EDITOR’S NOTE: Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — are traveling the length of the largest of the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes. It tore a path across Montgomery County, impacting thousands of homes and businesses. We are gathering people’s stories and investigating obstacles to recovery. This story is part of that coverage. Go here for the full project.
It will take centuries before Sinclair Park looks like it did before the Memorial Day tornadoes annihilated nearly 400 trees there — many of them 200 years old.
For many of the people and businesses in Harrison Twp., it won’t take as long to bounce back. But it will come at a tremendous cost. At Evans Arena auto dealership, it will cost $9 million, possibly the single largest claim from the May 27 storm.
And for others, such as many of the small businesses along the Dixie Strip, they might never be restored.
Those are among the places and people Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart, joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs, found while walking the 18-mile path of the most destructive tornado. For this story, they followed the path of that EF4 twister through Harrison Twp.
Evans Arena dealership is the first business they encountered as they left Trotwood. The storm totaled 154 new and used cars on the lot and damaged another 50. It ripped the roof off the office and collapsed the steel-reinforced business sign, smashing three cars.
“The tornado ripped through this place with a purpose, there was so much devastation,” General Manager Ed Bresslar said, sitting in his office in the used car side of the lot as windows were replaced in the new car showroom next door.
When Trotwood firefighters first arrived after the storm, they found the flag pole bent and the dealership’s well-known, massive American flag draped across two cars.
“They took the flag up off the ground, took it off the pole, folded it up and had it folded for us when we got here, military-style,” Bresslar said.
“That flag later served as a beacon for the whole store of, ‘OK once we get this flag back up, we know we’re back,’” he said, gesturing out the window at the new flag flying over Shiloh Springs Road.
‘Come back to us’
Lot owner Jim Evans said his insurance company told him the dealership’s damage is the company’s largest claim for the year by a wide margin. Automobile claims totaled more than $4 million. Building damage was another $4 million and counting. The business is aiming for a grand re-opening on Dec. 5.
“I believe it will hit $9 million when it’s done,” Evans said, adding he is committed to staying in the area.
WALKING THE PATH OF THE STORM PART 3: At least 750 homes still empty in Trotwood after tornado
Evans was able to pay his employees while they were closed for a month because he carried optional business continuation insurance. The dealership had a scratch-and-dent sale for cars that suffered minor damage, promising to donate $100 of every purchase to tornado relief. He will present Trotwood an $11,000 check at the grand re-opening.
Work continues on repairs to the service department and body shop. A couple of tornado-damaged vehicles are just now coming back from other body shops and will be up for sale, but most of the roughly 170 cars on the lot today are new.
“We lost a lot of our customers. They lost cars. They had to go out and replace these cars, and maybe because we weren’t here, they went off-brand,” Bresslar said. “And losing sales is one thing. But losing your service customers, your parts customers, your body shop customers — all at once — it’s always tough to try to rebuild.”
“When we open back up, come back to us no matter what car you purchase, no matter what the situation was.”
Restaurant busy, customers struggling
Next door, a giant hole remains in the sign for Burkey Family Restaurant. Below that, another sign says, “NOW OPEN NORMAL HOURS.”
The restaurant was closed about five or six weeks, employees said. But media coverage since they re-opened has helped get the word out about their Broasted chicken, award-winning brownies and homemade pies.
“We got cabbage rolls, salmon patties, they’re all homemade. Everything is homemade,” server Shawn Peoples said.
Marsha Tidwell makes the salmon patties. Her home was hit by the storm and her neighbors, co-workers and customers are still dealing with trauma. One woman she knows was hospitalized after threatening suicide. Others need stable housing while they face delays getting their houses fixed.
“There’s a lot of them living in their garages,” Tidwell said.
“We have people who live here and work here, but they’re all the way out at Austin Boulevard because that’s where the insurance wants to put them,” Peoples said. “It’s devastating.”
“Yes, very devastating,” nodded Tidwell, the clink of silverware and coffee cups in the background.
‘My oasis is gone’
At this point, the EF4 tornado made a noticeable turn to the southeast, going down North Main Street. Before the storm, a heavy canopy of trees hid several houses from the major roads, so a lot of people didn’t even know they were there.
In the area of North Main Street and Shoup Mill Road, several businesses were obliterated: a Speedway, Donatos Pizza, a Fresh Way restaurant, the Tobacco Shack and others. Blue tarps are still peppered across roofs.
The tornado offered little mercy as it next tore through the neighborhood anchored by Loretta and Swallow drives. According to the county, at least 48 homes there had major damage, including Pattie Meyer’s.
Children used to frequently play in the sprawling tree next to her property in the 100 block of Swallow Drive. The tree is gone now, along with the shade once provided by several others along the street.
“The neighborhood is sad,” she said. “I want my trees.”
Scott Nuckles is living in a small apartment — he calls it a “house-shaped van down by the river” — since the tornado ripped through his home on nearby Mildred Lane. The night of the storm, he was standing in his garage watching the lightning show to the north.
“It started raining like a fire hose got turned on just instantly. I thought, ‘OK, I’d better go inside,’” he said. “The door’s about 15 feet away. It opens into a large room addition. I closed the door, maybe three or four steps in, all hell broke loose. Trees are hitting the house. Windows are blowing out. I don’t know how close behind me the ceilings of that room collapsed.
“I made my way to the bathroom and tried to close the door but it got jerked out of my hand.”
WALKING THE PATH OF THE STORM PART 2: ‘I want to come back to Brookville.’ Homes still in rubble as neighbors work to rebuild
His windows are still boarded with plywood and his roof tarped. Repairs were delayed by a non-responsive contractor. When he got a new contractor and went to get permits for repairs, they learned that the previous homeowner might not have gotten proper permits to frame-in a car port as a room of the house.
Nuckles’ backyard leads up to Sinclair Park, which was leveled by the storm. Several of his neighbors have moved out, he said, and at least one house was bought by a flipper.
“I don’t know if I’m going to end up selling it when we get rebuilt or not, because there’s not much here,” he said. “My oasis is gone in the back.”
Meyer’s home is now repaired, but four others in the neighborhood are on a list with about 25 others that Harrison Twp. trustees have deemed dangerous properties slated to be torn down.
Sinclair Park: ‘The land of the lost’
The sign marking the entrance to Sinclair Park is a pile of bricks and rubble. A gate blocks the main road.
Inside is a scene of desolation. Trees with trunks several feet in diameter toppled. Branches scattered everywhere. Park shelters smashed. A playground covered by limbs. A dumpster pancaked.
“The loss of trees on that Sinclair Park property is just devastating,” said former Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, who took his kids there when they were young and often ran in the park.
“It was just a beautiful piece of property and if you walk there now, it isn’t,” he said.
The hardwood trees — primarily red and white oaks — were the park’s main asset, said Merle Cypher, the township’s services director.
Many of the park’s documented 415 trees were more than 200 years old, Cypher said, and also included beech, hickory, ash and other species native to Ohio. The tornado brought down 340 of them immediately. Another 40 are too damaged to survive and will be cut down, he said. Most of those remaining will have to be trimmed.
The park’s structures — a lodge, a restroom facility, two picnic shelters and a storage building — were insured, said Kris McClintick, Harrison Twp. administrator. But few funding mechanisms exist to replace the trees.
WALKING THE PATH OF THE STORM PART 1: ‘Just hoping that we were going to live through it’
“We are looking at working through the winter and spring on removing trees and redesigning the lodge and figuring out a construction schedule,” McClintick said. “We don’t know if we are going to be able to reopen that park next summer or looking at 2021.”
Foley recently viewed the destruction from a kayak on the Stillwater River, the northeast border of the park.
“It looked like the land of the lost,” he said. “It’s almost like something came through and topped those trees off with a machete.”
‘I lost my home and my dog’
Another cluster of homes many people didn’t know existed before the storm is perched above the Stillwater River on Lofty Oaks Lane. Trees once shielded their visibility from Shoup Mill Road; now they are conspicuous.
Allison Saldivar’s brother owns one of these houses and she has lived there for two years. Her home has three floors of windows facing the river, with a balcony on every floor. They now overlook a mangled carpet of twisted stumps and brush. Among the detritus appears to be a refrigerator.
“I’d like it cleaned up because it screams death to me,” she said.
Saldivar was sick in bed when the storm hit. She barely understood what was going on. She grabbed her dog, a Maltese named Max, and a pillow and jumped in the bathtub.
“It’s the loudest thing I’ve heard in my life. We were in the tub and you could hear the pipes banging against each other and water sucking through them. I didn’t recognize that sound until like two days later. I was at my parents house and their washing machine cleared out the water, and I heard it. I started sweating and getting nervous because of that sound replaying.”
She thought she might die when the tornado hit. It was a traumatic experience that she is still working through. But it was too much for Max, she said. He died within a week of the storm.
“I lost my home and my dog within a week,” she said.
Saldivar was displaced for a couple of months, but she’s back in the home now while repairs continue. Insurance has been a pain, she said. But instead of dwelling on everything she lost, she said she wants to focus on the positive. She has thrown native wildflower seeds down along the riverbank.
“My view has changed a lot at night and in the morning,” she said. “At night it sparkles because you can see the city a little bit. And in the morning, you can see the sun rise a lot more than you used to. So I try to take a moment and appreciate the things I didn’t have before.”
Behind Saldivar’s home is the part of Rivers Edge Apartments left uninhabitable by the storm. Today, the complex is split in two. A fence to the north of Riverside Drive blocks off the destroyed portion while units to the south are occupied.
Kris McClintick, Harrison Twp. administrator, said the apartment owner plans to raze the destroyed buildings.
“Those will eventually come down,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
After passing through the apartments and crossing the Stillwater River, the storm passed over Wegerzyn MetroPark, where for decades the Dayton Wingmasters have operated a radio-controlled airplane club.
“If you look down this taxiway, it basically came straight down this taxiway, straight out that hill there,” club member Don Kurtz said.
On a recent, sunny weekday afternoon, Kurtz and a dozen others tinkered with their planes.
The storm blew away their park shelter, which provided electricity. A shed, port-a-potty, fence and a dozen or so picnic tables also were swept away. Much of it ended up in a nearby pond.
The flying field is being rebuilt by club members, Kurtz said.
Opportunity to rebuild better
From there, you can see Stefan Kempf’s house high up on Cedar Ridge Road. You couldn’t see it before the storm. There, Kempf was cleaning out his garage when reporters walked up.
The night of the storm, he and his wife huddled in the basement with their children, ages 1 and 3. Afterward, he came up the stairs and everything looked different.
“I go out the front door and that hedge row … that was so immensely thick, was down. We had a gorgeous walnut tree in the front, it was completely gone,” he said. “Then I come around here, you could see lighting, some transformers in the distance and all these trees are gone. You could hear people yelling and flashlights going across the sky. I was speechless.”
After some squabbles with insurance, they are putting new siding on the 102-year-old house that will insulate it better. Kempf believes that he and the entire neighborhood have an opportunity to rebuild better.
“Some of the more derelict homes fell over and are getting cleaned up,” he said. “I’m hoping that after all the scars have healed, that we kind of put some makeup on it. And it doesn’t have to be through government, that’s through us.”
He’s considering buying and fixing up some neighboring properties as investments: “I got the tools and stuff, I can do that.”
Business open, but displaced
To the south of Kempf’s house is the Queen of Martyr’s Church, 4134 Cedar Ridge Road. A corner of the building is still covered with Tyvek, looked over by a statue of Mary. To the east of his house is the Dixie strip, where numerous businesses were hit.
The clock outside Wells Electric Service went dead at 11:20 p.m. May 27. Steven Wells purchased the building at 4008 N. Dixie Drive in 1985 and later added a second level to house office space.
“I put a lot of sweat into the place,” he said.
The tornado sheared off the second level and ruptured the gray cinder block exterior walls. Workers used an excavator to lift a beam off of one of the vans parked inside. Miraculously, all five vans inside were functional, Wells said. Three parked outside were totaled.
With the generosity of friends and other area electrical contractors, the company was back in business in two days — just not in Harrison Twp.
“We really were extremely lucky how it all played out,” Wells said.
Six electricians and three office workers moved into temporary trailers at the company’s Troy location, where two electricians were already stationed.
Insurance has taken care of damages and Wells plans to return operations to North Dixie Drive.
“We may not reconstruct it exactly as it was,” he said. “I will probably … sacrifice some of the things we had before — give up some of the office space we had on that second level prior to the tornado.”
Small dealerships might not return
About 20 used car dealers dotted the stretch of Dixie Drive to the Keowee Street Bridge, said Sam Ashburn Jr., owner of Dale’s Auto Sales.
“Let’s see,” he said, sitting in his small office and pointing out the window as he counted off closed dealers. “There’s probably eight or nine dealerships that, as of right now, are still gone.”
He doesn’t expect most of them to come back.
“We just got street lights out here in the past week,” he said. “We’ve been in total darkness. From two blocks up, all the way to Wagner Ford Road, you never had any street lights. You come down here at night, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and that’s been since May.”
He spent many nights there after the tornado to watch the cars, most of which had broken windows.
“You couldn’t lock cars,” Ashburn said. “All you could do was put plastic over them, so it was just an open arcade for thievery.”
Of the 50 cars on his lot, 47 were damaged. He learned too late that his insurance required a separate deductible on each one of them. His car port was thrown over the building next door.
“That big sign I got out front, they found that down close to the interstate,” Ashburn said.
He said they worked day and night to re-open. “I was out of commission for two months, never sold a car, never had a customer.”
Ashburn, who lives in Northridge, said the Dixie strip has a bad reputation because of strip clubs and prostitution, but Harrison Twp. was doing a good job of cleaning up the area in recent years. He hopes the tornado devastation isn’t a setback.
“Anybody that was anybody that had insurance took the check and got out,” he said. “What we’re left with now is people who didn’t have insurance, and they’re struggling to stay because that’s all they got.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, I really don’t. I don’t think anybody does.”
The changing Dixie strip
One controversial area business is the Liberty Motel, its sign facing Interstate 75 advertising rooms for $34.95. Reporters stopped by there to find a mostly empty parking lot.
The motel suffered serious roof damage in the storm, but owners previously told the Dayton Daily News they received $40,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for repairs. Of the 45 units there, 36 have re-opened, said Bobby Singh, who said he runs the place.
“There are a lot of people here,” he said.
Harrison Twp. officials have sought in recent years to classify the motel as a nuisance because of complaints from neighbors and police calls, but motel owners say they have been unfairly targeted.
Another infamous area landmark has been demolished. Crews recently tore down the North Plaza shopping center that housed the Living Room, a strip club that lost its liquor license last year but continued to operate. It’s been reduced to a slab covered with shards of broken mirrors.
The Living Room’s owner did not return calls seeking comment.
The Dixie strip was once known for housing several adult entertainment establishments, though they have been steadily shut down in recent years. Township officials said there are currently no “adult entertainment clubs operating in the township.”
Other businesses in the shopping center included a Family Dollar, beauty supply store, tax preparer and cellphone store. A message left with the property owner for the shopping center was not returned.
But just down a debris-strewn hill from the razed North Plaza shopping center, the Restaurant Depot rises — for a second time. The $7 million dollar project was weeks away from opening when the tornado hit. The company knocked down what was left standing and ordered a new building. The restaurant supplier could open by spring, according to the company.
‘We don’t know’
Jim Day’s rental property is on Maple Grove Avenue behind the shopping center. After the storm, the trees were littered with hair extensions from the beauty supply store, he said. Some of them can still be found around the parking lot.
Day was fixing up the property when reporters met him recently.
Other homes on Maple Grove remain in shambles. The house next door is leaning. It was clear it had been lifted up by the tornado and moved over several feet, exposing the basement to the sky. “Thank You! #NorthridgeStrong” is spray painted on the side.
It’s a good neighborhood where people watch out for each other, Day said, and he expects people displaced by the storm will want to rent his house. But some houses there still don’t have electricity, and many of the neighboring homes appear abandoned.
“Who’s going to want to live here with this and that?” he said, gesturing to surrounding houses. “I talked to the city housing inspector. That’s on the block to get demo’d. That one and that one are on the block to get demo’d.
“But when, we don’t know.”
East of the there, the storm crossed Interstate 75. Motorists today continue to slow down as they pass through, gawking at the skeleton of the former Dayton Hotel and the sea of crumbling homes and blue tarps beyond. Our next report will take readers there.
RESOURCES AVAILABLE FOR TORNADO SURVIVORS
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