News & Events

After tornado hit their home, Utah family grows stronger, is forever changed

September 21, 2017
Gaelynn and Paul Sewell stand in front of their new home on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, in Washington Terrace. The Sewell's home of 22 years was destroyed by the tornado that struck Washington Terrace on Sept. 22, 2016. They recently moved into their new home at the same location. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

Story by MITCH SHAW • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK • Standard-Examiner staff

WASHINGTON TERRACE — It took about three minutes for Paul and Gaelynn Sewell’s life to turn completely upside down.

The couple lost their Washington Terrace home of 22 years after a tornado touched down in the city on Sept. 22 of last year.

Both of their vehicles were destroyed in the storm, and so were countless irreplaceable and cherished personal items. Photographs and scrapbooks were obliterated. Books, decorations, even clothes were ruined. Furniture and appliances were crushed.

Nearly everything under their roof was gone after the twister tore through their neighborhood.

But a year later, the Sewells say the experience left them with a newfound appreciation for family, community and life in general.

RELATED: Riverdale neighborhood putting lives back together a year after tornado hit

RELATED: Before and after photos of the Riverdale, Washington Terrace tornado

“I never thought I’d be saying this,” Gaelynn Sewell said. “But this has been a happy story.”

On the afternoon the tornado hit, Gaelynn and her husband, Paul, were outside on their back porch watching a nasty set of storm clouds converge over the Terrace. As the clouds moved closer and rain started to pelt the couple, they rushed for cover.

“It got really cloudy, and then it started raining, so we ran into the house,” Gaelynn Sewell said. “Then, literally right after we walked into the house, all of our windows started breaking out. There was all this dust and insulation from the attic coming out everywhere, and suddenly I looked up and could see daylight coming through the roof. It was completely surreal.”

The tornado ripped the Sewells’ roof off, crushed their back porch and caused major structural damage throughout their home. The damage was catastrophic, but Gaelynn Sewell said the entire ordeal from start to finish “couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes.”

Gaelynn Sewell, right, holds her daughter, Morgan Sewell, after a tornado hit their home in Washington Terrace on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

“There was no warning,” Paul Sewell said. “If we’d have stayed outside on the porch, we’d be dead. We cheated death.”

When the storm ended, the couple immediately called their 17-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter, who were both away when the tornado touched down. Then they shuffled around the broken house, vacantly surveying the damage.

“Paul told our daughter the roof was off of the house, and she was like, ‘Yeah, very funny dad,’” Gaelynn Sewell said. “It was just unbelievable. I remember we were walking through the house (immediately after the storm), and every few minutes we’d stop and look at each other and say, ‘What happened? What are we going to do?’”

The fact of the matter was that the Sewells didn’t know. They contacted their home insurance company and moved into a Layton hotel, but beyond that, they really didn’t know where to start.

The family stayed in Layton for two weeks, then moved into a townhome in Harrisville, where they stayed until their home was rebuilt in June.

The time between the storm and the construction of their new house (it was rebuilt at the same location) was an education on the ins and outs of insurance, a lesson in patience and a demonstration of humanity.

The couple had to hire a structural engineer to inspect their home. It was not only determined the home was unsalvageable, but that it hadn’t been properly attached to the foundation when it was built — meaning the Sewells would need a new foundation and it wouldn’t be covered by insurance.

The family also had to provide their insurance company with an exhaustive list of items that were lost in the storm.

“We had to inventory every single thing down to light bulbs,” Gaelynn Sewell said. “It was incredibly hard to go through everything we lost.”

Anne Lansing, a real estate agent with Golden Spike Realty, heard about the Sewells’ plight, and with the help of the Northern Wasatch Association of Realtors, helped the family through the process of rebuilding their home. Lansing’s son coached the Sewells’ son in football at Layton Christian Academy.

“She heard about our ordeal and offered her help,” Gaelynn Sewell said. “She basically walked us through the whole process out of the goodness of her heart.”

RELATED: 8 months after tornado, Riverdale family struggles to put life back together

Lansing said she visited the tornado site shortly after the storm, handing out water to families in need. She said she was deeply affected by the destruction.

“It was just a situation where you see people who really, really need a helping hand,” Lansing said, still emotional about the experience.

Roy-based KOZ Construction was recruited to rebuild the Sewell home, and nine months after they were homeless, the family moved in to a new house. Gaelynn Sewell said KOZ went “above and beyond” to keep the family informed and comfortable as it was built.

She said many other people — from long-time neighbors and family friends to complete strangers — provided service during the nearly yearlong transition.

“I had a lady come up to me and say, ‘I saw you on the news,’ and hand me a $20 bill,” Gaelynn Sewell said. “We had so many people help us. I learned there are a lot of very good people out there.”

Though the Sewells say the experience typically brought out the best in their community, it also brought out some of the worst.

A new address marker sits at the spot where a tornado knocked down the east side of Gaelynn and Paul Sewell's former home in Washington Terrace. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

Looters took things out of their home after it was condemned, they said, and an acquaintance of their daughter’s took money from a fake GoFundMe account that claimed to be raising money for the family.

Gaelynn Sewell said dark thunder clouds now put her on high alert, and the family is still sorting through sundry insurance items. But they’re better and stronger because of the storm, she said.

“It gave us a new perspective,” she said. “On people, on family, on what’s important in life and what’s not. We’re forever changed — for the better.”

You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/MitchShaw.StandardExaminer.