“How are we going to do this?” was the question that rolled through Gail Johnson’s head as she went to sleep the night of the tornado. The tornado had destroyed her home while she and four of her daycare children were in the basement.
She remembers standing up in a town hall meeting to ask what do you have for people like me who have lost their house and business. In a matter of days following the tornado, a woman from the Pizza Ranch offered her the basement space, another a space at the development and a friend suggested her son Mark’s house.
But the one Johnson still says, “You were so good to me” on is Jackie Kern sharing her daycare space for a week. Through a chain of phone calls, Kern invited Johnson to bring her daycare children and after the two gained permission from their licensors, Johnson prepared her rice casserole and goulash hotdishes for the children and headed over daily to continue her business.
The day of the tornado, Johnson had no idea what was ahead. Her day likely started with an early morning in the kitchen, preparing the breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack for the day. The rest would be packed with games and activities that sparked joy in the children, from a game of over, under, around and through to painting pictures and playing with toys. Each activity was a moment to teach, as Johnson said.
At lunch, she would count the six children present and note the food had that day as a part of a federally funded food program, which one of the women from Immanuel Lutheran Church had taught her to fill out with her heart, a mark of the love Johnson has for her children.
As reports of a tornado coming towards Wadena came over the radio, Johnson had her husband move his truck off the street and near their garage under some trees.
And when the first siren went off four children were left: Katie Blaha, Alexa Lind, Brynlee Ehrmantraut and Breanna Speed. The children put on their shoes and headed into the basement, in between the sirens the children found toys to play with before remaining in the basement after the second siren.
“My ears felt like just pressure and I thought … ‘What am I going to do?’ I can’t be sick or crying and stuff so I didn’t say anything about it to them,” Johnson said.
Though her head felt like it was about to blow, Johnson planned a way to protect the children: each sat between the legs of the person before them on the bed with Johnson in front of the bed. The “Wizard of Oz” came through Johnson’s mind as the sounds and silence hit.
In the moment of the tornado, Johnson and the children learned together. Lind, 3-years-old, lovingly offered her words of encouragement.
“I just thought I have to (stay calm) but then I kind of cried. Oh and this one little girl said … ‘Gail, why are you crying?’ I thought, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, OK,’” Johnson said. “She said, ‘Don’t cry, it’s just a summer storm.’ So I said, ‘I know, I know’ so I quit.”
At one point, Johnson headed to the bathroom on the right side of the basement and saw a light in the corner. While the power was out, she knew her house had not flown away.
When the group could return upstairs, shades were flopping and insulation from St. John’s Lutheran Church had landed on the living room wall. At the top of the stairs, Lind said, “What happened?”
“I just walked up a step and I just leaned over and said, ‘Alexa, it was just a summer storm.’ (Laughs) And she goes, ‘Oh,’” Johnson said.
The solace in these sweet words stayed while the children waited for their parents to come through roads that were closing. Dr. Christopher O’Kane, whose three daughters Johnson had in her daycare previously, checked if she needed to be in a car and dropped off a flag from the community center. Another mom made it through the closed road and Speed returned to her home next door.
“When it was all done, we didn’t have a house to live in, we didn’t have a car, we didn’t have a truck, we didn’t have a boat, none of that,” Johnson said.
The community support rushed in: the Lind family hosted Gail and Rick Johnson in their home for a few days and made sure the necessary and comforting items from their own home came with them. The day after the tornado, Christopher and Sarah O’Kane returned with a picture delivery from their daughters and a home for Rick and Gail to live in “unconditionally.” Sarah invited the Johnsons to live in their home for as long as it took for the Johnson’s home to be rebuilt while the O’Kanes moved to their lake house.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I was just like crying. I said, ‘You mean we’re going to take our clothes from here and bring them to yours and you’re going to take your clothes out and go to the lake?’” Johnson said. “‘Yes, unconditionally, if it takes a year or whatever,’”
The Johnson’s home had shifted off their foundation and after their contractor Mark Stone “went to bat” for placing the foundation back, the house was torn down. The garage in the back had caved in, crushing the car and boat inside and the truck outside. The house’s roof did not cave in.
“We were lucky in that respect,” Johnson said.
The daycare families and people she didn’t even know brought over items and helped move out items before the “sad” day of tearing down the house. Family members from the Twin Cities delivered a generator to keep their food from spoiling and a Detroit Lakes fire crew delivered the generator from the Wadena County Court House to the Johnson house. At Thanksgiving, Johnson wrote from the heart using whatever paper she had to thank the firemen.
In the process of rebuilding, the Johnsons purchased their neighbors’ lot and for the next six months Gail moved her daycare business to their son’s house about two blocks away. After the initial shock, the challenges simply needed to be given a chance, such as the children not being able to use the upstairs bathroom. But again things worked out as three of the four children were in diapers and the fourth child was her granddaughter Izzy who lived at the house.
The community support was “phenomenal,” as Johnson said. Only days after the tornado, seven child care providers including Johnson received grants totaling $6,600 from Child Care Resource and Referral, according to a Wadena Pioneer Journal article from July 30, 2010.
At Christmas time, Johnson received a Christmas tablecloth, an item from Sweden, a soft blanket, cookie cutters in the shape of angels and many more items in her first Secret Santa with Immanuel Lutheran church members.
“I was grateful but it made me sad,” Johnson said.
The gifts continued when their new home was complete and Christie Meier asked about a house blessing, where she and Rev. Marilyn Breckenridge went into the bedrooms, bathroom, living room, dining area, kitchen and porch to pray over the house. While inclement weather meant the group could not hold hands in a circle around the house, “a lot of people” came for the tradition new to Johnson.
“Of course, I’d never lost a house and had a new one,” Johnson said.
She again found the kindness of her child care families who were understanding when it came time for Johnson to retire in March 2020 due to health issues. The four children, a second grader, kindergartener and two preschoolers, enjoyed coloring and matching games around a rocking chair in the finished basement. “They loved me and the parents were happy with me,” as Johnson said.
“The Lord takes care of us,” Johnson said.
And as for the tornado, the days are marked with the community who supported her and her business.
“I don’t want to go through that again but you get through it when you think of all the people,” Johnson said.
Who: Gail Johnson, child care provider for 32 years
Where: Gail’s Daycare, 8th Street SW near St. John’s Lutheran Church, the cemetery and swimming pool