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A tornado flattened the Johnson family home, but not their spirit

The story of how a twister led a family to Habitat


The Johnson’s Habitat house in progress.


Arms and spirits lifted.


By Heather Fitz

Michael and Kara Johnson were terrified as they shielded their three young children in the bathtub of their rented trailer just after 1 a.m. on the morning of April 28, 2011.

A tornado was tearing through their town of Glade Springs, Va., and the bunk beds where their kids had slept just minutes earlier were later found underneath a neighbor’s car. Once their world stopped violently shaking, the Johnson family picked their way through the debris they once called home.

Although incredibly thankful to be alive, life after the tornado presented many challenges for the Johnson family.

“It was hard,” said Kara Johnson. “We’d lived in that trailer for ten years and paid $400 a month. The rent never increased. After the tornado, we realized we couldn’t find a place to rent anywhere for that little. We ended up in an apartment paying $725 a month. We felt stuck and worried we’d never be able to get out of it.”

Soon after the tornado, Washington County Habitat for Humanity called a board meeting about the town’s recovery.

“We’d heard about Mike and Kara and knew they were a family that had the need and commitment to be a Habitat partner family,” said David Winship, board chair of Washington County Habitat for Humanity. The affiliate invited the Johnsons to fill out paperwork. Several months later, Michael and Kara Johnson learned they were going to be homeowners.

“The Johnson family embodies Habitat and our mission,” David continued. “We were happy to step in and partner with them. That’s Habitat, it’s what we do. We step forward and help build houses.”

On Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012, ten months after the devastating tornado ripped through Glade Springs, the sun shone brightly and some 50 plus people showed up for the Johnson’s house dedication.

“We are just in awe and can’t believe we’re finally here,” said Kara. “Our new house is a green house which means it is energy-efficient. It also has a crawl space and basement which makes us feel a bit safer given what we’ve been through. We had so many people help us get to this point and we are grateful for each person and organization.”

“We’ve been through a lot this past year,” added Kara. “This experience has really helped us teach our kids a lesson, too. We tell them that we didn’t get this house because of the tornado. The tornado made us available for the house, but we are homeowners now because of our hard work and perseverance. If you do the right thing and work hard, nothing is out of your reach.”

Ten months ago, the Johnsons felt terror. Asked how they feel now, Kara said, “Habitat for Humanity has made our life better. We aren’t scared to death anymore. We have a safe home, can pay our bills and we aren’t stuck. We feel relief.”


‘You can see hope here’: One year after the 2011 tornadoes

A series about families and local Habitat affiliates one year after hundreds of deadly tornadoes ripped across the southern United States.

Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.
Our local Habitat affiliates are leading the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Learn more about this disaster recovery and how you can help.