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 all the way 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.
A massive apartment complex in Trotwood is now a wasteland — the silence there broken only by the occasional flap of a blue tarp in the crisp autumn wind.
About 1,800 residents of multifamily housing units in Trotwood were displaced by the Memorial Day tornadoes, city officials said.
At the 432-unit Woodland Hills complex off Westbrook Road, clothes hanging in closets can be seen through broken windows, along with scattered personal belongings. Furniture and mattresses litter the streets.
From sprawling apartment complexes like this to an affluent golf course community, it’s unclear when vibrancy will return to some Trotwood neighborhoods where residents were displaced by the tornadoes.
Of the more than 1,100 Trotwood properties affected by the storm, more than 200 suffered major damage or were destroyed. That includes apartment complexes totaling more than 750 units that remain empty.
Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — are walking the 18-mile path of the most destructive of the May 27 tornadoes. For this story, they traced the path of that EF4 tornado through Trotwood and parts of Clayton, where abandoned neighborhoods greeted them.
WALKING THE PATH PART 2: ‘I want to come back to Brookville.’ Homes still in rubble as neighbors work to rebuild
“They are all going to rebuild,” Trotwood Mayor Mary McDonald said. “We have a few citizens that are not, but we are extremely positive about the future for the city of Trotwood.”
Evidence of that rebuilding isn’t apparent everywhere. While some homes and apartment complexes are abuzz with workers, others appear untouched.
Yvette Page, a Trotwood city council member challenging McDonald for mayor, said rebuilding has hit a lull as people face delays with insurance and lining up contractors. The danger is they will just pack up and leave.
“Trotwood is bleeding out because we still have people who are moving,” Page said, proposing the city pass a tax abatement to encourage people to stay and rebuild.
Even a temporary population decline could have far-reaching consequences. It could take two to three years to return to normal, McDonald said. But the U.S. Census Bureau’s national headcount — which affects federal funding for the next decade — is just months away. City officials are urging displaced residents to report their permanent address as Trotwood.
“We need those numbers to be real,” McDonald said.
After pummeling Brookville and Perry Twp., the storm barreled along East Westbrook Road, which marks the border between Clayton and Trotwood. There, it damaged and demolished the most expensive homes it would encounter on its path.
Behind the sign welcoming people to Crestway Estates in Clayton is a spacious home with the western wall sheared off, exposing interior studs to the elements. Many of the houses are boarded up.
Homes with $500k in damage
Further along Westbrook Road, several residents in the Moss Creek subdivision in Trotwood reported more than $500,000 in damage to homes on Tamarack Court, Courtney Lane and Wentworth Way. White farm fencing along the entrance to the golf course community — the course closed last year — lay splintered and crumbled.
“There’s a lot of older people here, and it is very tempting for them just to take the money and go,” Susan Boykin said, sitting in her spacious windowed foyer as workers could be heard clomping around on the roof of her Wentworth Way home.
The taxable value of her home dropped from $327,220 last year to a tentative value of $210,330 after the storm damage, according to the Montgomery County Auditor’s Office.
“(My neighbors) will never get the money for their houses that they put into it. But they’ll have enough to go buy a house somewhere else,” she said. “They could take their loss and go live closer to the grandchildren if they wanted to, so it’s an opportunity for them.”
Boykin and her family spent about two weeks in a hotel in Sidney. Many of the neighbors are still in apartments and hotels. Looking out the back bay window of her home shows an empty lot where a 4,988-square-foot house once stood. Another home in view has no roof.
Finding honest contractors has been a challenge for Boykin, as well as negotiating with insurance companies. The homes in the area have custom doors and windows. She has a 4,000-square-foot roof and she said the insurance company first offered about $26,000 to fix it. She contested that and got more than $61,000, including downspouts and other items.
Apartment complexes empty
Continuing east, trees clog Moss Creek, which the storm crossed before hitting the Woodland Hills apartments. The sprawling complex sits empty.
The smell of mold emanates through open doors and smashed windows. Neckties, dresses, blue jeans, CDs, vacuum cleaners and other items remain left behind.
Rubble is ubiquitous, including a collapsed car port blocking the road to buildings further back.
The Westbrooke Village complex to the southeast, however, rings with the clamor of nail guns, saws and generators. A small army of workers climbs up and down ladders with roofing materials and new windows. Pallets of glass and siding are lined up in the parking lot. Workers in one building remove asbestos.
By early next year, some of the 13 buildings may be ready for tenants, said Daniel Penn of Westbrooke Village’s owner, Gated Properties VI LLC.
“Most people don’t rebuild after it’s all vacant. That’s not our style,” Penn said. “If we do right by the tenants and the community, it will ultimately be to our benefit.”
WALKING THE PATH PART 1: ‘Just hoping that we were going to live through it’
The owners of Woodland Hills did not return calls from the Dayton Daily News seeking comment. The owners told the city they are committed to rebuilding and that repairs have been delayed due to insurance disputes, Trotwood City Manager Quincy Pope said.
“To see brand new infrastructure come into that area, brand new builds, is going to be a real positive for the community,” McDonald said.
‘A lot of devastation’
LaToya Harper moved to Waywind Drive in September, the neighborhood of single-family homes that abuts both apartment complexes. The street sign is still missing. The home across the street from her lacks a roof. Most of the houses remain uninhabited, she said.
“When I first moved here, I was unsure if I made the right decision, because this is something you see coming home every day and leaving every day,” she said. “It kind of puts you in a state of sadness.
“You want to come into a vibrant community, kids are out playing, and you don’t see that here,” she said. “It’s just a lot of devastation.”
The bigger problem is at night, she said. The street lights don’t work.
“It’s extremely dark,” she said. “That’s a safety concern.”
The biggest obstacle Pope has seen to rebuilding is insurance.
“People are discovering that either they didn’t understand their insurance, they didn’t have insurance or they were under-insured,” he said. “And I think that has become a difficult proposition for a lot of residents at a time when you have a natural disaster to learn that you are under-insured or that your insurance has expired.”
Pope’s also seen a shortage of contractors.
“Sometimes you may see a house sitting that looks like there’s nothing going on with it, but that’s because they are waiting on contractors to become available,” he said.
‘It’s coming along’
Around the corner near the intersection of Olive Creek and Westcreek drives, a home stands with no roof or second-floor walls. A toilet and vanity can be seen next to a bathroom closet, where a towel droops from a hanger. The business card for a demolition company was left attached to the mailbox.
There are some signs of progress. Two Trotwood school buses stop on Westford Road. One lets off five teens. Another lets off four younger children.
Roughly 200 students were displaced by the storm, most of them relocating in Trotwood or Dayton, according to Trotwood-Madison City Schools officials. But fewer than 20 of them have transferred to another school district.
Tornado survivors: Tell us what you need on the path to recovery
Interim Superintendent Marlon A. Howard said children affected by the storm need “a continued realm of support.”
The tornado continued east along Salem Avenue, displacing residents of the Salem Bend Condominiums before hitting Magellan Avenue.
There, rebuilding is taking place, alongside new home building. The whine of a sander can be heard as garbage trucks work their way down the street. Garbage workers say the amount of trash and rubble spiked after the storm, but “it’s getting back to normal.”
Carla Jordan was painting and drywalling in her house on Desoto Street when reporters arrived at her door. A home down the road from hers was leveled. The foundation is going down for a new home four doors down.
D.R. Horton announced this month the company plans to build 48 new homes in the area, alongside existing homes with chunks of roof still missing.
The neighborhood, populated largely by General Motors retirees, is coming back, Jordan said.
“It’s coming along, but it’s slow,” she said.
Two-time tornado survivor now battling contractor
As the storm traveled east, Meckila Bent saw on television that it was bearing down on Shiloh Gardens. That’s where she lives on Bromwith Drive. She climbed into her bathtub and urged her dog,Champion, to join her, but he stayed next to the tub.
“My prayer was ‘Lord help, Lord help, Lord help.’ I couldn’t do anything other than that. And he did,” she said. “He blessed us but it took me some time to realize what exactly had happened.”
Bent was a teenager and lived in Xenia in 1974 when an even larger storm leveled much of that city. She remembers grabbing a pole in the basement as that storm raged overhead.
“Now I’m 61 and just going through it again,” she said.
She moved back into her house two months after the storm. But her windows are still covered with plywood. As she talked to reporters in her driveway, a tree trimmer climbed a ladder to bring down a branch hanging precariously over her house.
The tree trimming was supposed to be done by the same contractor who tore down her shed and back patio. His trailer was still sitting in front of her house.
“He said he would be back to cut that tree down,” Bent said. “I paid him that evening. I had already gotten a cashier’s check. He said he would be back the next day to do it. It’s been eight weeks, he hasn’t come back and gotten his trailer or nothing.”
She said contractors have been a headache.
“Some of them aren’t showing up,” Bent said. “If it’s not a big enough job, they don’t do it.”
‘Not a good feeling’
Down the road, Lovie Donford stopped by her house to pick up some of her belongings from the garage. Parts of her living room remained open to the sky. Soggy insulation languished on the carpeted floor.
“They’re going to gut the whole house,” she said.
Her insurance company has put her up in a nice apartment in downtown Dayton, she said.
“My only complaint is it’s a slow, slow, slow process,” she said. “It’s a lovely place but you just feel like you’re not at home. It’s not a good feeling.”
One dilemma tornado survivors face is warm clothes, Donford said. Her winter clothes are still in storage, while others might have lost theirs.
“It was 90 degrees. It was June. It was hot. I have all summer things over there,” she said. “They said, ‘Oh you’ll be gone maybe about six months, you’ll be back in November.’ So I thought I’ll just take summer clothes to tide me over until November. I have no sweaters, no boots, no winter or fall attire to wear.”
Electricians were working nearby at New Destiny Ministries. The church is waiting for letters to be delivered for the brick sign out front that was destroyed by the storm, according to Bishop Alfred Ringer.
Ringer showed reporters where parts of the roof and offices were damaged but are now mostly repaired. The church’s pantries are still stocked with water bottles, cleaning supplies and non-perishables people donated, unsolcited, after the storm.
“We didn’t plan on becoming a donation center, but that’s what happened,” he said.
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Many members of the community are older people too proud to reach out for help, Ringer said, so church members just drop off the goods so they don’t have to ask.
Six or seven families who were parishioners have moved away, Ringer said, mostly south of town where they believe there’s less chance of another tornado hitting them.
Next the Memorial Day tornado crossed Basore Road. There, some homes under repair still have the tell-tale “X” spray-painted by rescue crews as they searched properties after the storm.
Before leaving Trotwood, the tornado laid waste to Hara Arena, the 60-year-old performance venue on Shiloh Springs Road that closed in 2016. The words “Hara Arena” still hang on the front, though the “E” is crooked. Much of the roof and facade are torn off.
The Kentucky-based company that owns the property says it can’t start cleaning it up until the city approves rezoning from recreational use to light industrial so it can find a new buyer. Before approving the change, city officials want to specify what types of businesses they don’t want there, in one of the city’s main gateways.
So like much of Trotwood, the future of the arena is hopeful but uncertain.
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