Story by MARK SAAL • Photos by MATT HERP • Standard-Examiner staff
RIVERDALE — One year after a rare tornado damaged more than 40 Weber County homes, the neighborhoods affected are pretty much back to normal.
However, the twister did leave a few lasting scars.
Emotions are still tender and there are visible signs of the havoc wreaked on the afternoon of Sept. 22, 2016, when an EF1 tornado skipped across parts of Riverdale, Washington Terrace and South Ogden.
The twister only lasted 15 minutes, but in the time, it caused about $2 million in damage to public and private property, according to a November 2016 report from the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. That number — provided by warning coordination meteorologist Kevin Barjenbruch — is the most recent available. City, county and state officials weren’t able to provide an updated estimate.
In total, 12 homes were deemed uninhabitable, 30 more were damaged, 37,000 were left without power and at least five people suffered non-life threatening injuries, Barjenbruch said.
One noticeable scar that remains: An empty lot where Rose and Wesley Blomquist’s home once stood.
A year ago the Blomquists were living in their newly remodeled home, located where 4925 South and 525 West meet near the Riverdale-Washington Terrace border. The house was heavily damaged by the tornado — but they didn’t have to tear down the structure.
“No, the tornado pretty much did that,” neighbor Andy Erwin said. “They just had to haul away the mess.”
Though two house-flippers plan to put a home on the property soon, the lot remains empty for now. After the Blomquists’ house was declared a total loss, they took their insurance money, sold the land and moved to Palmdale, California.
HIT THE DECK
Rose Blomquist was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework when the tornado barreled up her street.
“My kitchen table faces toward the window, and it was kinda windy, but not crazy windy,” she said. “But then, all of a sudden I look up and see the barbecue grill hovering in the air for a second, and then it flew off.”
Right after that came what sounded like a freight train, then a “weird pressure change and warm air,” according to Blomquist.
“Once the pressure changed, the windows all blew out at the same time, and that’s when everything started flying around the room,” she said.
Blomquist hit the deck.
She calls herself “lucky, very lucky.” When she stood up and looked around, the room she was in was the only one still intact.
“The kitchen was the only place we didn’t get damage — my dishes and everything were fine,” Blomquist said. “The whole roof had shifted over, but it wasn’t collapsed where I was.”
Blomquist first tried to exit out the front door, but she couldn’t.
“The tornado came down the street, took everyone’s stuff and threw it at my house,” she said. “We had three people’s roofs piled up in front of my door and a swamp cooler in the living room. We didn’t own a swamp cooler.”
Blomquist went out the back of the house. The large tree that had been in their front yard was on top of the structure. The new cedar fence she and her husband had just installed was gone. Their shed — a “sturdy” one — was now three houses down.
The scope of the destruction was mind-boggling. Blomquist couldn’t even comprehend what had just occurred.
“I had no idea what happened; I had to ask around,” she recalls. “I kept saying, ‘It looks like a tornado hit.’ All the signs were there that it was a tornado, but it just didn’t fit in Utah.”
Insurance put the Blomquists in a hotel for a month, then into temporary housing in North Ogden.
“It was right when winter hit,” she said. “It was blowing really hard, and I’d get nervous.”
She says the temporary house they were living in didn’t have much insulation, and they could hear the wind blowing outside, especially from the upstairs bedroom.
“For a while I slept downstairs on the couch; I couldn’t sleep otherwise,” she said. “And the dogs would freak out way more than me.”
‘A LOUD BANG’
Jake Field, of Washington Terrace, lives directly behind the Blomquists’ now-missing home. He said his family came through the ordeal relatively unscathed. The tornado broke out their bathroom window and tore up their back fence, but he knows it could have been much worse.
Indeed, the couple’s 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter were playing outside when the tornado hit. Their daughter’s face was scratched when she was struck by a stick sent flying by the twister.
Today, Field says their children are skittish about storms. “They’re weather-conscious now,” he said. “Our son always wants to know what the weather is going to be like.”
Erin and Shad Bybee, who live just a few doors down from the Blomquists’ former place, say the whole back half of their house was destroyed by the tornado.
Erin Bybee and her three young children were just inside the front door of the house when the tornado hit. She heard a loud noise, and looking back, could see the sky through the dining room and laundry room ceilings. It was raining hard; the kitchen and bathroom started flooding.
Bybee says the tornado ripped the attached covered patio from their backyard and deposited it in the front yard. All of the windows in the family’s minivan were blown out. Their trailer had been tossed into the middle of the road.
“I looked outside, and it looked like it was a war zone,” Bybee said. “I knew something bad had happened, but I didn’t know what it was. I just know the backyard swingset was suddenly in the front yard.”
Like Blomquist, Bybee didn’t realize it was a tornado.
“It was such a loud bang, I didn’t know if something blew up,” she said. “I didn’t know where it was safe — if I should take the kids outside or keep them inside.”
The house was basically gutted, Bybee said.
The Bybees moved in with her parents in West Point while their home was repaired. In mid-April they moved back in, just in time for the birth of their fourth child.
Bybee says their life is back to relative normal. “We do miss our two giant pine trees in the backyard,” she said. “But we count our blessings — and I’ve got a remodeled home.”
However, Bybee says their children are dealing with the trauma of living through the tornado.
“My kids are terrified of wind,” she said. “For the first few weeks, even if it looked cloudy, they got scared.”
LIVING IN A TRAILER
Next door to the Bybees, Krystal and Chase Elliott lost their roof in the tornado. Krystal Elliott says the couple and their three children have spent the last year living in a fifth-wheel on the property while Chase — a contractor — slowly remodels the home. Elliott says she’s really hoping they’ll be back in the house by Christmas.
“They totaled the house and said we could level it or keep it,” she said. “So we kept what we could, and we’re remodeling the rest.”
On the day of the tornado, the Elliott family had started out for Salt Lake City for a birthday celebration but decided against it and returned home. Chase had just backed their Honda CRV into the driveway when the wind whipped up.
“I looked out my window to see a blow-up pool swirling high in the air,” Krystal Elliott said. “Then I looked the other way and saw this tornado coming up the road.”
Before they knew what was happening, the tornado ripped the roof from their house and dropped it over them and their vehicle.
“It was crazy,” Elliott said.
Like the other families, the Elliotts’ anxiety levels now rise during inclement weather.
“Our kids were a little weary of storms before, but now they’re extra cautious,” Elliott said. “Even me. We’re always watching the weather report.”
THE NEW NORMAL
Even those in the neighborhood who weren’t home when the tornado struck — and whose homes suffered relatively little damage — say they’ll be affected for years to come.
Neighbor Pat Erwin says with all the destruction to the homes around them, it was a miracle their house suffered so little damage. They had a large tree in the front yard of their west-facing home. When the tornado hit, it flattened a number of trees and power poles.
“All of the other trees and poles fell to the east, but our tree fell west,” she said. “Had it fallen like the other trees, it would have landed right on our house.”
The Erwins weren’t home at the time of the tornado — and for that, Pat Erwin says she’s grateful.
“Had we been home at the time, I’m not sure I could have come back here and lived,” she said.
Although daily life may not be as chaotic as it seemed a year ago, Weber County Emergency Management Director Lance Peterson isn’t sure he’d say the areas affected by the 2016 tornado are “back to normal.” Rather, he’s hopes for a “new normal.”
“Is it back to normal? Back to the way it was before? No,” Peterson said. “It can’t be. People’s lives change. They lost homes, they had to be rebuilt.”
He says emergency management folks have a saying when it comes to recovering from natural disasters: “We hope when we rebuild we do it safer, stronger and smarter.”