Walking the path of the biggest Memorial Day tornado is revealing.
It shows the storm’s capricious nature. Instead of cutting a clear swath as it formed in Perry Twp., the tornado danced and skipped, leaving some homes untouched and others leveled.
It uncovers where progress has been made. It shows what struggles remain.
It leads to Wanda and Albert King. They barely had time to be frightened before their rural home ended up in rubble.
The couple’s house was the first of hundreds obliterated by the most destructive of 16 unprecedented tornadoes that hit western Ohio the night of Memorial Day.
“As soon as we got to the bottom of the steps, we heard a boom,” Wanda King said. “We thought it was a transformer, but it was the roof.”
The EF4 twister churned at an estimated maximum wind speed of 170 mph, more than a half mile wide and on the ground for nearly 20 miles across Montgomery County.
Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart, joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs, are traveling that destructive path. In the coming weeks, they will visit neighborhoods in Brookville, Harrison Twp., Dayton and Riverside.
Their mission is to reveal the challenges people such as the Kings, businesses and governments face on the long road to recovery that is as varied as the storm’s path. While repairs are well underway in some places, others will likely take years to seem whole again.
In the coming weeks, our team will dig into insurance problems, effects on housing, the emotional toll lingering for many people. This story focuses on the first moments of the tornado.
On a recent weekday, reporters began walking the path of the storm in the Perry Twp. farm field where the EF4 formed. Evidence of destruction was easy to overlook. The soybeans appeared unfazed, yellowing leaves swaying in an idyllic wind and bright sunlight.
But Vrydaghs described what it would have looked like that dark night.
“It would have started weaker and the cloud itself would have been slowly coning down from the sky,” she said. “I’ve seen these monster ones that turn into EF4s. It is just quick. It touches down and then it grows. It just expands rapidly.”
Across Sulphur Springs Road now, a ground down tree stump near a home with new roof shingles marks where a tree went through someone’s roof.
After forming at 10:41 p.m. May 27, Dansen Brown’s wooded lot set back from Sulphur Springs road was one of the first places the tornado tested its strength.
“Suddenly we heard something coming this way and we decided to get down to the bedroom where we were protected better,” Brown said.
“There was kind of a sound. We didn’t hear the sound they say you typically hear like a roaring train, but it was a heavy wind … and it just lasted for 10 or 15 seconds and moved on,” he said. “We were just hoping that we were going to live through it.”
Brown’s home was barely touched. He lost a cable dish. But 80 percent of the mature trees on his lot were blown down. Standing behind his home, Brown pointed out how many of them snapped and toppled in a counter-clockwork pattern showing the tornado’s clear footprint.
Brown doesn’t know how long it will take to clear the mountain of felled trees. He applied for a property value reduction. “When it comes time to sell it, we’re going to have problems with somebody wanting all of this dead wood here,” he said.
But he considers himself lucky. The tornado churned east from his property, crossed a small creek called Toms Run, and bore down on the Kings’ home on Crawford Toms Run Road.
Reporters recently visited there. All they found was a concrete slab, with steps leading down to the basement where the Kings rode out the terrible event. Insulation and siding remain lodged in nearby trees.
The Kings, who were insured, are renting a house in Brookville until they can rebuild on the spot where they lived for 16 years.
Construction on a new barn should begin soon, Wanda King said. Work on the house will take longer. They are working with an architect to design a replacement.
“When you have faith and you see people worse off than we are, then you live day-to-day and be happy with what you do have,” Wanda King said.
‘Going to take years and years’
Like the Kings, many of the residents of the country roads west of Brookville are retirees. Billy McFarland lives down the road from the Kings and has called the area his home since 1963.
“Nobody ever dreamed of anything like this happening around here, you know. They expect it to happen in Xenia or something. But not here,” he said while sitting on his front porch smoking a cigar.
“It’s going to take years and years to get back to where it ought to be,” he said of the community.
McFarland had some roof and siding damage and multiple downed trees. He said the next day the area was swarmed with volunteers. Many wore plain dress that suggested they came from the same family or religious group.
Neighbor Robin Cave mentioned the same volunteers. She showed photos on her cell phone of them laboring to clear the debris. When the storm approached, she climbed into the bath tub and pleaded with her husband, Darell, to join her. He stayed in the living room watching TV until the power went out.
“I’m yelling for him. I’m freaking out because I hear the wind and it’s nothing like I’ve ever heard before. I’m freaking out. I’m like, ‘Get in here, get in!’” she said. “He says, ‘I am in here.’ I said, ‘Get in the tub with me.’ He sits on the side of the tub and says, ‘I’ll be all right here.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, until the tornado takes you away.’”
Suddenly the wind died down. They ventured out of the bathroom and onto the same porch where she later talked to reporters.
“We saw it going that way,” she said, pointing toward Brookville High School. “All we saw was a big black twirling around and it had like lightning coming out of the bottom of it.”
This put the tornado and Alexis Miller on a collision course.
Riding out the storm in a car
Miller got out of work at the Subway restaurant in Englewood a couple of minutes after 10 p.m. She was driving home in her red, four-door Buick sedan. She lives with her parents in a house abutting Brookville High School on Charlie Court. She drove through the rain and lightning all the way home and parked in front of the house just as the tornado struck.
“I couldn’t get out of my car because the wind started to pick up and I couldn’t open the door,” she said. “Things started hitting my car so I was covered by all the debris, I couldn’t see outside and then my car started to lift up, go side to side.”
All she could see was a twirling fog. A tree flew past her window. All she could hear was the rain and debris pelting her car.
She called her parents who were inside the house in the basement.
RELATED: More stories about tornado recovery
“They told me to get down under my dashboard,” she said. “They tried to get out but they couldn’t because there were trees and limbs everywhere.”
It seemed like 10 minutes, Miller said, but it certainly lasted less time than that.
“The first part I was thinking I was going to die because I felt the car moving and I thought it was going to be picked up and gone. Then I calmed myself down because I had my mom on the phone and they said they were going to come get me and I saw the lights, so I just started to calm down and waited till everything went away.”
The car suffered a few dents and a cracked windshield. The damage to her parents’ house — smashed windows, destroyed porch — were repaired.
Miller leaned on her family to address the emotional damage.
“The first few days I was a little shocked,” she said. “But I got through it because I have 64 members as a family, so they were all talking to me, saying, “You’ll be OK.’”
Many people still suffer trauma from the storm. More information about mental health resources can be found in the Dayton Daily News tornado resource guide.
‘You have to beg insurance’
Miller’s cul-de-sac consists of newer, custom-built homes, several of which remain uninhabited after the storm.
Neighbor Dean Sutter stopped by his house on Charlie Court recently to check on contractors replacing the flooring, which was damaged when the storm blew in the windows and sent glass flying through the house.
“It blew the office apart inside the house, the walls, the doors, everything. Blew into the bathroom, blew down the stairwell, blew across the whole first floor,” he said.
RELATED: Tornado recovery resource guide
Looting was one of the first problems they had in the days after the storm.
“I went back to my shed and there were three guys standing in my shed,” Sutter said. “I was hiding my shotgun. I said, ‘Can I help you guys?’ One guy goes, ‘We’re just here to see what’s left of my shed so we can try to salvage stuff.’
“Of course being the hill-jack that I am, I cocked my shotgun,” he said, and told them to leave.
The guys ran off toward Terrace Park, another hard-hit neighborhood.
Now the challenge is the insurance company.
“They make you work for it, but we’re getting it,” he said. “You have to beg insurance for every penny you think you need.”
“We all have insurance and those of us who do are thankful, but still it’s going to cost us about 40 grand out of pocket to be able to get everything back to where it was.”
Sutter said he’s taking it all in stride. Things could have been worse. His in-laws’ house was among those destroyed. They received an insurance check and relocated nearby.
Like the Kings, they were among the first of hundreds of fortunate survivors during the Memorial Day outbreak.
Two deaths have been attributed to the tornadoes, though officials have expressed surprise there weren’t more fatalities from 19 tornadoes hitting the state during the late evening and early morning hours.
The tornadoes destroyed or severely damaged more than 1,200 structures in Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties. In Montgomery County, 915 buildings — a majority homes and many in vulnerable communities — were left uninhabitable. An unknown number of people were displaced, including tenants of several large apartment complexes that were condemned.
“We’re alive but we’ve lost everything,” Wanda King said. “People need to look at how many miracles there were.”
School hit next
After hitting Miller and Sutter’s homes, the storm tore the roof off of Brookville High School and damaged outside structures such as sporting fields. Winds caused about $2.1 million in damage, Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins said, most of which was covered by insurance.
School started on time, though repairs continue. The biggest effect on kids remains outside of the classroom, Hopkins said. Many children were displaced by the storm, including 15 who made arrangements to get transported by the district to school in Brookville, even though they now temporarily live in another district.
One sixth grader is picked up in a school district van every day from where she is staying in New Carlisle and driven 35 minutes to school.
The trauma suffered by the children whose homes were hit was visible when a midday thunderstorm rolled over the school a few weeks after classes started this fall.
“We had some kids that just were visibly impacted, that you could see them crying and shaking and that sort of thing,” Hopkins said.
The district brought in additional counseling resources. About three weeks ago, staff members participated in training provided by Wright State University on working with trauma-impacted students.
A starkly illustrated damage map compiled by the Montgomery County Auditor’s Office shows where the tornado headed next.
Nearly 70 percent of the 192 homes within Brookville’s Terrace Park subdivision were affected; one in three destroyed or severely damaged.
“This community came together remarkably to do cleanup and take care of debris,” Hopkins said. “And what we still have are homes that are still destroyed particularly back in the Terrace Park area where families are still trying to recover, get back into their houses.”
That’s where this story will continue.
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