By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
As Brooke Person sat down to eat the pizza she picked up in town and watch the Iowa State basketball game, her phone kept going off. Seeing the tornado warning splashed across her home screen, she called her sister, Brandi Jackson, who lives on the same 200 acres of farmland near Runnells, Iowa.
Learning that their mom was already sheltering in the basement of her house on the family land, they realized today was different from the other storms they’ve weathered.
They rushed over to join their mom at her house. Through the picture windows, they watched the sky go dark.
“That’s when all hell broke loose,” said Person. “The hail came. The dog started whining. I saw the chain link fence in the backyard twisting in the wind. We got scared and knew we had to get down to the basement too.”
That day, March 5, 2022, at least three tornadoes moved through Central Iowa, causing deaths and the destruction of hundreds of homes and properties. One tornado touched down just 30 yards from Person and Jackson's houses.
The first thing on Person’s mind as soon as the wind quieted was to get to her animals and make sure they were safe. First, she checked the chickens and peacocks to make sure their roof was still intact. Then, she then ran across the property, dodging downed powerlines and debris, to find her miniature horse, miniature donkeys and goat. They were all huddled together, scared but fine. Their fence and shelter were gone.
“I had gotten a nail stuck in my foot as I tried to move a gate. I was on all fours and looked up into the eyes of my scared horse,” said Person. “In a calm voice, I said, ‘It’ll be okay, Pepper. I’m scared too.’”
But her miniature cow, Betsy, wasn’t with them. During the tornado, she traveled a half-mile away to the other side of the property.
Minutes after the storm ended, friends stopped by to help. Together they rounded up the animals into a trailer to keep them safe and took them to a friend’s farm. But, during the chaos, Betsy had wandered even further away. It took two weeks and the help of animal control to find her and bring Betsy home.
Meanwhile, Jackson headed over to her house, a heritage home her family built in 1876. She saw that the windows were blown out and parts of the roof were gone, exposing rafters that had
sheltered six generations of her family. Trees had also fallen onto the house — and on each of the cars in the driveway.
“When I went inside the house, there was glass everywhere. There was so much debris,” said Jackson. “Pretty soon, there was more wind and hail. Everything started shaking. It got really unsafe.”
Person’s house, which she had built in 2016, had the tin siding ripped off and scattered across the property by the wind. They found Jackson’s shed wedged into Person’s garage.
They couldn’t stay in their homes. But they struggled to sleep at their mom’s house after everything that happened.
“A coworker kept texting me asking, ‘what do you need?’” said Jackson. “I thought, ‘We had insurance. We have jobs. We’ll figure it out.’”
With the help of friends and neighbors, they got generators set up and cleared some of the debris that dotted the land where they held baseball games and fishing tournaments.
But the snowfall the week after the tornado and her coworker’s persistence convinced Jackson and her family to visit the local church where the Red Cross had a presence to provide people with assistance.
“It was eye-opening,” said Person. “Everyone was so supportive. They weren’t overbearing, but if you wanted to talk about something, basketball or whatever, they helped take your mind off things for a while.”
Person adds: “The Red Cross told us about relief and assistance options, but I thought we didn’t qualify. That we didn’t need it. I thought I was moving home the next day. But Penny, my caseworker, said my house was listed as having major damage.”
The Red Cross gave them wipes, garbage bags, and boxes that they immediately used.
“Penny did an excellent job. She laughed with us. We believe that you have to laugh your way through the hard stuff, and give thanks to God where it’s due,” said Jackson.
Person adds: “Her spirit made us know it was going to be ok. I want to hang out with Penny all the time. She stopped by when she was out assessing other damage in the area just to check in.”
The Red Cross didn’t forget about them after that first visit. Their caseworkers kept checking in, offering to special order the leg and arm braces Jackson’s daughter needed if they couldn’t locate them in the house.
“We found the braces and cleaned them up,” said Person. “It was so good to know someone was on our side. Having to deal with health insurance in the middle of all this would’ve been horrible.”
Jackson was working with the Red Cross caseworker, Shirley. “She didn’t just follow up with an email or text. It was personal. She was truly invested," said Jackson.
Person found the Red Cross’s advice about how to navigate insurance invaluable. A few weeks later, they can take time to reflect on the experience.
"We encouraged all our neighbors and friends to go to the church to visit the Red Cross too, A lot of them were in our same boat, thinking there are people who need it more than us," said Person.