After one night in their cabin, flood takes it away, and now they’re starting ‘Johnson 2.0’
Editor’s note: This story, part of our continuing coverage of the survivors of the historic 2017 flood, includes edited excerpts from an email written to us last month by Sandy Johnson, recalling the year since the disaster.
One of the riverside homes destroyed by the April 2017 flood on the North Fork of the White River was owned by Tim and Sandy Johnson, who had dedicated months of their lives to building their charming, wood-sided cabin on a hill above the river just upstream from Blair Bridge. As the cabin neared completion, they planned to list their West Plains home with a Realtor in the coming weeks and move into the riverside cabin full time.
They put the finishing touches on the cabin, and on Friday, April 28, 2017, they spent their first night in their new riverside home. But the next night, their cabin was swallowed up by the raging waters of the North Fork. By Sunday, all that was left was the cabin’s foundation after the just-completed structure was completely washed away.
On Monday, May 1, 2017, Sandy Johnson told theTimes, “I’m at a loss for words, honestly. Never in a million years did I think this would happen. It looks like a tornado came through here. Trees are uprooted, debris and items from upstream are everywhere.”
The Johnsons, like so many other property owners on the river, had not been able to get flood insurance.
Recently, as the one-year anniversary of the flood came and went, Sandy said the traumatic event “has definitely been on our minds. This past year has been filled with lots of emotions and days with many ups and down,” she said in an email to the Times. “This home we had built was our retirement home, our forever home.”
But after the water receded and the initial shock wore off, “it seemed liked we just hit the ground running,” Sandy said. “There was so much debris to dispose of, personal items of others that we wanted to connect back to their owners. And we thought we just might get lucky and find something that belonged to us too. We were so lucky that we had friends, family and complete strangers who came out to help us with the debris. We were so blessed with the generosity of others.”
Looking beyond their own grim situation, the Johnsons “knew we needed to do something else,” Sandy said. “The beautiful river that we so dearly loved needed help in healing, so we decided to organize two river cleanups. We paired up with several of the canoe rentals, MDC [Missouri Department of Conservation] and a lot of people who donated their time and boats to start our first river cleanup. That first cleanup yielded four dumpsters of debris. The second cleanup yielded two dumpsters of debris. We are currently working on details for another cleanup this summer to get our river back to its glory.”
Despite their hard work at cleaning up the North Fork, “it was hard going down to the river to see the change in what it was .. and what it is like now,” Sandy said. She and Tim loved to float the North Fork, and Sandy has especially enjoyed taking pictures of people along the way, visiting with them and posting pictures of them on their Friends of the North Fork Facebook page. But last summer, “it was hard taking pictures,” she said. “The river just wasn’t the same. One of the hardest things for me was floating down the river and seeing sections of our home along the way. Seeing your home in pieces and listening to the critics say things ... that was a little unnerving. But we both took it in stride, and when the opportunity arose we would actually talk to people about the flood and our home we lost.”
Before the flood, the Johnsons had scheduled a trip to Colorado to visit Sandy’s niece, but they came close to canceling the trip when they lost their riverside cabin. “But my wise mother told me that Tim and I needed to get away for a couple of weeks,” Sandy said, adding that her mother also advised them “to use that time in the car with no distractions and figure out what we really wanted.” So the Colorado trip was back on and became “the best trip ever,” she said. “During the two weeks we were away, we discussed what we really wanted, looking at the scenery and the many rivers out west, we both knew what we wanted: We wanted to rebuild and not give up on our dream.”
But how could they do that? When they returned from Colorado, “we had to come up with a plan for how we were going to rebuild,” Sandy said. “The only thing we had left was our foundation, and we knew we couldn’t risk rebuilding there. Before we had built the first cabin, we did our homework and truly believed we did all the right things. We were above the 1915 flood line, and the house was not near the river bank. But with this flood, it didn’t matter, Mother Nature had her own plans.”
So they tore out the original foundation, dug out a section of the nearby bluff and made a concrete pad “up high,” Sandy said. Then they started to rebuild their dream home.
Tim, who had retired in August 2016 to be on site while the cabin was built, has since come out of retirement and started back to work to help fund the rebuilding effort.
“Needless to say, there have been days when it has been really hard to be positive,” Sandy said. “There have been road blocks along the way this past year, but we can’t let that define who we are. God was with us every step of the way, and we couldn’t have done it without him.”
An even greater heartache occurred when Sandy’s dad died of cancer in March. “One of his wishes was that he wanted to see us rebuild, and now we are giving him that wish. On Friday, April 20, 2018, we broke ground on Johnson 2.0. It’s not going to be quite like our first home, but that’s OK. It will be our forever home – our home where we never let our dreams die. ... One thing I would like to say to people is, Never give up on your dreams. There will be obstacles along the way, but in the end it will be worth the struggle.”
Despite the devastation and sorrow the historic flood left behind, the Johnsons insist on focusing on what’s really important. “The night of April 29, 2017, will forever change the lives of all the people on the North Fork, “ Sandy said, “but the most amazing part is that there were no lives lost. God is good.”