Minnesota tornado survivors move into their rebuilt home
Seconds after Isaac Wolfgram shut the basement door, a tornado tore the roof off of their Racine, Minnesota, home in an unprecedented severe weather outbreak in December 2021.
RACINE, Minn. — Isaac and Alissa Wolfgram moved into their new home last month. It was rebuilt on the site of their rural Racine house that was destroyed in a tornado last December .
Upstairs, Alissa has the kitchen she dreamed of with a pantry for food and plenty of cabinet space she has yet to fill.
Downstairs is a different story.
“Upstairs, I don’t feel the old house,” she said. “But when I’m down there, I see this is where the couch was and this is where we huddled when the tornado hit.”
The tornado was one of 21 that swept across South Minnesota during an unprecedented outbreak of swift-moving severe storms Dec. 15, 2021.
A sense 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 television. No tornado warning was issued for their area but when the power went out, he decided to head to the basement to check on the rest of the family. As soon as he closed the door behind him, he heard a crash. In seconds, a tornado ripped the roof off their home destroying the main floor and most of its contents.
“It was one fell swoop,” Isaac recalled. “There, then gone.”
Isaac remembers the door shaking and debris being blown under the door to the basement stairs where he stood.
“We remember so vividly the shaking of it,” he said. “But it held.”
Before what was left of the old house was demolished and cleared in April this year, the couple pulled that door from its hinges to save it. For now, the door is stored at Isaac’s father’s farm home down the road. The couple said they’re not sure what to do with the door but knew they wanted to save the ordinary interior door that likely saved their lives that night.
Their basement now doesn’t have a door. Isaac said when he was sketching designs for their new house, he wanted a more open feel to the house. The kids’ bedrooms are roughly equal size. The open floor plan is bright and airy compared to their old home that, despite two additions, was a bit small for the growing family.
“We were stretching at the seams,” Isaac said.
'It's kind of haunting'
The couple had moved into their old house in 2008. It’s also where Isaac and his family lived from when he was born until he was 4 years old.
The new home is built on the basement and footprint of their old home but with some extra room. A new entry, mudroom, bathroom and pantry sit where the garage had been. A new garage was built on the west side of the home.
Alissa said she has to think a bit to guess where she would be standing in the old house if she was upstairs. Downstairs, it’s pretty clear. The floor of the basement is the same floor she huddled on with her kids as the tornado destroyed their home above them.
“If you’re down there for a couple minutes and spin around a couple times, you’d think you’re in our old house,” Isaac said.
The salvaged door and the basement aren’t the only remnants of their old home that linger. 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’ll be mowing the lawn or something and I see it, and it gives me the willies.”
'It was eerie to watch that news'
The new house gives the couple and their three children each their own bedrooms and an open kitchen Alissa said she always dreamed of having.
The kids remember the storms and their oldest, who is 8 years old, told his teacher that tornadoes are his “weakness” when his class did a tornado drill. The teacher told him to consider tornadoes his strength because now he knows what to do to be safe and can teach others.
Their 5-year-old daughter gets concerned whenever storms kick up while their youngest daughter, who turns 4 years old this month, so far doesn’t seem as concerned.
When storms moved through the area in April that produced tornadoes including one that destroyed homes in Taopi , the kids were concerned, the couple said, adding it triggered some strong emotions from them as well.
“It was really eerie to watch that news,” Alissa said.
Until their new home was completed, the family rented a four-bedroom house in Stewartville. The owner of that house was planning to sell it but heard about the Wolfgram’s experience and offered it as a temporary rental while their new home was built.
Through the summer, the couple would bring their kids 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 as the demolition began and took pictures of the process.
“I had to see it,” she said. “It was almost like a shell or a gravesite.”
She took pictures and video of the process.
Isaac opted to not watch. He recalled seeing his grandmother watch as her childhood home was demolished.
“I could tell it was kind of stressful and hard on a 90-year-old woman,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to see that.”
'It really feels like it’s ours'
Both were glad to watch the progress of their new home going up. The project also came with some reassurance. Each of the roof rafters is secured with hurricane clips, metal joiners used to strengthen wood framed homes. The roof is rated to withstand 200 mph winds, Isaac said. That's a fact he said he's glad to tell the kids to reassure them if it storms.
Choosing what would go into the new house was a silver lining in the process, Alissa said. She said the couple tried to make getting a new house something exciting and fun to look forward to. Their kids picked the colors of their rooms.
“We’ve picked out everything else in this house, so it really feels like it’s ours,” Alissa said.
The two said they’re grateful for the help they received over the last 10 months. The day after the tornado hit, friends and family helped them comb through debris covered in ruined insulation and drywall, and salvage what they could. People immediately offered the family clothes and other day-to-day items. Friends came and picked up debris that covered their backyard.
“We don’t even have the words to express how thankful we are,” Alissa said.