Montgomery County’s recovery from a series of destructive Memorial Day tornadoes will rely on lessons and models used to rebuild communities from Texas to Louisiana to Missouri.
Since 2005, John Pyron has helped communities across the country recover from natural disasters, including Joplin, the southwest Missouri city decimated in 2011. But the Dayton resident never expected to to be called to a disaster just four miles north of his home.
“We always say, ‘If you’ve seen one disaster, you’ve seen one disaster.’ It looks different in each community, so it’s hard to say, ‘Here’s how you do it, here’s the roadmap,’” said Pyron, the director of disaster response for Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio. “But there are some of those core tenets that are the same across those events. And then there are things that look vastly different based on community dynamics.”
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A record 15 tornadoes hit southwest Ohio on Memorial Day, including four that damaged Montgomery County. The most destructive, rated an EF4 by the National Weather Service, tore a broad swath from Brookville to Riverside. An early assessment shows more than 2,200 structures in the county uninhabitable.
People who didn’t own homes were disproportionately displaced by the most powerful twister, testing the disaster response in Montgomery County, Pyron said.
“One of the things that is unique here is the population that was impacted has such high numbers of renters. So that really changes the dynamic,” he said.
Despite the differences of each natural disaster, the nation’s top humanitarian organizations have forged a model over the past decades to respond to communities with needs unmet by private insurance and where government assistance falls short.
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Much has been learned about disaster recovery during the past half century and honed through the most tragic lessons imaginable, including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Pyron said.
The model communities use to rebuild and recover has primarily emerged through the activities of humanitarian organizations aligned with the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, called VOADs. The national organization today has grown to a coalition of 56 faith-based, community-based and other nonprofit organizations.
Over the decades, the movement developed skills, shared best practices and worked to avoid duplication of services using shared values called the 4Cs: communication, coordination, collaboration and cooperation.
“It runs the gamut — we’ve seen it all,” said Pyron, who chairs the national’s Disaster Case Management Committee. “Small floods, rural events, large metropolitan catastrophic events, so it really is a framework that puts us (VOADs) in play and allows partners to come around a table and collaborate and move forward.”
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While federal and state resources may supplement a local response, it’s up to the local community to organize recovery efforts because they were there before the event, and will be there during recovery and after, Pyron said. But local social service organizations typically will not — if ever — have the resources to add disaster recovery operations on top of meeting everyday community needs.
“Two-plus years is a long time,” he said. “You have to do it in a collaborative manner because no one organization can do it on its own.”
Two recovery tracks
The region’s long-term recovery from the tornadoes will follow two paths, said Tyler Small, assistant Montgomery County administrator.
“There are dual components in long-term recovery,” Small said. “Obviously, this is something we’ve never had to do. So we’ve done some research into disaster long-term recovery groups.”
The first track, individual long-term recovery, helps households regain their footing by helping rebuild housing, working on individual and business insurance filings and claims, and tending to mental health issues. This track is generally performed by nonprofit groups often affiliated with churches and associated with VOADs.
Small said local governments are concerned about residents, “but there is a lot of work here and a lot expertise in these volunteer groups, and they can deploy in the community and supply disaster-related social service needs and resources to meet those needs.”
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Montgomery County and other local governments will have a greater hand in what’s called communal recovery, repairing and restoring public infrastructure and paying for the storm-related expenses incurred by local jurisdictions. Those total costs may not become fully evident for months and take even longer to address, Small said.
“You can almost think long-term recovery and longer-term recovery,” he said. “Communal long-term recovery are things like infrastructure, it’s looking at our utilities and any public spaces damaged.”
The state of Ohio asked the federal government last week to open the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program to five counties, including Montgomery and Greene counties, to help recoup storm expenses. Ohio Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Sima Merick wrote FEMA that a preliminary damage assessment shows about $18.1 million in eligible costs, of which two-thirds, or about $12 million, is for debris removal. The public assistance can also cover emergency protective measures and damaged infrastructure.
While federal funds may ultimately help local governments with the cost of cleanup and damaged infrastructure, FEMA individual and household grant money is already in the hands of hundreds of survivors for housing assistance and repair. As of Wednesday, FEMA had approved more than $2.2 million in individual assistance to 866 households.
But even after that aid, many households will fall short and need help rebuilding, those who work with disaster survivors said.
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‘There was nothing’
Pyron crested a Joplin hill in 2011 and looked into the valley below. Just three days before, one of the most deadly and destructive tornadoes in U.S. history had leveled the landscape.
“There was nothing,” he said. “No trees, no houses; just debris strewn everywhere. It was just unbelievable to see that community.”
The May 25, 2011, EF5 tornado took 161 lives and did $2.8 billion in property damage, the costliest in U.S. history. A hospital, multiple schools, hundreds of businesses and thousands of residences were destroyed. About 9,200 people in the town of 50,000 were displaced from homes.
Pyron worked alongside others, including Renee White, who led the Joplin Area Long Term Recovery Committee.
White, at the time a social worker by trade, had no prior experience in disaster management, but mobilized the effort to coordinate the work of the many humanitarian organizations that would come to Joplin and help rebuild — Southern Baptist Convention volunteers, those from the Mennonite Disaster Services, Habitat for Humanity, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and many others — each with their own expertise to primarily help survivors repair, rebuild and refurnish homes.
The long-term disaster recovery group provided the “door” for volunteers to help citizens with unmet needs, White said. More than 100,000 came and logged more than 1.5 million hours through January 2014, according to city of Joplin records.
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A key piece of the process was case management: knowing who needed what specific help and which organization was able to provide it, White said. The committee prioritized needs based on demographics so that the recovery model would give assistance without favor, she said.
“So it’s not who you know, it’s how bad has the disaster affected you based on the community,” White said. “Everybody gets equity without regard to street address or if somebody knows the person. It’s a level playing field based on what the community prioritizes.”
About 40% of households affected by the tornado recovered without intervention due to adequate insurance or access to assets. But 20-30% were not able to bridge the gap even after FEMA assistance, she said.
The gap left in any U.S. disaster must be filled by donations of building supplies and the volunteer efforts of those with skills to frame, wire and plumb houses, White said.
“The predominant unmet need is just rebuilding a home.”
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Local committee takes shape
Meeting first in Trotwood about three weeks ago, a Long-Term Disaster Recovery Working Group coalesced to help those rebuild from the Montgomery County tornadoes.
The group now consists of more than a dozen area nonprofits focused on housing and social services. Montgomery County Emergency Management and Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County are also at the table. So, too, is the Dayton Foundation, which has been taking in donations and will disburse funding to recipients.
At last week’s meeting, community partners discussed drafting the documents that will guide the committee members through the process of providing resources to hundreds of households that will need help to rebuild.
“Joplin seemed to be set up very similar to what we are trying to do here,” said Michael Vanderburgh, first chair of the committee and
, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Dayton.
The Miami Valley tornadoes hit areas with the lowest rates of insurance, said Jeff Jordan, Montgomery County’s emergency management director.
“Disproportionately, the survivors of these tornadoes were uninsured or under-insured,” he said.
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The area has received about 3,000 registrations for federal assistance, according to FEMA. And based on past disasters, the local committee projects up to 700 households won’t be able to rebuild without the help of volunteer organizations coming in to assist, Pyron said.
But the expected two-year recovery process contains silver linings to fix problems, Vanderburgh said.
Renewed housing stock in areas that had fully depreciated homes will revive neighborhoods and “underneath, we can have this renewed engagement of people who really care about serving one another to be in the fabric of the whole community,” he said.
“It’s important that we all dig in an realize we all must as a community function differently in order to not just put ourselves back to where we were, but take this opportunity to make things better,” Vanderburgh said.
On April 29, 2017, east Texas experienced a tornado outbreak similar to the recent one in the Miami Valley. That day, a series of twisters hit Van Zandt County, including a destructive EF4 tornado that churned for 50 miles.
Shawn Stewart, an insurance agent in the town of Canton, became the vice-chair of the Texas county’s long-term recovery group.
Stewart said within six months, those with coverage were able to repair houses or arrange for rebuilding. But for a few of the 140 households the recovery group assisted, the road to recovery has yet to end.
“It’s ongoing. There are still people out there who weren’t able to get made whole one way or the other,” Stewart said.
The storm also altered the county’s population, Stewart said.
“We lost a lot of citizens because their house was destroyed and they didn’t have insurance and so they moved somewhere else,” he said. “I bet we lost 30 families that just moved … So it kind of changed the demographics of our county.”
Vanderburgh doesn’t want Montgomery County to experience a similar exodus.
“For the couple thousand people who are in really great need because of these tornadoes, we can either make it possible for them to stay, or we can not do that and they either won’t stay here or they will stay here and live in conditions that are worse than they were to begin with,” he said.
As Joplin’s recovery effort marched forward, the city added the word “celebrate” to the VOAD’s 4Cs.
Early benchmarks to recovery such as the quantity of water bottles handed out to survivors, the amount of debris removed and number of hot meals served to volunteers were over the many months replaced by more concrete milestones: schools rebuilt and reopened and the number of houses repaired.
It was necessary to mark progress, but the celebrations were tempered with the memory of those who died and the lives changed, said White, whose two step-children lost their mother to the tornado.
Open houses were often held when families moved back to homes rebuilt by the humanitarian volunteers who traveled great lengths to Joplin.
“Those are beautiful events,” White said. “People’s lives are not just impacted by the home that’s been built, they have lifelong friends from across the country who came and built that house and supported them in their lives.”
Recovering from the disaster made Joplin a stronger, more cohesive community, she said. And the work forged several new initiates to combat pockets of poverty exposed by the tornado.
After two and half years, the last of the 586 families living in FEMA trailers had found permanent housing and the Joplin Area Long Term Recovery Committee determined it was time to demobilize.
After the disaster and the economic distress it put on so many, White said the community marked “the good, human things that were happening, the connections that may not have ever been made if it wasn’t for this event.”