Looking back 3 years later: Tornadoes tore us apart, brought us together

John and Shirley Behm stand in front of their house in Brookville that was damaged by the Memorial Day tornados three years ago. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

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John and Shirley Behm stand in front of their house in Brookville that was damaged by the Memorial Day tornados three years ago. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Cities, residents, businesses celebrate recovery successes, but know there’s still work to do

Three years after a pack of 16 tornadoes turned the Dayton region into a sea of blue tarps and gnarled trees, many of the hardest-hit areas have recovered well, but stark reminders of the storm’s destruction still dot the landscape.

Spencer and Aleta Keel have lived in Trotwood’s Westbrooke Village neighborhood since 1978, and theirs was one of dozens of homes damaged there. The Keels, like many of their neighbors, successfully repaired their home’s roof, siding, brickwork and some windows. Thankfully, Aleta said, they were never displaced.

But just across Greenbrook Drive sits a sad, amazing contrast of a house. Most of the second floor was ripped off by the storms, leaving just a bathroom cabinet and closet exposed to the sky on May 27, 2019. And today, nothing has changed. Then-and-now photos of the condemned, untouched house show the same shirt (now discolored by the elements), is still on the same exposed hanger in that closet 36 months later.

“It is a constant reminder,” she said. “Now, we see cats and dogs running in and out of the building, and it’s very depressing because it devalues your home and the neighborhood.”

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Homeowners struggled following the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes. On Trotwood's Greenbrook Drive in May 2022, beautifully rehabbed houses are neighbors to a destroyed, vacant home. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Homeowners struggled following the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes. On Trotwood's Greenbrook Drive in May 2022, beautifully rehabbed houses are neighbors to a destroyed, vacant home. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

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Homeowners struggled following the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes. On Trotwood's Greenbrook Drive in May 2022, beautifully rehabbed houses are neighbors to a destroyed, vacant home. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

ExplorePhotos: Stunning images from the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes

Residents, businesses, nonprofits and governments are all continuing their tornado recovery efforts as another anniversary approaches.

  • The tornado hit many communities hard, but local governments’ responses were different depending on their separate realities. Brookville’s damage was more residential, while Harrison Twp. and Dayton had to focus on commercial and industrial response too. None think their recovery efforts are finished today.
  • Hundreds of businesses were damaged by the storm, some forced to decide whether to rebuild or relocate. Alongside success stories like the huge Dayton Phoenix plant or Restaurant Depot in Harrison Twp. are blank slates like the shopping plaza at North Dixie and Ridge, which is still just an empty slab today.
  • Thousands of residents have repaired their homes and cleaned up their neighborhoods three years later. Yet, for some, the storm’s emotional toll has lingered longer than its physical effects. Many residents grapple with the anxiety that can come as a result of experiencing a natural disaster firsthand.

Laura Mercer, executive director of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations (MVLTRO) Group, estimated in December 2019 that it would take people up to three years to recover from the storm. This week, we’ll hit that milestone.

ExploreMemorial Day tornadoes: Harrison Twp. from above then and now

Brookville couple inspired by helpers

John and Shirley Behm have lived in their Terrace Park neighborhood home since 1965. Nearly 70% of the 192 homes in Terrace Park were affected by the tornadoes, including the Behm’s house on Crosswell Avenue.

The couple was home during the 2019 storm, which tore through the house, leaving them displaced for months. Shirley recalls the chaos of the experience as quick but devastating.

“We went inside a closet and we were in there for about 12 to 14 minutes when we heard glass breaking. My husband peeked out and saw leaves on the hallway floor,” Shirley said. “He looked again and saw the porch fly off, up over top of the house. We just closed the door and we could feel the walls pulsating.”

In the wake of the destruction, Shirley said the most moving thing was the response of the community and city officials.

“The people of Brookville; you just wouldn’t believe,” she said, noting that students from the high school, along with members of the area’s German Baptist community, played a big part in the immediate response effort by passing out food, water, and supplies. She said the city of Brookville also provided services like security, dumpsters, and portable toilets.

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A sign along Woodhaven Avenue in Harrison Twp. after the Memorial Day tornadoes thanks the thousands of volunteers who helped in the recovery effort. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

A sign along Woodhaven Avenue in Harrison Twp. after the Memorial Day tornadoes thanks the thousands of volunteers who helped in the recovery effort. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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A sign along Woodhaven Avenue in Harrison Twp. after the Memorial Day tornadoes thanks the thousands of volunteers who helped in the recovery effort. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Moving forward, Shirley said she’s thankful for her now-renovated home and more appreciative of her neighbors than ever before. “It brought everybody together,” she said, though she noted there are lasting emotional effects.

“I think maybe it affected my husband more than me because he saw more than I did when we were in the closet ... and some of the kids in the area were really afraid,” she said. “You do think about (the possibility of a tornado) more, and if you dwell on it, it can really bother you.”

The Behms’ Brookville neighborhood is much like the Keels’ Trotwood one — both have made huge recoveries, but both still have scars. Two of the few empty lots in Terrace Park, where homes were demolished and not rebuilt, sit just 25 yards from the Behms’ front door.

ExploreProgram to replace trees at houses damaged by 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes

Many businesses rebuild; others still reassessing

Many businesses affected by the Memorial Day tornadoes recovered quickly, yet for some, there’s still work to be done.

The Dayton Phoenix building on Kuntz Road was completely rebuilt and its over 300 employees are back to work in a new building. Just down the street, Hyland Machine rebuilt after suffering major damage to the back of the building.

Dayton’s Janney Road is home to several success stories, as well. Lion First Responder had held its ribbon cutting just five days prior to losing 75% of its building in the storm. The business rebuilt its 55,000-square-foot facility, holding a second ribbon cutting in August 2020.

Just next door, Miami Valley Packaging Solutions suffered major damage to its building and the company has since repaired its 103,770-square-foot facility. Across the street, Method Tool relocated from Greene County to 165 Janney Road last year.

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Workers are back to work at the Dayton Phoenix Group on Kuntz Road in the Old Dayton business park. The roof and the walls were severely damaged by the Memorial Day 2019 tornados. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Workers are back to work at the Dayton Phoenix Group on Kuntz Road in the Old Dayton business park. The roof and the walls were severely damaged by the Memorial Day 2019 tornados. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

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Workers are back to work at the Dayton Phoenix Group on Kuntz Road in the Old Dayton business park. The roof and the walls were severely damaged by the Memorial Day 2019 tornados. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

In some areas, recovery has been a slower process. Harrison Twp.’s Wagner Ford Road and North Dixie corridors were heavily damaged, as well as portions of the Main Street business district, leaving “clean slates for redevelopment,” according to township Administrator Kris McClintick.

“Because of the disinvestment in these areas prior to and following the tornado, and shifts in brick-and-mortar retail, the tornado compounded the need for comprehensive reinvestment strategies,” McClintick said. “Yet, the township has not seen monumental successes in the commercial sector.”

ExploreWalking the path: Memorial Day tornadoes

Local governments respond to distinct needs

** Dayton: The recovery process has been slow but steady. “We immediately relaxed our rules and waived fees for permits to make it easier for businesses and residents to rebuild and recover,” Deputy City Manager Joe Parlette said, adding that some of those changes have been extended to this December.

Three years later, city officials called the resulting demolition and home rebuilding on Macready Avenue a big success, and said the DeWeese neighborhood is close to 100% recovered. But they cited work still to be done on the Valley and Brandt Street corridors of Old North Dayton.

Of 420 tornado-affected properties the city said it examined this month, 45 were demolished or about to be, and only 25 others showed no progress toward repair.

A combination of FEMA and city funds paid to add new turf and a new playground to the damaged Ridgecrest Park, providing a new asset for a neighborhood hard-hit by the tornado.

** Beavercreek: Of the nearly 1,000 properties damaged to varying degrees by the storm, city officials say around 96% have been repaired. City spokesperson Katy Carrico said code enforcement officers continue to be in contact with residents who are still recovering.

The city is currently in the process of rebuilding the Tobias-Zimmer Barn in Wartinger Park, which was originally built in 1858 and was heavily damaged by the storm. Carrico said the city is still applying for programs to receive funding to replace trees damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes, and is spearheading continued recovery efforts for Grangeview Acres Park, Spicer Heights Park, and Wartinger Park.

ExploreCatholic Social Services announces campaign to expand, improve impact

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Three years after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, the Woodland Hills apartment complex in Trotwood stands vacant and silent. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Three years after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, the Woodland Hills apartment complex in Trotwood stands vacant and silent. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

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Three years after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, the Woodland Hills apartment complex in Trotwood stands vacant and silent. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

** Trotwood: Two huge apartment complexes that almost touch each other here are a microcosm of local tornado recovery. Woodland Hills is likely the biggest damaged property still standing, and even with security on site, two of the 19 buildings have been torched. On the other side of a tree-line, Westbrooke Village has been fully renovated except for the pool/tennis area, and the buildings look spotless — new roofs plus clean brick and siding.

Just after the storm, the blue tarps on houses were an overwhelming symbol of damage.

“The timing of COVID-19 made the recovery process difficult due to lock downs, product availability, and fear of spreading the virus,” Deputy City Manager Stephanie Kellum said. “Vendors were not visiting customers; without estimates, work could not be completed.”

The city continued working with the Long-Term Recovery Group, MVRPC, and other non-profits, and now, multiple Trotwood neighborhoods have made strong recoveries.

But Kellum said Trotwood is also working to be better prepared.

“Currently, we have no Red Cross-certified shelters in the city,” she said. “(We) would like to see more churches or other groups in Trotwood become certified (to) further assist citizens in the future should another disaster occur.”

** Harrison Twp.: The township had a staggering 1,836 properties impacted by the tornado, according to McClintick. He said many have been rebuilt, and the Meadowdale neighborhood has several of the County Corp “Pathway” homes for first-time buyers who were tornado-impacted.

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Three years after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, two houses on Hillsdale Avenue, on the Dayton-Harrison Twp. border, show the range of success and struggle in the recovery process. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Three years after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, two houses on Hillsdale Avenue, on the Dayton-Harrison Twp. border, show the range of success and struggle in the recovery process.  JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

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Three years after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, two houses on Hillsdale Avenue, on the Dayton-Harrison Twp. border, show the range of success and struggle in the recovery process. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

But the damage also included single-family homes of people who were uninsured, and huge apartment complexes like River’s Edge, where nearly half of the units have been demolished.

“We don’t have exact figures, but the township has had a rise in squatting situations in vacant or dangerous properties,” McClintick said. “Some of this is attributed to the lack of attainable housing in the area since these units haven’t been replaced yet.”

McClintick said the tornado “brought us together but tore the physical place apart,” and it “made the township look at declining business districts with a fresh lens.”

He said Harrison Twp. is facing significant challenges but also opportunities — “The tornado was both devastating and a change for regrowth.”

Staff Writer London Bishop contributed to this report


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