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6 months after the storm: Family’s loss great, but they remain grateful

Published: Wednesday, November 27, 2019 @ 4:22 PM
Updated: Wednesday, November 27, 2019 @ 4:22 PM

Wayne Johnson talks about what he's grateful for this Thanksgiving after the Memorial Day tornadoes severely damaged his family's home in Trotwood.

For the first time in years, Wayne Johnson and his daughter Tosha Johnson won’t share Thanksgiving dinner today in their Trotwood home because it remains uninhabitable after the Memorial Day tornadoes.

Family and friends have volunteered to prepare meals for them, while others invited them to their homes. They’ve not turned down any of the invitations, so the younger Johnson, her father and her daughter Asia Ricks will go, “Thanksgiving Day house-hopping today,” she said, chuckling.

The Dayton Daily News first talked to Tosha Johnson in the days after the Memorial Day tornadoes tore across the Miami Valley. This week marks six months since the storms hit, so we checked in with how they’re recovering.

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They’ve had a tough year. In addition to the tornado, Wayne Johnson’s brother — his best friend, really — died, and his mother is ill.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of the Johnson family home

Father and daughter Wayne and Tosha Johnson said their tornado-damaged Trotwood home is the latest challenge for the family. "Lord, if you're testing (us), it's good. We're good, I don't need anymore," Wayne Johnson said, chuckling. Still, despite all that their family has gone through, don't refer to the Johnsons and victims, not even tornado victims. ISMAIL TURAY/STAFF

That’s on top of the loss two years ago of Tosha Johnson’s mother and Wayne Johnson’s beloved wife of 41 years, Deborah Johnson, after a long illness.

The Johnsons consider themselves strong, resilient people. But they wondered aloud this week how much more they can bear.

“Lord, if you’re testing (us), it’s good. We’re good, I don’t need anymore,” Wayne Johnson said.

But despite all that the family has gone through, don’t refer to the Johnsons as victims. They reject that label.

“I don’t claim that word victim,” Wayne Johnson said Monday evening. “I’m a victor of the tornado. If you leave me standing, I’ve won the battle because I’m here. I still have things yet to do. That house will be put back together and if not, God will put me in a bigger and better house. So don’t look at me as a victim because I’m not. We’re here. And we’re strong. We’ll get through this.”

The Johnson family home in Trotwood suffered more than $300,000 damage during the Memorial Day tornadoes. The family is in the process of renovating the 3,500 square foot house.

The Johnsons purchased the five-bedroom, quad-level home, located on Filbrun Lane, in 1991. It was her parents’ dream home, Tosha Johnson said. Prior to the tornado, she lived there with her father, grandmother and 13-year-old daughter.

On the night the tornadoes struck, the family happened to be up late because it was a holiday weekend. With the exception of her grandmother, who was at another relative’s house, the family was in the kitchen when they heard about a severe storm on television.

They rushed to the basement along with their 4-year-old pit bull mix Mia and waited out the storm. When the storm cleared, no one was injured, but the house was severely damaged.

The roof, including the truss, was blown off, windows blown out and the lower level flooded. The damage, estimated to be about $300,000, was so severe that the home is uninhabitable. The family gathered as much as they could salvage and moved into a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom cottage nearby.

RELATED: Stories of Survival: Family appreciates ‘real beauty of living’ in Trotwood

The renovations on their house are expected to be complete by next fall.

Aside from the thousands of dollars in damage to their personal items, they lost family heirlooms, years of photos and other priceless memories, including Deborah Johnson’s personal belongings. Those lost memories of her mother are unsettling, said Tosha Johnson, a former collegiate athlete.

“It was painful because a lot of the memories of my mother were destroyed,” the 42-year-old said. “So it was that hurt, it was that devastation, a little bit of anger, questioning God and wondering why was this happening to us.”

Wayne Johnson has struggled with his wife’s death, the couple’s daughter said, noting that her parents met in the second grade. So Tosha Johnson has become the glue of the family, doing all she can to lessen the burden on her father, given the recent tragedies.

She deals with the contractors as they renovate the family home, although she gets input from her father. She helps care for her 91-year-old paternal grandmother and a dozen other tasks, all while juggling her career as an assistant athletics director at Trotwood-Madison High School.

It’s a lot for one person to shoulder, but both of her parents were the glue of their families, so it comes natural, the younger Johnson said. It’s the least that she can do, given all that her father has gone through and the sacrifices he’s made for their family over the years, Tosha Johnson said.

“I imagine it will take a toll at some point in time, but I’m resilient,” she said.

Wayne Johnson, a retired union steward, agrees, and said he is thankful for his only child. He refers to her as his rock.

“I’m so blessed because I have the greatest daughter in the world,” he said looking at her standing amid the debris in the kitchen where they have had many conversations over the years. “I couldn’t script or beg for anything better than what I have. She is my strength. I know she used to watch me growing up and probably admired me, as she said she did, but I truly admire her. I’m looking at her and I can make it another day because I have to, because she wants me to.”

STORY OF SURVIVAL: Northdridge couple huddled under kitchen table

As they stood in a bedroom in the upper level of their house a short time later, the Johnsons continued to reflect on all that they’ve been through. The tarp on the roof was torn, so they could see the evening sky. Each was quiet as they looked up, perhaps saying silent prayers or thinking about their late mother and wife, and brother, wishing each could be here.

Tosha Johnson on Monday stands in the kitchen of her parents' home in Trotwood while discussing the severe damage the 3,500 square foot house sustained during the Memorial Day Tornado struck. ISMAIL TURAY JR./STAFF

Their faith in God remains strong. Their bond and love for each other is unbreakable, and they know that, although they’ve had a tough year, there are others who are less fortunate. They have a lot to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day.

“I’m most grateful for life,” Wayne Johnson said. “We learn to appreciate just how important life is above any materialistic things you can ever have. Love and family — next to God, there’s nothing greater,” he said before pausing and struggling to hold back tears as his daughter consoled him.

It makes him more appreciative of just being here.

“It makes you hug your daughter and tell her you love her because now you understand how quickly someone can be taken away from you,” the elder Johnson continued, hugging his daughter. “So I’m just thankful to have an opportunity to let those that are close to me and those that I’m close to know that I love them, and that I care about them and thankful to be able to maybe help someone else get through what we are going through today.”

Six months after the storm

The Dayton Daily News is revisiting with two families we first spoke to in the days after the Memorial Day tornadoes to see how they’re coping six months later. Today we speak with the Johnsons of Trotwood and tomorrow we will share the story of Joe Guth from Old North Dayton.

Read past stories in this project here