“When the roof came off the house I thought we were dead,” my wife, Elizabeth, says to me later when it was all over. “But I just couldn’t let the kids know that.”

After dark on May 27—following a pleasant, sunny Memorial Day—a series of storms swept through the Miami Valley bringing rain, hail and more than a dozen tornadoes with them. One of those, an EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the most powerful tornado to hit Montgomery County in 70 years, bulldozed its way through Harrison Township and literally smashed everything in its path—crushing businesses, churches and shopping centers, uprooting huge trees and utility poles and devastating hundreds of lives.

It also destroyed my home on Maplegrove Avenue while my wife, Elizabeth Wentz, and our two children, Hendrix, 11, and Storm, 7, cowered inside the house, clinging to each other beneath two blankets and screaming themselves hoarse at the top of our basement stairs.

In the United States, we measure the strength of tornadoes by the Enhanced Fujita scale, which rates such storms from 0 up through a maximum of 5. The scale went into effect in February 2007 and only 1.1% of tornadoes in the United States annually are classified as EF4.

That EF4 rating means wind speeds between 166-200 mph, with major damage to buildings and with large, heavy vehicles—airplanes, trains, and large trucks—pushed over or picked up and thrown like toys. Large trees are snapped off close to the ground, or uprooted altogether, as my apple tree was.

Passenger cars are picked up and flung for large distances, and an EF4 will level even the best-built homes, making the generally advisable act of seeking shelter in an interior room insufficient to ensure survival.

“I’d been watching the news that night, and they were tracking the storms,” Elizabeth says. “We’ve all seen those weather alerts on TV so many times, and you almost ignore them half the time. On Memorial Day, though, it was different. At one point after you left for work the phone rang, and it was my friend Shannon calling me from Brookville. She said ‘It’s really bad, Beth. Make sure you and the kids take cover.’ I watched the news and when it started looking nasty I grabbed Hendrix and Storm and we headed for the basement stairs. Then the sirens went off and two seconds later it hit us. It was that quick.”

When the EF4 tornado hit Northridge it tore the roof from our house, the 1,200-square-foot home we’d purchased in 2005, the one we’d brought both of our children home to after they were born.

“We were under the blankets when the lights went out,” she says. ”And then it just ripped the roof right off the house. It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard—like a freight train or something. The wood was creaking and splintering, and the glass breaking—you could hear the beams snapping—and then the house started to come apart and suddenly we were being hit from all sides with all of this glass and plaster and debris, and mud … the kids were screaming. It was dark and so loud and the wind was literally trying to pull them away from me. Hendrix kept saying ‘Mommy! I don’t want to die!’ I swear to God, I’ve never been so scared in my entire life.”

I work full time, third shift, at the Caterpillar corporation’s big warehouse in Clayton, Ohio. My shift starts at 11 p.m., and I generally leave our house at 10:30 p.m. so I can clock in on time. That evening I told my wife as I was walking out the door, “Keep an eye on the news and call me if it gets bad, OK? I love you guys.”

Now, as I write these words, 20 days have passed and I’m sitting in a motel room on Poe Avenue in Dayton. Our house is gone.

I have spoken to the Red Cross, to FEMA, to the Salvation Army. I have stood in endless lines and waited, cellphone in hand, on hold for hours, hoping for disaster relief that may or may not be forthcoming. We’re not sure what our next move is—without the support of our friends and family, we’d be completely lost.

But, and this is what matters to me, my wife and my kids are safe. Thank God. Yes, we have lost nearly everything we ever owned, but my family wasn’t hurt.

I was away at work when the tornado destroyed my home. My wife, Mama Bear, who will always be a hero to me, protected herself and our children from that awful windstorm, saving all of their lives by sheltering herself and those kids under several layers of blankets while hiding in the one spot in our home that was the safest, at the top of the basement stairs, in the dead center of the house.

The tornado tossed the roof of the house into the backyard on top of our garden, crushing our jalapeno and Roma tomato plants. Then, still not finished with us, it picked the house up off its foundation, shifting it 5 feet to the rear and 9 feet to the left and set it back down again. The cinder block and steel shopping center which sat behind our property, barely 50 yards away, was destroyed.

It feels odd to say we were lucky, but lucky we were. My wife and kids are OK. They are unhurt, physically. We are survivors and all of our material possessions can be replaced. They made it out of the storm alive. I repeat that to myself, over and over, like a mantra. It gets me through the day.

Once the storm passed a neighbor of ours, Dustin, kicked in the door to our house and led my family to the relative safety of the cellar in his home across the street. That’s where I found them when I arrived soon after and I owe Dustin a debt that I’ll never live to repay.

When I left work at 11:45 p.m., I drove home as fast as I could, dodging trees and overturned cars on Interstate 75. Once I found my family I gathered them and our dogs together and we left Northridge in our Chevy truck, searching—searching for home—for a place where we might all feel like we were safe again.

I pray we find such a place.