Rural Missouri Magazine

After the twister
One family loses everything but hope

by Jarrett Medlin

On May 4, a devastating tornado swept up nearly all of J.C. and Allena Brasher’s possessions. Here, J.C. looks at the smashed cab of his red Ford F-150, which was picked up and thrown several hundred yards.

J.C. and Allena Brasher are among thousands still rebuilding after a series of tornados struck 50 Missouri counties in early May. The storms claimed 19 lives, caused massive damage and destroyed most of Pierce City and Stockton. Still reeling three months later, the Brashers, who live just 18 miles from Stockton, ride a constant wave of emotion — distraught one moment, then happy to be alive the next.

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon, J.C. Brasher was in his shed, repairing a welder, when the wind stopped. It had been about 85 degrees most of that afternoon, May 4, but a gentle breeze rustled through the pasture, and it felt nice outside. Allena, J.C.’s wife, and their 6-year-old granddaughter, Laura, were in the house watching TV while J.C. worked.

Suddenly, it grew hot. J.C. stopped, wiped his brow and stepped outside. He looked to the west and there, not even a quarter-mile away, he saw it.

In the country, miles from wailing sirens, there had been no warning of a tornado. But there it was, filling the sky, spinning end over end like a sausage grinder, J.C. says, shredding trees, dirt and houses as it went.

He sprinted toward the house as quickly as his 57-year-old legs would carry him.
“Get in the car! A tornado’s coming right at the house!” he shouted, knowing that without a basement, they didn’t stand a chance. Allena slipped on a pair of sandals, grabbed her purse and snatched Laura by the hand. They rushed outside to their car and Allena sped down their narrow, winding drive. Although she hit 50 mph, the monstrous tornado gained on them.

“Faster! Faster!” J.C. screamed. He watched helplessly as the beast grew nearer.

The car burst onto the pavement and spun east, heading toward J.C.’s brother’s house. They arrived eight minutes later and dashed inside, where the rest of the family waited for them. They ran down to the basement and slammed the door shut behind them. Outside it grew dark. When they looked out the small basement window, they saw trees crashing to the ground. Laura began to cry.

The Brashers now lean on each other and God for strength.

“I’m scared,” she said. “My calf and puppy are still outside.”

“Then let’s pray,” Allena said. “God will watch over them and us.”

For 20 minutes they huddled in the basement while the tornado roared overhead. Finally, it grew silent and the sky brightened. J.C. opened the back door and stepped into the yard. A softball-size chunk of hail rested next to a chunk of siding from J.C.’s barn. “We’ve lost her,” he whispered.

J.C. and Allena drove back to their farm. Fallen trees and debris blocked the drive so they walked up the hill. When they reached the top, they saw their pale-yellow house with rust-red shutters had been reduced to a pile of cinder blocks. The red barn was a heap of splinters and the fences were stripped and bent. Three other buildings were demolished and J.C.’s Ford pickup was crumpled into a ball and dropped on adjacent property. A four-wheeler he had bought the day before hung in a tree. Photos, antiques, everything they had gathered through 38 years of marriage were gone.

Standing in utter silence, they spotted Laura’s calf, Jewels, near where the barn once stood. Several minutes later, they heard a small, pitiful whine. They followed it to a pile of lumber where Laura’s black and white puppy trembled with fear. Laura lifted it to her chest and smiled. Over the deafening roar of the tornado, God had heard a small child’s prayers.

The day after the tornado, Ben, the Brashers’ youngest son, flew in from North Carolina.

“It wasn’t seeing the house was gone that bothered me. It was the looks on their faces,” he says. “It was watching my own family scavenge through rubble for anything.”

His entire family helped sort through the wreckage. They threw salvageable items onto a flatbed trailer that remained mostly empty. Ben looked at his suitcase and realized he had more in that small bag than his parents had left. Sac Osage Electric Cooperative linemen would later tell them it was the worst damage they’d seen all week.

The night of the tornado Allena briefly went into shock, but she has held up fairly well. J.C., on the other hand, has suffered. For the first couple days, he coped by putting up fences and gathering debris. But on the fourth day, standing among his tattered belongings, the devastation finally caught up with him.
“All of a sudden, I just went to pieces,” J.C. says.

J.C. kicks over a car battery while searching for salvagable possessions. The family lost nearly everything they owned.

On May 8, he had a panic attack. The next day, while taking a nap, he began hyperventilating and flashed back to the tornado. Although he is slowly getting better, he often gets frustrated.

“You know what it’s like starting over at my age?” he asks. “There are days I wish I would’ve went with it.”

Now, J.C. and Allena call a borrowed, 35-foot camper in his mother’s backyard home. They wander in and out of her house during the days and spend nights in the camper. Although they have laid the foundation of their new home — which will have a storm cellar — it will not be complete for another five months.

In the meantime, they wait. Allena is on the phone most days, talking to insurance companies and applying for loans while J.C. spends his time slowly rebuilding their lives.

Applying for financial assistance has not been easy, Allena says. Insurance has covered a portion of the losses, but the rest will have to be paid with loans. The couple was denied grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which only offers help for minimal expenses, and mainly for those without insurance and shelter. By late June, FEMA had issued approximately $21 million worth of grants and loans to tornado victims. The aid, however, barely begins to cover the estimated $400 million in damage caused by the storms.

For now, J.C. and Allena pay for expenses out of their own pockets, which aren’t very deep. Allena was laid off from her job as a teacher’s aide at Lamar Elementary School two weeks before the tornado because of budget cuts. J.C. hasn’t worked since the Friday before the tornado and recently took early retirement. All they have left now is the little they had in their safe deposit box.

J.C. surveys the family's new home foundation.

Although the Brashers can eventually replace most of their belongings, they miss the personal items they’ve held dear for so many years. They cannot replace the cedar chest made from a tree in Allena’s childhood family farm or her daughter’s wedding dress that was inside. They will never again see the Noritake china J.C. brought back from Hong Kong more than 30 years ago, or the collection of antiques passed down for generations.

Fortunately, the one lost item that upset Allena most has been returned. On the evening of the tornado, she had slipped her wedding ring off to make strawberry shortcake. When she rushed out of the house, she forgot to grab it. For a week, Allena prayed she would find her wedding ring. Since the family couldn’t even find their washer or dryer, it seemed unlikely they’d find a ring. Miraculously, her daughter found it a week later lying in a field 50 yards from the house.

The Brashers have learned to recognize and appreciate their blessings. They are awed by the generosity of complete strangers. Teens from Kansas City volunteered to clean debris for several days. Local merchants and their church donated supplies and clothing.

“Others have been extremely giving,” Allena says. “This has really built our faith in people and God. Our faith in God has carried us through this and will continue to give us strength.”

Although the Brashers aren’t sure where the next paycheck will come from, they are confident everything will work out. For now, they remain like so many others — a Midwest family taking one day at a time.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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