A couple of doors down from Tosha Johnson, a brother and sister who live next to each other both lost most of their homes. Her next door neighbor lost part of his house and garage, too.
“Across the street there, it reminds me of a doll house with its three sides and one that’s completely open,” Johnson said over the whine of a distant chain saw and the rattling of a wood chipper nearby.
She was standing in the front yard of her parent’s quad-level “dream home” on Filbrun Lane in Trotwood. The roof had blown off the top level and the windows had blown out. The rains in the days that followed Monday night’s devastating tornado had now caused the upper level flooring to begin to give.
The lower roof was gouged with holes as well, but they’d been covered with tarps. Part of the chimney lay in her dad’s bathroom and a piece of wood propelled by the intense winds had stuck in the wall above his bed.
Her grandmother’s room was destroyed. And in her own room, next to a tree limb that had blown in, Johnson had just found her purse covered with broken glass in the rubble.
Yet when she wrestled with the war-zone scene and the wrenching emotions, she summed it up with one surprising word: “Thankful.”
“I’m thankful we survived,” Johnson said as she turned and pointed to the ravaged, top-floor bedrooms.
“Typically we’d have all been asleep by 11:30 or 12 o’clock at night,” she said. “But we stayed up that night. Our relative had grilled out and we brought that food home and ate late and just talked.”
Once a noted athlete at Chaminade Julienne High School, a Wright State volleyball player and then a coach and longtime teacher, she’s now an assistant athletics director at Trotwood-Madison High School.
“I just had one day of school left,” Johnson said. “My dad’s a teacher’s aide at Trotwood Middle School and he was finished, and my daughter, Asia, just had a week of fun stuff left at Mother Brunner (Catholic School). So bedtime wasn’t a big priority.
“And my grandmother wasn’t here. She’ll be 91 in September. She fell at my aunt’s house last Saturday and was complaining of dizziness and her tailbone was hurting, so I took her to the emergency room and they admitted her.”
The rest of family was in the kitchen when they turned on the TV and heard the weather.
“That’s when the tornado warning alert went off on my phone,” Johnson said.
They grabbed their dog and hurried into the lower basement.
“It was just like everyone says, a long and loud whistling like a freight train coming through,” she said. “We felt the house shaking and heard stuff shattering.”
When the storm passed, the family made its way outside.
“It was totally dark and trees were down everywhere,” Johnson said. “It was quiet except for the voices of people calling out their neighbors’ names to check on them. It was like taking attendance at school. Then all of a sudden a second alarm sounded and we all flew back to our houses.
“This time, I guess, the storm turned and we finally got the all clear.”
That’s when she said people began to search for the people who hadn’t answered the initial calls.
“There’s a lady down the street on oxygen and she was trapped in. People came out with chain saws and work gloves and cleared away trees,” Johnson said. “And then someone would get her in a car and might be able to drive three houses and then they’d put her in another car and then another until they got her out.”
Her eyes glistened as she remembered the scene.
“I know a lot of people hear horror stories about Trotwood, whether it’s with education or things that happen here, but unfortunately they miss the real beauty of living here.
“Everything that’s happening now, happens on a daily basis, just maybe a smaller scale,” Johnson said. “People check on people, bring over baked goods, send cards.”
She grew up here in the Shiloh Gardens section of Trotwood, first a couple of blocks away and then in 1991 the family moved to Filbrun Lane.
“This was Judge Foley’s house,” Johnson said. “His wife, Joan, worked at Precious Blood, where I went to school through eighth grade. My parents always talked about this house and I’d tell Miss Foley every morning: ‘My mom and dad want to buy your house. It’s their dream home.’”
Just before she got to high school, Johnson said the Foley place went up for sale and even though her parents’ bid was lower than the others, it was accepted — thanks, maybe, to years of a little girl’s lobbying.
Her parents, Deborah and Wayne Johnson, who was a basketball standout at Roth High, met in second grade. They had been married 41 years when Deborah Johnson died in July of 2017 from complications of MS and, her daughter said, a questionable hospital procedure.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life is my wife passing,” Wayne Johnson said. “People would tell me then, ‘I know how you feel.’ And I’d think, ‘If your wife is still living, you don’t know.’
“It’s kind of the same way here. You don’t truly understand the devastation and the emotional roller coaster unless you are going through it.”
After her mom passed, Tosha Johnson said she and the rest of the family started accumulating too much stuff. “We were pack rats. It wasn’t the way my mom kept it. So maybe she and the Lord did a clean-up on their own.
“And as it as turns out, all that stuff we were holding onto means nothing now. The first things we looked for were the pictures.”
Her father agreed.
“That’s what we cherish — the pictures of our family, the pictures of my wife,” Wayne Johnson said. “The things that connect you to each other.”
He had been raking a portion of the yard closest to the house and that prompted an appraisal by his daughter: “The yard looks pretty nice and I see you saved those two little plants.”
“Yeah, they’ll be okay,” he said quietly. “I think they’ll come back.”
He seemed to be speaking about more than just those two little pots.
This story is part of a special project, Stories of Survival, focusing on the people of the Miami Valley who survived the Memorial Day tornadoes and are staying strong as the region moves ahead. You can read other stories of survival from around the region here.
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