A crucifix still hangs after the April 26 tornado destroyed much of the Sturgeon family house. It had been blessed by Father Tim Forgét, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, at Christmas. COURTESY PHOTO

Encountering Jesus

‘Please help us,’ wife prays as she and her son shield loved one from tornado

Debbie Sturgeon is not one to panic.

She trusted that God would care for her family on April 26 when a tornado plowed toward their Elkhorn home and she and her sons were unable to get her husband, Frank, to the basement.

Frank, 65, suffers from multiple sclerosis and has little to no use of his arms and legs. They would have needed to use a lift to get him into a chair before moving him outside through a back door, down a ramp and around to the front of the house, through the garage and into the basement.

“By then, if we would’ve tried that, we would’ve been outside,” Debbie said. She and her family are members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley.

Her husband was diagnosed with MS about 35 years ago. So her family – which includes grown sons Frank Jr. and Jesse – has had time to think about what to do in such an emergency.

“I was thinking Jesse could sling him over his shoulder,” she said. “Or you could put a sheet on the floor and maybe kind of gently get him out of the bed and pull him down the hall and down the stairs in a pinch.”

Jesse Sturgeon, left, is pictured in a family photo with his father, whom he helped protect during the tornado. COURTESY PHOTO

Debbie had just returned from a grocery store and didn’t even have a chance to put her groceries away when the tornado sirens sounded.

During previous tornado warnings, she said, “we’d just kind of watch and see where it’s going. But we didn’t have time really to do anything. … It just came up so fast.”

The mother directed Frank Jr. to go to the basement, while she and Jesse stayed with Frank Sr.

They were in an upstairs bedroom on the front of their split-entry house when the tornado hit.

“So we’re looking outside the window in our room, and then our trash can goes up,” Debbie said. “We had a little fence holding it. It went flipping up and over and across the road.”

“I kind of laughed, like, wow,” she said.

“Then our neighbor catty corner to us had this big old maple tree … and it blew. You could hear the freight train sound. … We saw this tree just go down and go blowing down the street.”

“So we turned around and I laid on Frank, and then Jesse laid on top of me. I guess there was a lot of wind, but it was dark because the lights had gone out.”

“Then I just said a quick prayer: ‘Please help us.’


Debbie said she trusted that God would answer her prayer after years of Him coming through for her family.

“When Frank got MS and he had to quit working, I started saying the rosary,” she said. “I’m one of the people who try to say it every day, though it’s not always possible.

“We’ve been through stuff where he’s been really sick, so I never panicked,” Debbie said. “You just have to wait and God will help you.”

The tornado’s blast seemed quick, she said. “I said ‘It’s going to be over in a minute’ because I knew from watching other people that it doesn’t last long.”

“Then you could see light, and it was over.

“Honestly, it was just like it rolled right over us,” she said. “I didn’t feel sucked up or anything. … It was a miracle really.”

An adjacent bedroom lost walls, one of which was shared with the room they were in.

“It stopped at our room, but that whole wall on the other side is gone,” Debbie said.

Their bedroom, a bathroom and the basement were the only parts of the house left standing, said Michaela Sturgeon, Debbie and Frank’s daughter, who lives in an apartment building in Elkhorn that was not damaged.

Another daughter, Rachael, lives in Waterloo. Both were relieved when they found out that family members had survived after the tornado, which was categorized as at least an EF-3, with winds of 136 to 165 mph.

“Many, many angels were watching over them,” Michaela said.

Nearby houses were flattened. If they had been on an upper floor in one of those homes, Debbie said, they would have never survived.

“God protected him,” Debbie said of her husband.

On a wall near Frank’s bed a crucifix remained. It had been blessed by Father Tim Forgét, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, at Christmas.


A pole that holds his feeding bags fell on Frank’s head during the tornado, she said, but he’s recovered well. “He had just a tiny brain bleed, and it’s not bleeding anymore.”

He was cared for at Methodist Hospital in Omaha. Father Forgét gave the family another crucifix during Frank’s hospital stay.

Now the family resides in a small assisted-living apartment, provided free of charge, until they move to a more permanent home.

Other family members were not injured in the tornado, though they struggled to find each other and their pets in the immediate aftermath.

“A piece of the ceiling had fallen on my back, drywall, so I couldn’t get up,” Debbie said. “I think some fell on Jesse, too, but he could get his off.”

“Jesse got that drywall off of me,” she said, “then he went to the living room and said Frank’s fine, but he couldn’t find his cat. We were looking all over for our cat,” which had managed to find safety in the basement.

Jesse and the family cat. COURTESY PHOTO

Their dog, Luna, an elderly Collie mix, survived but suffered an eye injury and already had been ailing with other health problems. They had her euthanized several days later.

“I didn’t want her to suffer anymore,” Debbie said. “She wasn’t going to make it too much longer anyway.”

After learning what the family had been through, the veterinarian paid for the dog’s care and cremation.

Debbie said she has seen the Holy Spirit at work all around her, through the care of friends and strangers amid the devastation.

Frank’s MS caregivers helped with cleanup so Debbie could be with her husband and care for him. They began calling and texting as soon as she stepped out of her destroyed home and on Frank’s ambulance ride to a hospital.

A crew of 15 caregivers and their family members salvaged what they could from the house and moved it into a storage unit. Several people offered to store the Sturgeons’ remaining belongings or pay for a unit, but a business in Valley offered free storage.

Debbie said she has been amazed at how the possessions that mattered most to her were not destroyed.

Debbie and Frank Sturgeon are captured with their young family in this family photo. COURTESY PHOTO

Somehow family photos were saved, even after rain soaked their mostly roofless house. Immediately after the tornado and minutes before they had to evacuate because of a gas leak in the neighborhood, the wife and mother managed to get a bin full of photos into a closet that still had a roof over it. Another bin of pictures was protected by a portion of roof that fell over it but didn’t smash it.

The pictures, she said, “didn’t get wet. Isn’t that crazy? Wherever I wanted to save something, it was already figured out. God figured it out.”

A box of her grandson’s baby items became stuck between the house and the ramp outside that had flipped over. “The lid was wet,” Debbie said, “but everything else was fine.”

Even in destroyed items, there were blessings to be found.

Several home improvement projects – plans to repaint, recarpet, tear down a rusty swing set in the backyard and trim or take down an overgrown fir tree – all were eliminated because of the tornado.

“So basically every problem was taken care of,” Debbie said.

One of Frank’s caregivers had begged her: “Debbie, you’ve got to just let people help you.”

Another one signed up the family to receive aid from St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn.

Members of St. Patrick and St. John the Evangelist have helped with navigating insurance, supplying donated furniture and a used car, and finding a contractor to build a house.

“So you can see the Holy Spirit working,” Debbie said.

Divine protection has been there all along, she said.

“Of course I know that Mary and Jesus are going to help, because we’ve been doing this for how long, and they’ve always helped. I’ve always said the rosary, and we’ve always had help for everything.”

“So of course I didn’t panic. Of course I would think that they’re going to help us.”

Frank Sturgeon is seen in a family photo visiting with a grandson. COURTESY PHOTO


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