Federal funds to mitigate future disasters a ‘silver lining’ from tornadoes 2 years ago

The Mad River flows past the city of Dayton’s Ottawa water treatment plant on the east side of Dayton. Recent tests indicate that polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) were still present in the drinking water even after some contaminated wells were shut down last year. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
The Mad River flows past the city of Dayton’s Ottawa water treatment plant on the east side of Dayton. Recent tests indicate that polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) were still present in the drinking water even after some contaminated wells were shut down last year. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Area officials are gearing up to spend about $30 million in federal disaster aid to make permanent fixes to damage caused by the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes and steel the region against future disasters.

The tornado that plunged from a supercell and devastated a Beavercreek neighborhood knocked out sewer lift stations that Greene County is now replacing.

“It definitely was a silver lining — exposing some risk points and risk factors for us — but also bringing some federal dollars back to help prevent future failures,” said Jason Tincu, director of Greene County’s Sanitary Engineering Department.

Both of Dayton’s drinking water plants lost power during the tornadoes, leading to a widespread water outage. A Montgomery County sewer lift station also lost power, pouring 4.7 million gallons of raw sewage into the Stillwater River. The storm two years ago this week also revealed a tight supply of affordable housing available to those who lost homes.

The federal disaster declaration made by President Donald Trump three weeks after the tornadoes allowed the area governments and others affected by the storms to seek money to make communities more resilient in the face of future natural or man-made disasters.

After the storm, the community coalesced to form tandem recovery networks. While one group helped individuals with unmet needs, another led by the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission focused on what is called community recovery. In addition to buttressing public infrastructure, community recovery focuses on housing and community planning policy; natural and cultural resources recovery; economic, and health and social services recovery.

“Resiliency planning is very important for us. Looking at what happened, documenting what happened, but more importantly, using that to look ahead to see what could be done better the next time we have some natural disaster,” said Brian Martin, MVRPC executive director.

In addition to emergency cleanup funds local governments received, the regional planning commission and its members and partner organizations have secured at least $30 million for long-haul capacity and resiliency efforts from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“They’re looking at how do we move these communities forward now that they’ve experienced this devastation,” Martin said. “We’ll be at this for another five or six years helping our communities rebound.”

Failure point fixes

It’s difficult to design an entire sewer system free of lift stations and potential failure points, Tincu said.

“But you try to definitely minimize those,” he said.

Greene County’s Sanitary Engineering Department regularly makes risk assessments and resiliency audits and had planned even before the tornado to replace three Beavercreek pumping stations — on Murwood Court, Planeview Avenue and Vayview Drive — that were aged beyond their service life.

“These three (lift stations) were completely dependent on electricity, which is highly susceptible to weather, let alone tornadoes,” says the county’s grant application for EDA funding.

Greene County will use the $3.7 million grant to replace the lift stations with a new gravity sewer that will run under Interstate 675 to a lift station at Colonel Glenn Highway. The passive system would have weathered a tornado, Tincu said.

“We will be much more resilient moving forward if any significant weather catastrophes or anything like that come through that area, because we won’t have those failure points,” he said.

The new sewer artery, still in the design phase, also could attract new businesses to the Mission Point development, Tincu said.

The project will require a local match of about $2.5 million. But had the tornado not hit and federal funding made available, the total cost would have been paid for by local customers, Tincu said.

“Obviously, the accumulation of capital projects do force elevated water and sewer rates over time,” he said.

Averting service disruptions

Dayton received a $3.6 million EDA grant to purchase five diesel generators that would provide a minimum level of service during a prolonged power outage. The city was required to pitch in a $900,000 match

“Everything that you do adds a level of redundancy, which reduces the likelihood of problems but also reduces the severity and the duration if we have any sort of disruptions,” Dayton Water Director Mike Powell said.

Dayton provides drinking water to about 400,000 residents of Montgomery and Greene counties. The city pumps 25 million to 60 million gallons a day. The generators will allow the system to keep pumping a minimum of 40 million gallons and supply enough pressure for fire protection, Powell said.

The permanent generators will be installed at the city’s Ottawa Water Treatment Plant, the Ottawa pump station, the Water Supply and Treatment Laboratory, and the Miami Water Treatment Plant.

The testing facility will get a smaller generator to power lighting and lab testing equipment. A 1,000-kilowatt generator will go to each plant to support the supervisory control and data acquisition systems.

The pump stations at each plant will get a workhorse 1,500-kilowatt generator to support pumping operations for the water distribution system at a minimum level of service and pressure requirements as well as for fire protection, Powell said.

The city is required to complete the project by fall 2024 but Powell expects it will be done by the end of 2023.

“This level of generation should help ride out most things,” Powell said. “Who would have predicted that number (of tornadoes) and the paths they took, but this redundancy allows us the ability to operate should we lose power. But I can’t sit here and say I guarantee nothing will ever happen again.”

The Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission received $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s EDA to coordinate the region’s community recovery effort, which includes working with the Dayton Development Coalition to update the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. The Miami Conservancy District got $1.1 million to re-armor the Greater Old North Dayton levee and alter it to serve as a transportation route. More than $7 million in Health and Human Services grants will be channeled into area mental health programs, according to MVRPC.

Area townships, cities, parks and schools that lost infrastructure in the storm received more than $2.7 million to make permanent infrastructure repairs to traffic signals and street signs, guardrails, nature boardwalks and ballfields. Another FEMA program for hazard mitigation provided Kettering $34,473 for its emergency warning system, according to FEMA.

Replacing affordable housing

The strongest tornado that night tore a path through lower income areas of Trotwood, Harrison Twp. and Dayton, displacing a disproportionate number of renters and homeowners less likely to have enough insurance to rebuild.

The dearth of shelter that left people couch surfing, staying in hotels or living with other family members after the storm is a problem that persists two years later, said Tawana Jones, Montgomery County’s community and economic development operations manager.

“Affordable housing units is definitely still a concern we have in the Dayton region. There are some units that were impacted by the tornado that were demolished. There were some affordable housing units that were impacted that haven’t been touched. We know that we are low on inventory right now.”

The state of Ohio is waiting on final approval by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to release about $12.3 million in Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery that will fund affordable housing developments within Montgomery Count.

Out of the HUD money, Montgomery County will receive about $1.1 million to put toward the Tornado Survivors Pathway to Homeownership Project, an avenue for renters who lost their homes in the tornadoes to achieve homeownership. The program is already underway using local funding and volunteers to build or rehab homes and sell those to former renters who have taken classes to become mortgage-ready.

The bulk of the HUD funding, about $10.5 million, will provide as many as 300 new rental units in Montgomery County, the state’s proposal shows. Ohio’s Development Services Agency will make the money available through a competitive process to developers, which could also include nonprofit housing organizations, Jones said.

It will take 18 months to two years to complete construction, Jones said, but the apartments targeted to individuals with lower incomes will likely fill fast.

The developments won’t be required to be built in tornado-impacted areas, Jones said.

“Some of those communities that were most heavily impacted would probably have conversation with a developer to site them in their community,” she said “They could be sited wherever, but it’s really a balancing act between trying to get people back to maybe where they lived, if that’s where they want to return to, versus making sure that people have access to amenities ... and access to high-performing education.”