Their home rebuilt, tornado victims are ready to move on ... and away

Robert and Michele Sayetta were marking only the sixth month in their new home south of Willmar when it came crashing down around them as they huddled for safety in its basement with their two young daughters, Emilie and Harmony. They will mark t...

One year on
Michele and Robert Sayetta survey the damage in their yard shortly after the July 11, 2008, tornado severely damaged their home and destroyed a barn and out building. All the Sayetta's pets, save for one barn cat, were recovered in the aftermath of the tornado, and their horses were unharmed, despite being in the barn. Tribune file photo

Robert and Michele Sayetta were marking only the sixth month in their new home south of Willmar when it came crashing down around them as they huddled for safety in its basement with their two young daughters, Emilie and Harmony. They will mark the one-year anniversary of the July 11, 2008, Willmar tornado in their newly refurbished house, but they expect it will be their summer last in the home.

"This isn't what we signed up for,'' said Michele Sayetta, pointing to an open, spacious landscape that once was framed by large stands of trees. She and her husband plan to move back to the Northwest -- and away from the paths of tornados -- as a consequence to their experience one year ago.

The tornado damaged or destroyed a string of houses and out buildings along Kandiyohi County Road 19 south and west of Willmar, as well as striking a turkey barn and Arnold's Case Implement along U.S. Highway 71 South.

Those in the twister's path have largely been able to rebuild and get on with their lives, but the event still shapes their lives.

"Coming home every day we think about it,'' said Robert Sayetta.


Friday, July 11, 2008, arrived hot and sticky and Robert recognized early in the day how ripe the conditions were for violent weather.

He grew up in the Virgin Islands and experienced enough hurricanes to know the danger of violent weather. Michele's childhood in southern California taught her a healthy appreciation for the power of nature.

As the storm developed to their west, Robert and Michele gathered their horses into a small barn. Emilie and Harmony, 6 and 8 at the time, were playing in the indoor pool room when they announced that the weather radio was squawking a warning. Robert looked out to see the winds swirling together to form a funnel, and rushed the family downstairs.

He had already cracked open the windows in anticipation of the sudden, tremendous change in pressure that can come with violent storms. He believes this may have saved the home from destruction.

Emilie made one quick run to the pool room for something she had left behind, but returned in time to huddle with their rest of their family as their ears popped and they all felt a sudden drop in air pressure.

They felt a second, dramatic drop in air pressure and then there was only noise. "Crashing. Glass breaking. Walls ripping apart,'' said Robert.

He was the first to emerge.

"You do not want to see this,'' he yelled back to the family. To the east, he could see the backside of the tornado as it continued its path towards Highway 71.


Their yard was strewn with debris. The barn was severely damaged, but its central stalls and their horses were still standing. The family's menagerie of small animals, rabbits and birds and cats were on the loose.

Robert had been wishing earlier in the day that they had an outdoor pool instead of an indoor pool. He now had his wish.

"The devastation was incredible,'' said Robert of the site all around him.

Guys in green shirts were at the door in minutes offering help, as were volunteer fire and rescue personnel. Close on their heels were the "looky lous,'' or gawkers who came to snap pictures, said Robert.

It wasn't really until November before they could move into a newly-rebuilt version of their house.

Mom and dad assured their daughters that you only experience one tornado in your lifetime. "They are believing it,'' said Robert.

But like their neighbors, Robert and Michele have a difficult time shaking the memories of what happened. Both are keenly aware of the approaching anniversary.

"As for plans to do anything, I don't think so,'' said Robert when asked how they will mark the day. "I think we'll let the day pass.''


To view a selection of photos the Sayetta's took in the aftermath of the destruction, visit

A neighbor also video-taped the tornado as it struck their home, and it is among the collection of You Tube video postings devoted to the Willmar tornado.

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