Tornado recovery: Coronavirus postpones large volunteer groups needed to rebuild

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixteen tornadoes smashed through our community on Memorial Day 2019. Since that day, the Dayton Daily News has been on the ground reporting on the devastation and the work of recovery. Now, one year later, we are digging into the obstacles that remain, how the coronavirus pandemic has affected rebuilding and how communities have been changed forever. Go here for more of this coverage.


Sinks, tubs, toilets, faucets, appliances, siding and enough shingles for 30 roofs are warehoused and awaiting one thing — volunteers who can no longer travel here because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Teams from across the country were scheduled to begin arriving earlier this month.

“That seems to be a moving target now. It’s delayed our timeline.” said Laura Mercer, executive director of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group.

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The types of help people needed have changed over time. Immediately after the storm, people needed temporary housing and food. Then in November and December, a wave of homeowners started calling who had severe damage and realized they couldn’t afford repairs on their own, said Mary Reid, who oversees case management with Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley.

“It can take up to a year to figure out what the gap is going to be,” she said. “I do anticipate that as rebuilding starts to pick up in the spring, we are going to see a significant bump again.”

Reid also expects an increase in calls when temporary reprieves, such as stopping utility shutoffs and evictions during the pandemic, are lifted.

While it might not be safe yet for volunteers to begin work, Mercer said the time since stay-at-home orders first went into effect hasn’t gone to waste.

“The sunny side of this is the fact that it’s given us some time to get organized,” she said.

Some groups with a local base, including Brethren Disaster Ministries and Mennonite Disaster Services, have continued on the ground working where possible, Mercer said, and the long-term recovery group is using local contractors when needed.


Some jobs too risky for volunteers must be completed by licensed contractors — like working on steep-pitched roofs and removing asbestos — and that work has continued despite the pandemic.

But July 12 is the earliest date volunteer groups are now slated to arrive on an ever-fluctuating calendar, Mercer said.

The pandemic has not adversely affected acquiring building supplies. But coronavirus safety measures have slowed the group’s assessment of damaged properties.

Teams can assess outside damage but some occupied structures have interior damage. They have experimented assessing via video recorded by a homeowner, but Mercer said it’s hard to identify all potential damage in difficult-to-reach places like crawl spaces and attics.

“The sooner we get the assessments and estimates done, the sooner we can move those clients forward to the resource table,” Mercer said. “That’s where we, we can apply any of the three: muscle, the materials or money to make sure that they’re whole.”

Memorial Presbyterian Church on Smithville Road in Dayton, no longer used for worship, will house skilled volunteers. The church has a kitchen and many large rooms, one of which will be reserved as an isolation room in case any volunteers display COVID-19 symptoms.

The group had been hoping the church would house anywhere from 30-50 volunteers, but current state coronavirus orders limit the number now to no more than 10, said Emmy Fabich, the long term recovery group’s volunteer coordinator.

Fabich also is working with others and reviewing public health guidance to form defined protocols and best practices to keep volunteers safe, such as taking temperatures, sanitizing surfaces and arranging sleeping quarters.

If volunteer work crews — many from out-of-town churches — can begin arriving in July, Mercer said rebuilding should still be on track to be completed by the fall of 2021 — about the date the recovery group first anticipated.

“It’s still possible,” she said.