kids said they wouldn’t go back because they wouldn’t feel safe.”
So, within months of the storm, Slonecker bought the house in Wayne and they filled it with the necessities of life. While they are safe and comfortable, Slonecker said she regrets buying another house so quickly. Instead, she wishes she would have given herself a year to sort things out.
“You didn’t know which way to go,” she said.
Still, time is helping to heal the wounds.
A year ago, Slonecker hung a piece of the bedframe they clung to during the storm on the wall of the office in her house. She added photos of her house and the town as they lay in ruin.
Above it all, she hung the sign marking the street where they lived. She added the words, “You are braver and stronger than you think.”
While creating the wall helped her heal, Slonecker said, she and the children still suffer at times. When there is a severe weather warning, they gather some of their belongings in a garbage bag so they can retrieve it quickly. And they sleep with their shoes on. Slonecker said she dreams about the storm, and for a while, the kids woke up crying. All of them have participated in counseling.
“There are good days and days when the anger takes over. But I’m still wondering, ‘Why?’ ” Slonecker said.
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Coming tomorrow: Even five years after the tornado, the impact still lingers.