Joe and Annette Cartwright stand outside the house they moved to after their former home was destroyed in the tornado. Joe says that he has appreciated all of the help from family, friends and even strangers in the past year and that he gives God all the glory for the blessings they received after the trauma of a year ago. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Joe and Annette Cartwright stand outside the house they moved to after their former home was destroyed in the tornado. Joe says that he has appreciated all of the help from family, friends and even strangers in the past year and that he gives God all the glory for the blessings they received after the trauma of a year ago. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Joe Cartwright comes home from a long day at work, kicks off his boots and settles into his red recliner.

He is finally home.

It's taken the better part of a year for Joe to be able to enjoy that feeling.

Joe and his wife, Annette, were at work March 2, 2012, when a tornado tore through Jefferson County, heavily damaging their home.

Their family was unharmed, but the tornado lifted their home at the intersection of Swan Road and State Road 62 off its foundation then dropped it back down.

"You leave for work each morning and you have a beautiful home," Joe said, remembering the two-story home they had just finished remodeling, "and at 2 o'clock ... you get a call, and all that is gone."

After assessing the damage, the Cartwrights learned they would not be able to rebuild on their existing land.

Until they finally moved into their new home on County Road 900-W in May, they lived in a camper near Madison Metals where they work.

On March 3, 2012, the storm had passed and the sky had cleared.

The realization of what happened began to set in.

Everything they had known was gone. No place to live. No clothes to wear. No food to eat.

"That became one big reality all of a sudden," Annette said.

What they found out next surprised them.

They expected to be on their own picking up the pieces of their lives. But they quickly learned there were many people on hand to help them deal with the physical and emotional damage they suffered.

"Saturday morning we pulled in and started to pick up debris and next thing I know, there's 54 people in my yard," Joe said. "When you see something like that, it pulls the pain out of the sting."

Hundreds of people showed up to the small cluster of homes in Jefferson County damaged by the storm to help with relief efforts.

Joe said people would come up to him and stuff money in his pockets to show support. One day he totaled up $500 people had given him.

They were also moved by the help received from Ruby Wehner, the Saluda Township trustee; the Red Cross; local churches and the county commissioners.

"Those guys are to be commended," Joe said. "I can't say enough good about the community and community members."

The Cartwrights estimate they saved about 80 percent of their possessions. Friends, family and even strangers were offering up storage areas, attics and corners of garages for the Cartwrights to use.

Sometimes the Cartwrights won't realize they've lost something until they try to find it in their new house. One box they couldn't find contained all of their kids' Christmas ornaments. That was a moment when they realized exactly what they had lost. That had been particularly hard on Annette. But she learned to cope with the loss of precious items.

"It's just things. We have the health of our family, everyone is unharmed, and that's the most important thing," she said.

Annette had developed an emotional connection to their former home long before she moved in.

"I had looked at that house since I was a teenager and loved that house," she said. "I told Joe I felt like somebody passed this house to us to take care of, and I blew it. And that really bothered me."

The hardest part wasn't losing the house. It was dealing with the days and weeks after the storm. Thefts became an issue in the area where homes had been destroyed.

Someone stole Joe's tacklebox - one he had built over decades. It included lures he made with his grandfather. His son had a new toolbox stolen after it had been set aside during clean-up.

"I think that hurt me worse than anything," Joe said.

The Cartwrights purchased a foreclosed home in Hanover shortly after the storm. Joe said they had to go through piles of red tape to get the home. They negotiated a price and signed for the home.

The same day they negotiated the price, they received word that the home's septic system was broken. Joe began to see the signs and started looking elsewhere for a new home.

He stumbled on the couple's future home by accident. He was searching Craigslist for an item for his son when he accidentally clicked the wrong link - the real estate link. The first house listed was the home Joe and Annette eventually bought.

They went to visit the homeowners that night and negotiated a deal. They moved in three weeks later. The owners left couches, a TV, a dining room table, chairs, and kitchen supplies, among other items, for the Cartwrights.

They are starting to adjust to their lives after the tornado and in a new location.

"I'd say the first six months after the storm were like a blur," Joe said. "You don't realize how long it takes to get over something like that."

About a month after they moved into their new home, a thunderstorm took out a tree in the front yard. That caused memories of the March tornado to surface.

"When we lost the tree in the front yard it got a little hairy," Annette said.

"I ran down that hallway crying like a baby," Joe said.

The Cartwrights are grateful for the kindness shown by the community and the help they received, but believe a higher cause helped them get this.

"...God be given the glory for the fact that we have what we have. Because we know it was God that saw us through," Joe said. "The community was great. The community leaders were great. But it was God that saw us through."

A year later, the Cartwrights are moving on with their lives the best they can. Joe has been working on a barn for the property for the past few months. The next project, he said, is a storm shelter.

"I think we're both happy now," Joe said, smiling at Annette. "I just can't think of anywhere else in this world I'd rather be."