His family struggles to get back to the Keys

On the day after Christmas, 17-year-old Ben Valen huddled in the master bedroom closet with his sister, Stephanie Donohue, 29, and her fiancé, Michael Bernard, 30, for the most terrifying 45 seconds the trio have ever experienced.

Mulitple twisters touched down in Rowlett and Garland, Texas, where the Keys teen was visiting his sister — one ripping right over the house, taking the roof with it and leaving walls of the brick-built home tilted at crazy angles.

“Not five minutes after the hurricane came over,” Ben said. “Our ears popped and five seconds later the lights went out. You know that weird feeling when your stomach lifts up like riding a roller coaster? That happened, then about 10 seconds later it dropped back down. It was a miracle that it didn’t rip through the closet we were in.

“I am never, ever moving to any state — not only Texas, that whole latitude — where they have tornadoes. It’s just ridiculous. I’m never going to forget it.”

Ben is a little blasé about his brush with death; not so, his mother. Sandra Henderson owns the Kleen Rite Services in the Florida Keys. In one minute, she said, she almost lost her daughter and her son and her son-in-law.

“As a mother …,” she said, choking up, pausing before continuing. “Not a scratch on them. They have guardian angels.”

Of course, the tornado story has an ironic twist. Ben was scheduled to come home right after the holidays to get back to Island Christian School where he is a junior.

Stephanie and Michael were in the final stages of packing up to move back to the Keys. Stephanie first, to take over her mother’s cleaning business, then Michael, who hopes to be hired locally as a firefighter/EMT. Stephanie and Michael lost most of their possessions.

“The tornado just picked everything up and slammed it back down — televisions, furniture. I think a lot of the clothes got sucked up, too,” Ben said. “A pair of my sweatpants were stuck on a nail in the roof joist, so I think a lot of things got blown away,” Ben said. The destruction included Stephanie and Michael’s cars and all of his firefighter and EMT books.

Michael’s career studies came in handy after the disaster. He helped dig two children and a baby out of the rubble of a neighbor’s house.

Officials say 10 tornadoes swept over northwest Texas killing 11 on Dec. 26. More than 1,000 homes have been damaged and destroyed and disaster estimates put the dollar total at $1.2 billion. The tornadoes also left many Texans homeless, including Stephanie and Michael who have been taken in by a cousin. The couple is scrambling to speed up their plans to get back to the Keys and mom Sandra is facilitating the move by setting up donation drives.

“We really need to get them used vehicles, but anything would help,” Sandra said. “They lost everything from clothes to dog dishes to cars. They need everything.”

To make a donation, visit gofundme.com and search Bernard Family Tornado Relief Fund or drop off checks to The UPS Store locations in Marathon (at Publix) or Key Largo (Tradewinds Shopping Center). For more information, call 770-265-9811.

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