Gina Prochaska-Volenec and her husband, David Volenec, take a break in what’s left of their Elkhorn home. COURTESY PHOTO

Encountering Jesus

Cleaning up her tornado-ravaged home, Elkhorn resident finds blessings

Days after a tornado destroyed her Elkhorn home, Gina Prochaska-Volenec was still finding reasons to praise and thank God.

First and foremost, her husband, David Volenec, survived. The lieutenant with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office had just arrived home to scurry their two cats and a dog to safety when the April 26 tornado blasted their house.

He hadn’t yet made it to the basement when the home collapsed around and on him. His leg was injured, his wife said, but somehow he avoided much worse.

Then there was the immediate rush of kindness: from family, including their two grown children, from close friends, from friends they hadn’t seen in years and from strangers – including those who reunited them with their missing dog and those who reunited them with a family photo, blown more than 70 miles away by the storm.

“The outpouring has just been incredible, absolutely incredible,” Prochaska-Volenec said, talking on her cell phone as she continued cleaning up what was left of her house on Monday.

“You see the blessings come out of it, even though there is devastation as we do this process and see what’s recovered, what survived. I don’t know how many times my son, Will, has said, “OK, that’s God,” as they’ve seen signs of His protecting hand and providential care.

The Volenecs’ home, like many in their Elkhorn neighborhood, was destroyed. COURTESY PHOTO

Prochaska-Volenec – a Sarpy County probation officer and bulletin editor for her parish, St. James in Omaha – had been traveling to Valentine on Friday to help her sister. The Elkhorn resident was hours away from home when she received news of the tornado and turned around to go home. A strong storm system created several tornadoes in the area.

Lt. Volenec had been at work storm spotting when his wife texted him to go home and get their pets in the basement. After he got the cats in the basement, their dog, Wrigley, “got spooked and darted up the stairs,” his wife said.

“David tried to grab him but couldn’t get it done. So Wrigley was gone, and David was not in the basement. He was on the landing of the stairs to go to the basement when it hit full force,” she said of the tornado, which was categorized as at least an EF-3, with winds of 136 to 165 mph.

“He got covered in insulation and drywall,” Prochaska-Volenec said, “and thankfully it came in that order before the lumber hit him. And thankfully he didn’t get sucked up in the midst of it. He said it was like the house just exploded.”

“He’s got a leg injury that we need to get checked out,” she said on Monday, “and he has been breathing in a lot of the insulation, so we’ve got to get that checked out, too. The dog was lost for a day, so I want to take him to the vet and make sure he’s OK.”

Volunteers from the nonprofit Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue in Omaha began looking for Wrigley and other lost and traumatized pets within hours of the tornado hit on Friday.

Wrigley was found in a field near his home. COURTESY PHOTO

Less than a day later the rescuers found Wrigley with the neighbor dog, Buddy – a former foe turned friend.

Over the weekend, the Volenecs received a little more good, and even surprising, news: Someone found one of their family photos – which pictured the Volenecs’ now 25-year-old daughter, Anna, on the occasion of her First Holy Communion – more than 70 miles away in Bronson, Iowa, near Sioux City.

That the storm carried and tossed the picture that far away was astonishing. But perhaps even more amazing was how it was to be returned to its owners, thanks to social media networking and the kindness of a Mapleton, Iowa, woman who knows from experience how destructive tornadoes can be.

Her town was hit by an EF-3 tornado in 2011.

Over the weekend, on Facebook, Jacy Zawodny noticed some odd findings in northwest Iowa towns, “people talking, like, I found this in my yard. I found someone’s wedding photo, or Baptism, or whatever.”

“I think a lot of people didn’t quite put two and two together right away,” she said, connecting the photos with the tornado-damaged communities. “Now, after the fact, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did this travel so far, so quickly?’ Because it was only an hour’s time between the storms there and here.”

“I don’t know,” she said, “it’s just wild.”

Among the photos found, “a lot of them are in perfectly fine condition,” Zawodny said. “They’re not crinkled up. I mean, some have some water spots on them and stuff, but it’s absolutely incredible that most of them held up the way that they did.”

A Volenec family photo was found more than 70 miles away. COURTESY PHOTO

The mother of four young children began compiling the posts of what was found and sharing them on Facebook swap groups and church groups.

Soon she was “wheeling and dealing and trying to find all the homes to all these pictures.”

“The whole reason behind even trying to do it to begin with is because I remember how bad it was here when we all went through that,” Zawodny said. “And to take any sort of weight off of anyone is more than I could ask for.”

“Our house was still standing” after the 2011 tornado, she said, “but all of our windows were blown out, so it was very wet and very muddy in here. We had a 2-month-old at the time, and my husband and I were barely in our 20s, so it was just a really bad time.”

Yet other parts of Mapleton were flattened, she said.

“Yeah, I remember all too well. I’ve got a tidbit of trauma related to that, but I’m trying my best to be prepared, not scared, and help out where I can.”

Prochaska-Volenec surveyed the damage in her area and acknowledged: “Our neighborhood is pretty much demolished.

“There are a few houses standing,” she said, “but they’re still total losses. Probably four or five were either flattened or near-flattened. So we got hit pretty hard.”

But sorting through the remains of her house, she found sentimental reminders of God’s care for her family, like the St. James/Seton School uniforms she had tucked away years earlier. “Just reminders that … when you rely on God, He takes care of you.”

Prochaska-Volenec is pictured with Wrigley after their reunion. COURTESY PHOTO

Members of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Mavericks hockey team helped the Volenecs with cleanup. COURTESY PHOTO

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