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A house blown apart, a family brought together

Brad and Bridget Weller, pictured recently with their daughters Maggy and Audrey on the family's new swing set. The original set was destroyed in a tornado that totaled their home. Connie Vandermay/FOCUS1 / 8
The Weller's home, as it looked shortly after the storm. Submitted image2 / 8
The Weller's home today, completely rebuilt. Submitted photo3 / 8
Submitted image One of many broken out windows of the house after the tornado.4 / 8
The clock stopped as the tornado went through. Submitted photo5 / 8
One of the girls' rooms. Submitted photo6 / 8
A view through a window. Submitted photo7 / 8
The entrance to the basement, where Bridget and the girls huddled as the tornado went through. Submitted photo8 / 8

Two years ago this week, a tornado rampaged through the New York Mills area, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.

Brad and Bridget Weller's house, along County Highway 56, was one that got hit the worst. As the twister tore apart literally everything upstairs, Bridget huddled in the basement with their daughters, Audrey, who was then two years old, and Maggy, four months.

Ask Audrey today what happened to her family's house two years ago, and she'll whisper, "A storm broke it," before burying her face into her mom's neck.

The Wellers waded through memories of the tornado during a recent interview at their home, which has been completely rebuilt since the storm. They shared their process of reconstructing, grieving and trying to come to terms with their fears and anxieties.

The family exhibits a bond of strength from the last two years of growing and healing together.

For example, just moments after Audrey curled into her mom's lap with the thought of her destroyed home, her back straightened, her eyes twinkled, a smile spread across her face, and she said with a sense of confidence, "Uncle Kenny fixed it." (Kenny owns Tervola Construction and helped the Wellers rebuild.)

Though the family was able to move back into their house four months after the tornado tore it down, Bridget said a home is more than boards, and it takes longer than that to really rebuild.

"It's not about losing your home and your belongings," she said. It's about "losing your safety net, your sense of home."

"It's tough for me to understand that it takes time," Bridget added. It's like post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, in that the family went through a frightening ordeal and still needs time to cope with all the emotions - anger, fear, grief. They also continue to question, "Why?"

Brad and Bridget have dealt with the tornado in different ways. While Bridget needs to talk about it, Brad is a man of few words and tends to concentrate on what to do next.

Though within the home the storm remnants have long been cleaned up, the view from the window shows reminders of the tornado's path. From the unseeded lawn, where the Wellers continue to find debris, to the twisted mass of dead trees in front of their home, what was torn apart in two minutes has taken many months to repair - and some things will never be the same.

The Wellers both agree that moving forward is "easier when we are doing something." When they planted 60 trees, rebuilt the swing set and put in perennials, for example, they felt like they were making progress.

Despite their lingering anxieties and fears, the storm "has made us who we are," Bridget said.

Audrey has become a cautious and observant little girl. Although she doesn't talk about the storm much, unless asked, the little person she has become shows the effect of the tornado.

After moving back into their house, for example, Audrey insisted that her bedroom be in the basement, even though rest of the family sleeps on the main level.

Maggy, now two years old, probably doesn't have many memories of the storm, yet Bridget said her laid-back nature is probably a product of it. And, "you can feel the love in her hugs."

Brad and Bridget's relationship seems stronger now, too. Knowing that they are there for each other no matter what, Bridget said, "We feel closer to one another."

Storms seem scarier to the family now, too. Before the Wellers became 'tornado survivors,' a storm was an awesome and amazing event, but now with every blast of the weather radio, they make a run for the basement.

Bridget said the experience has made them more aware that anything can happen and life can change in a heartbeat.

"We are very fortunate that there were no fatalities. It was a miracle," she said.

June 17, 2010

Minnesota broke a record for the number of tornadoes reported in one day after 48 of them tore paths throughout the state. Four of those were close to home: two touched down in Wadena, one destroyed the town of Amor, and another, sometimes forgotten one, took four homes and miles of trees and farmland between Bluffton and New York Mills.

The Wellers, located five miles east of NY Mills, owned one of those four homes. The tornado was labeled an EF-4.

On that day, Audrey woke up from her afternoon nap early, to the sound of hail bouncing off the deck. Other than that, the thunderstorm that rumbled earlier seemed to be coming to an end.

Bridget wasn't aware of severe storms in her area, although her mom, Tammy Mursu, called about Wadena's tornado warning.

"A gut feeling, and the fact that Audrey woke up," caused Bridget to take a break from her paperwork and eat a snack in the unfinished basement. Brad was away at work at the time.

As Bridget and the girls made their way downstairs, Audrey stopped on the basement landing, too scared to follow her mom down.

Since Maggy was still sleeping in her car seat, Bridget put her in the furnace room and ran back up to help Audrey. As they spread out their blanket across the basement floor, everything went black. Bridget and Audrey raced to Maggy's side just as the sound of a train roared through the house.

"It was so loud that I could see Audrey screaming but couldn't hear her," said Bridget.

The three of them huddled together for a minute or two, then the storm ended just as quickly as it began.

When the noise stopped, the Wellers headed to a safer room, under the stairs. It was here that Bridget looked around, noticing spots where she could see sky.

Using her cell phone, Bridget called Brad, and her in-laws, who lived down the road, and finally, 911.

Brad was near Ottertail when Bridget called in a panic, telling him that the house was destroyed and he had to get home right away. At his boss's insistence, Brad rode in the passenger seat. He had heard the details from a neighbor, so he knew what to expect when he got home an hour later.

Bridget's in-laws arrived within minutes to help her and the girls out of the basement. They had to plow through the neighboring field because the road was blocked by power lines.

As Bridget took in the destruction for the first time, rain was pouring down in sheets. She and more than three dozen friends and neighbors began frantically trying to salvage what they could.

The house was a total loss. The landing, where Audrey had stood earlier, too scared to go down into the basement, was hit the hardest. The walls and the garage behind it were completely gone; the stairway to the basement, filled with debris.

The kitchen and the living room remained intact, although the windows were blown out and the rain ruined most of the furniture.

The roof over the girl's bedroom was missing, yet the ceiling fan still hung on its beam. Chunks of sheetrock piled across the spot where the girls had napped earlier that day.

Windows were blown out, boards stuck through walls and the propane tank was tossed in the creek. The family's car was totaled and the four-wheeler was a twisted mess in the woods. A neighbor's wedding veil had been deposited into their kitchen, and an 8x10 Weller family photo was later found four miles away, a little dirty but completely unharmed.

A wall clock, now a broken mess on the floor, stopped at 4:45 p.m., the time the tornado went through.

Within days of the storm, the Weller's insurance company told them their home was totaled, giving them permission to remove everything and leave nothing but the foundation.

Fortunately, the family was able to begin again, rebuilding their three-year-old home to look almost exactly the same as it was before. Looking at it now, a person driving by wouldn't be able to tell what happened there two years ago.

But for the Wellers, the home will always hold the memory of that frightening night. For that reason, Brad and Bridget have been talking about putting it up for sale, and making a clean start in a new location.