BY SHERI TRUSTY
It had been about two months since Sheldon and Samantha Miller and their three children had gone out to dinner together. As farmers, they spent much of June taking advantage of the dry weather to plant crops on their Oak Harbor farm. But on Thursday, June 15, rain was expected, and the family decided to take a break for a family dinner at a restaurant.
Before they could go, a tornado blew through the western Ottawa County area and destroyed their home. The Millers were one of 35 Ottawa County families whose homes suffered damage in the storm.
In an effort to help those families rebuild their homes and their lives, a group of county agencies have partnered to create the Ottawa County Long-term Tornado Recovery Committee. The committee is a beacon of hope to families who lived through the trauma of a tornado.
“We’d been working long hours, and we decided to go out to dinner,” Samantha said. “My children and I left just after six so we could pick my husband up at the tractor. He was about five miles away.”
When they arrived at the farm field, Samantha snapped a few photos of the pretty pre-storm sky as her husband climbed into the driver’s seat. As they pulled away, Samantha received an emergency tornado alert and the county sirens began to shrill. Sheldon had to make a quick decision – does he take his family home, or do they stop at a friend’s house?
“My husband decided to go there rather than go home,” Samantha said.
As they huddled in the friend’s basement, Sheldon got a call from a another friend saying his barn was destroyed but he wasn’t sure about the house. As soon as it was safe, they headed back home, anxious to see what was left.
“My husband stopped us on our friend’s porch and said, ‘No matter what we’re going home to, we were supposed to be together tonight,’” Samantha said. “It was a powerful statement. As farmers, there are a lot of hours we’re not together. There are a lot of suppers, we’re not together.”
When they got home, the Millers saw dozens of people frantically pulling at the rubble of their home, trying to find them. The Millers’ phones had stopped working, and friends and neighbors were afraid they had been buried under the fallen home.
It was the first of many moments of compassion the Millers would experience.
“About 120 families contributed in one way of another – with helping hands, meals, donations or cards saying they are thinking of us,” Samantha said. “I hope someday to be able to thank them.”
The Millers’ experience was just one tragic story of the June 15 tornado.
“Thirty-five homes were damaged, four were fully destroyed and nine had major damage,” said Kami Sayre, director of the Salvation Army Port Clinton Service Center.
It was just the beginning of the trauma. The cost to rebuild is astronomical and no state or federal funding assistance is available.
“In order to have an emergency declared in Ottawa County, 25 homes must have major damage, and 50 percent of those homes have to be uninsured. Ottawa County won’t qualify,” Sayre said. “While all of the homes affected were insured, these families need to cover combined deductibles with just initial reports reaching well over $40,000 and gaps in coverage reaching upwards of $500,000.”
The Ottawa County Long-Term Tornado Recovery Committee is collecting donations for the families. The committee is comprised of The Salvation Army Port Clinton Service Center, Ottawa County EMA, Family Advocacy Center, Ottawa County Jobs & Family Services, and Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Our insurance has been good to work with, but there’s still a gap, and that gap is scary and hard to navigate,” Samantha said.
Donations can be made at the Family Advocacy Center, at all GenoaBank locations, or by texting the code “OCTORNADO23” TO 44-321. For more information, call the Salvation Army at 419-732-2769 or the Family Advocacy Center at 419-301-0225.
The Salvation Army Port Clinton Service Center, in collaboration with Bistro 163, is hosting a free community take-out meal for those affected by the tornado. The community meal will be held on Thursday, July 20 at Salem Township Hall. Make an RSVP to the Salvation Army.