RACINE, Minn. — Isaac and Alissa Wolfgram moved into their new home last month. It was rebuilt on the site of their Racine rural home which was destroyed by a tornado last December.
Upstairs, Alissa has the kitchen she’s been dreaming of with a pantry for food and lots of storage space she has yet to fill.
Downstairs is another story.
“Upstairs, I don’t smell the old house,” she said. “But when I’m there, I see that’s where the couch was and that’s where we huddled when the tornado hit.”
The tornado was one of 21 that swept through southern Minnesota during an unprecedented outbreak of fast-moving severe storms on December 15, 2021.
A feeling of unease that evening compelled Alissa to spend the evening in the basement with the couple’s three children. Isaac was upstairs watching severe weather updates on TV. No tornado warning was issued for their area, but when the power went out he decided to head down to the basement to check on the rest of the family. As soon as he closed the door behind him, he heard a crash. Within seconds, a tornado ripped the roof off their home, destroying the first floor and most of its contents.
“It was all of a sudden,” Isaac recalls. “There, then gone.”
Isaac remembers the door shaking and debris being blown under the basement stairway door where he was standing.
“We remember his jolt very well,” he said. “But it held.”
Before what was left of the old house was demolished and cleared in April this year, the couple knocked this door off its hinges to save it. For now, the gate is stored at Isaac’s father’s farmhouse down the road. The couple said they didn’t know what to do with the door, but knew they wanted to save the ordinary interior door which likely saved their lives that night.
Their basement no longer has a door. Isaac said that when drawing plans for their new home, he wanted a more open feel to the home. The children’s rooms are about equal in size. The open floor plan is bright and airy compared to their old home which, despite two additions, was a bit small for the growing family.
“We were stretching to the seams,” Isaac said.
The couple moved into their old home in 2008. This is also where Isaac and his family lived from birth until he was 4 years old.
The new home is built on the basement and footprint of their old home, but with a little extra space. A new entrance, mudroom, bathroom and pantry are located where the garage was. A new garage was built on the west side of the house.
Alissa said she had to think a bit to guess where she would be in the old house if she was upstairs. Below, it’s pretty clear. The basement floor is the same floor she huddled on with her children as the tornado destroyed their home above them.
“If you’re there for a few minutes and turn around a few times, you’d think you were at our old house,” Isaac said.
The salvaged door and basement aren’t the only surviving remnants of their former home. Part of the roof of their house still sits in a field just north of their property.
“It’s kind of haunting,” Isaac said. “I’m going to mow the lawn or something and I see it, and it freaks me out.”
“It was strange to watch this news”
The new home gives the couple and their three children each their own bedrooms and an open kitchen that Alissa says she has always dreamed of having.
Children remember storms and their eldest, who is 8, told his teacher that tornadoes were his “weakness” when his class did a tornado drill. The teacher told him to consider tornadoes as his strength because now he knows what to do to be safe and can teach others.
Their 5-year-old daughter worries every time storms hit while their youngest daughter, who turns 4 this month, doesn’t seem so worried so far.
When storms swept through the area in April, causing tornadoes, including one that destroyed homes in Taopi, the children were concerned, the couple said, adding that it also triggered strong emotions in them.
“It was really weird watching this news,” Alissa said.
Until their new home is complete, the family has rented a four-bedroom house in Stewartville. The owner of this house was planning to sell it, but heard about the Wolfgrams’ experience and offered it as a temporary rental while their new home was being built.
During the summer, the couple would bring their children to check on the progress of the project and play in their old front yard.
“We love this whole area,” Alissa said. “It was always hard to leave.”
Alissa watched the demolition begin and took photos of the process.
“I had to see it,” she said. “It was almost like a shell or a grave.”
She took photos and a video of the process.
Isaac chose not to watch. He remembers seeing his grandmother watching the demolition of his childhood home.
“I could tell it was a little stressful and difficult for a 90-year-old woman,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to see that.”
“We really feel like it’s ours”
Both were happy to see the progress of their new home go up. The project also came with some reassurance. Each of the roof rafters is secured with hurricane clips, metal joiners used to reinforce wood-frame homes. The roof is designed to withstand 200 mph winds, Isaac said. It is a fact that he said he was happy to tell the children to reassure them in the event of a thunderstorm.
Choosing what would go in the new home was a silver lining in the process, Alissa said. She said the couple tried to make buying a new home something exciting and fun to look forward to. Their children chose the colors of their rooms.
“We chose everything else for this house, so it really feels like ours,” Alissa said.
The two said they were grateful for the help they received over the past 10 months. The day after the tornado, friends and family helped them comb through debris covered in crumbling insulation and drywall, and salvage what they could. People immediately offered the family clothes and other daily necessities. Friends came to pick up the debris that covered their garden.
“We don’t even have the words to express how grateful we are,” Alissa said.