Family who survived Memorial Day tornadoes planning a ‘fantastic’ Thanksgiving

More than 18 months after the Memorial Day tornadoes destroyed their Trotwood home, Wayne Johnson is finally able to bring his family together again, just in time for what he says will be a “fantastic” Thanksgiving.

Today’s dinner won’t be as traditional as past feasts, when the house would be filled with relatives, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, it will be a Thanksgiving to remember, he said. Johnson, his adult daughter Tosha Johnson, her daughter Asia Ricks and his late wife, Deborah ― even if it’s only in spirit ― will all be together again today.

Tosha Johnson and her father, Wayne Johnson stand in their empty living room in Trotwood. The family home was nearly destroyed by the 2019 Memorial Day tornados. The Johnson's furniture is stored in boxes on the driveway and soon will fill their rebuilt home.
Tosha Johnson and her father, Wayne Johnson stand in their empty living room in Trotwood. The family home was nearly destroyed by the 2019 Memorial Day tornados. The Johnson's furniture is stored in boxes on the driveway and soon will fill their rebuilt home.



His 92-year-old mother, Erma Johnson, who frequently asks her son, “When can I come home?” will also be there. She was living with Johnson before the tornadoes destroyed the family’s home. Since then, she’s been living with her other children and has become discombobulated, her son said.

Erma Jean Johnson/Contributed
Erma Jean Johnson/Contributed

Mia, a 5-year-old pit bull mix, is the only member of the family who will not return; she will remain with her new adopted family in West Carrollton.

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They’ll gather at the dinner table to thank God for sparing their lives the night 16 tornadoes ravaged the Miami Valley on Memorial Day 2019. The Johnsons will also reflect on the hardships they’ve endured since that night, including deaths in the family, multiple hospitalizations, surgeries and other setbacks.

The family had hoped the renovations on their house would be complete at the beginning of fall. But the pandemic and other issues caused delays. The work wrapped up less than two weeks ago, just in time to move enough things in for Thanksgiving.

“God has created the perfect timing, because that will truly be a Thanksgiving for us,” Johnson said. “We’re going to thank Him for giving us back our home. And then we’re going to give each other love as a family again. So Thanksgiving is going to have more meaning, especially in 2020 (and all that’s occurred), than it’s ever had in this family.”

Destructive path

On the night of May 27, 2019, the Johnsons were winding down after a long Memorial Day that included cookouts and visits with relatives. Johnson’s mother stayed the night with a family member.

They were watching television when a report about a severe storm interrupted. The family and their dog rushed to the basement. The house shook violently, the basement flooded and they lost power. The ordeal lasted for more than two hours.

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Sixteen tornadoes left a destructive path that night across the region that still hasn’t been completely restored. Two people died and thousands of homes were damaged, some flattened.

The Johnson home is a more than 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, quad-level structure, and it was still standing that night, but proved inhabitable. The roof, including the truss, was blown off, and windows were busted out. The damage was estimated to be about $300,000. It was Wayne and Deborah Johnson’s dream home when they purchased it in 1991.

No one in the family was physically injured, but the pain and disappointment of losing years of family heirlooms and things that reminded them of the late Deborah Johnson seemed unbearable. It was as if they’d lost her a second time ― she died in 2017, after nearly 20 years of battling multiple sclerosis.

“It was painful because a lot of the memories of my mother were destroyed,” Tosha Johnson, 43, said last year.

In the days following the storm, they gathered as much as they could salvage from the debris and moved to a nearly 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom cottage nearby to begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.

A string of unfortunate events

Three months after the tornadoes destroyed their home, Wayne Johnson’s brother and best friend, Leothis Johnson, 65, was fatally struck by a car. Then his elderly mother became ill, and was hospitalized for a while. Wayne Johnson himself had knee surgeries in February and May, limiting him a great deal.

“It’s just like, ‘Lord, what else?’” Wayne Johnson said. “You never want to pose that question to the Lord, because he can show you a lot more. I say it with reservation, but we went through so much the past year-and-a-half.”

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So why was God testing the family’s faith again, after all the pain they’d been through watching Deborah Johnson battle multiple sclerosis for nearly two decades, they wondered.

Rather go to sleep and not wake up

Wayne and Deborah Johnson met in the fifth grade. They started dating in the seventh grade and got married right after high school. Deborah Johnson became pregnant soon after that, and they never took a honeymoon.

So in 1999, they planned to take that long awaited honeymoon and dream vacation to Hawaii a few months after their daughter’s graduation in December of that year. All the arrangements were made, but the trip would never happen.

Deborah Johnson/Contributed
Deborah Johnson/Contributed

In late 1999, Deborah Johnson was an energetic, articulate, outgoing woman in her mid-40s. She had no visible health issues. As the family was returning home from dinner one evening, Deborah Johnson, who was driving, couldn’t remember where they lived. They thought perhaps she was exhausted, but her memory continued to fade. So much so that she couldn’t remember or recognize her husband and daughter at times.

As Deborah Johnson’s condition worsened, and she became bedridden, her husband would pray with her multiple times a day. The pain became so unbearable that his wife told him she didn’t want to pray anymore. She’d rather go to sleep and not wake up.

“So you hear that, and you’re getting weaker and weaker,” Wayne Johnson said last week, as his daughter looked on quietly in their newly renovated kitchen.

Watching his wife in pain took a toll on him as well because he couldn’t help her. He felt powerless.

One afternoon, he sat by her bedside and considered ending her pain. And his. He also thought about their daughter, Tosha, and how losing both of her parents would affect her. But he needed to do something to help his wife.

Then the home phone rang, and the answering machine picked up. It was his mother.

“Son, I know you’re going through a lot, but I’m praying,” she said on the voice recording. “You hang in there; don’t you give up on me.”

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Johnson snapped out of it. For the next 17 years, he watched his wife slowly fade away, “until God was ready to take her home.”

“Had it not been for my mother calling me, I don’t know what I would have done” he said with tears in his eyes.

‘It’s been a test of our faith’

Tosha Johnson has become the glue of the family and her father’s lifeline, said the older Johnson, a retired union steward.

She is a former collegiate athlete who, until this fall, was an administrator at Trotwood-Madison High School. She’s had to juggle her career while also caring for her father, her daughter and grandmother. In addition, she took the lead in working with the contractors renovating their home.

It’s a lot for one person to shoulder. But her parents are resilient people, and they raised her to be like them.

“I am a product of my environment,” she said. “I wouldn’t be this way had my parents not been the way they were, had they not invested in me, not only to be just like them, but to be better.”

Wayne Johnson is certain that without his daughter, he would be dead by now, he said, adding that that’s another reason he’s thankful today.

The family is grateful for their strong support system that includes neighbors, relatives, friends and some people they recently met. That group has been with them every step of the way, and the Johnsons are grateful for each one.

Reflecting on all they’ve been through, Wayne and Tosha Johnson don’t consider their family victims. They don’t want that label, because they’re victors, they said. How could they not be? After all, despite everything, they have each other, and memories of their wife and mother to keep them going.

“It’s been a test of our faith, I’ll say that,” the elder Johnson said. “It’s our strong belief in God, His mercy and His grace that has basically brought us through all of this. There were times when I just wanted to give up. But you pray for God’s mercy, and His blessings and you thank him for all he’s done.”