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Winterset tornado 1 year later: How 2 farmers found strength and resilience in rebuilding

A decade and 3/4 of a million dollars of work were destroyed at PepperHarrow Farm after an EF-4 tornado ripped through Winterset Iowa on March 5, 2022.

WINTERSET, Iowa — Standing in their newly built greenhouse surrounded by budding seeds and baby chicks, there's one word that comes to Adam O'Neal's mind to describe the last year: resiliency.

"I really hadn't put much thought into it and actually had to go to the dictionary to see what resilient meant," he said. "I had an idea, but I wanted to know what the dictionary said. And it was interesting to experience this and see how resilient we actually were. Like, we made it happen."

On March 5, 2022, he and his wife, Jenn, were hosting their son's friends for his 15th birthday part at their home at PepperHarrow Farm in Winterset when an EF-4 tornado tore across their acres of flower fields and Madison County.

"We were actually in this greenhouse right before it hit," Jenn O'Neal said. "We were in here at 4pm when the tornado warning alerts went off on our phones... Him and his friends came milling out of the barn like, 'What's going on?' Like, 'Boys, you better come inside for a little bit.' We just wanted to make sure that they were safe."

While their memories from that day are foggy, both Adam and Jenn remember emerging from their basement shelter to a much different reality.

"I went on up into the main part of the house and there was literally glass all over the floor," Jenn said. "At that point, when I saw the glass on the floor, I was like half a room is missing in our house or the top floor of our house is gone. And so I had asked Adam like, 'Are the bedrooms still upstairs? Is everything still intact?' Because there was just so much glass. It was like, you couldn't imagine that everything was still okay."

The O'Neals were lucky. Their house was still standing with a large tree just barely scrapping a corner of the roof of the second floor. But to this day, they're still finding shards of glass from windows that were blown out. The rest of PepperHarrow Farm didn't fare as well.

"Everything was gone," Jenn said. "The trees were gone. And it was just like, how did this happen in a number of minutes, going from all of these things that we worked so hard for to completely being gone and like blown into the woods. It was jarring."

The greenhouse they had just been standing in, the event barn their son and his friends had just been in and a flower cottage were completely destroyed.

The next day, the help came pouring in as community members took charge of the cleanup.

"We had such an amazing turnout of people the next day, like, absolutely blown away by the amount of people that came to help," Adam said.

Most of the debris was cleaned up by the end of that day or in a pile to be removed. However, there were still a few weeks after that spent cleaning, and even now, there are still remnants of what the tornado left behind.

"There's still pieces of our neighbors' buildings in our trees that we haven't been able to get out yet," he said. 

"We estimate we have about six acres of trees that need some level of cleanup," Jenn said. "Something we used to enjoy together, was walking around our property and walking through our little timberland area. It's not safe to walk through there. There are widow makers hanging everywhere."

Not rebuilding the farm was never an option, they both agreed. Jenn said she wanted to get to work immediately.

"After the night the tornado hit, we could not sleep all that night into the next morning. We sat there awake and just nothing could shut our minds down," Jenn said. "My first instinct was to act. I was like these are the things we need to do. I was making my mental list. And the first thing I did the next morning was I reached out to someone who could help us rebuild our little flower cottage. I just loved our little flower cottage."

They started teaching seed classes in the second story of their neighbor's garage, and by the end of March, they were "well on (their) way to getting stuff done."

Being that it was March, a lot of their acres of flower fields hadn't started popping up yet. Some of the younger plants were able to withstand the tornado's winds. But when May rolled around, they found a half acre of lavender wasn't waking up. 

"The wind just really broke the crowns and we got snow on top of them after that," Adam said. "So they kind of rotted in place."

"There is always an upside. We say there's always lemonade to be made out of lemons," Jenn said. "We were able to replant that lavender field adding in little grassy patches in between to be able to host picnics in the lavender fields where we can actually sit people and have lavender picnics and have people sit amongst the lavender plants which is a really cool experience."

Rebuilding the barn and flower cottage was like that too, Jenn said, where it was a chance to bring a new vision to life.

The two reflect on what this last year has brought them as they look ahead to work that will still have to be done. They estimate it will be years before PepperHarrow Farm is 100% back to the way it was pre-tornado.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going," Jenn said. "We're like wow, we are really tough, mentally tough and strong."

"We got going," Adam said.

He also estimates they lost close to three-quarters of a million dollars worth of work that they put into the farm over the past decade.

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