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.
Today many of the people in the areas hardest hit by the Memorial Day tornadoes remain frustrated and tired after a year spent putting their lives back together piece by piece, nail by nail, only to now face a global pandemic.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus led to the cancellation of an influx of volunteers and community resources scheduled this spring to rebuild neighborhoods devastated by the record 16 tornadoes last Memorial Day. That left many area residents quarantining in damaged homes, some still patched with blue tarps.
Calls continue coming in to the United Way’s 211 helpline for tornado survivors. Many are homeowners who tried to go it alone but now realize insurance and their own money wasn’t enough to cover rebuilding.
Of the 840 households who sought help from area social service agencies because of the tornadoes, more than 200 cases were opened this year, and 354 households are still getting some sort of assistance. Common needs include help with repair costs and household appliances.
Dayton Daily News reporters recently walked through some neighborhoods hardest hit by the storms. They found a patchwork of recovery — some comfortable in repaired homes and others still struggling.
John Becker and a neighbor are adding a deck to the Northridge house Becker bought after the storm destroyed his house next door. He and his wife slept in a camper on the property until Christmas. His faith in God keeps his spirits up, Becker says, even though he is now furloughed because of coronavirus.
“It’s been rough,” said his wife, Tina Becker.
When the storm hit, the couple lived in a home they had inherited from Tina Becker’s mother, which wasn’t insured. When it was rendered unlivable, they bought the fixer-upper next door and plan to knock down their old house with a Small Business Administration loan.
Every time strong winds come through, the entire neighborhood gets anxious.
“Everybody around here’s got PTSD,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed all along the tornadoes’ paths.
“It would mean everything to be able to go home,” said Tina Berger, who lives in Huber Heights while waiting on contractors to finish repairs to her house in Dayton.
According to Montgomery County damage records, Wanda and Albert King’s barn and house were the first structures destroyed in the massive EF4 tornado that started in soybean field west of their home in Perry Twp.
Over the next 18 miles — at times broadening to more than 1,000 yards wide — the twister tore through parts of Brookville and Trotwood and then devastated sections of Harrison Twp. and Dayton before winding down in Riverside. It was the largest of 16 tornadoes to touch down that night.
Other areas that saw major damage from the other tornadoes included Beavercreek and Miami County.
The Kings now have a newly poured basement that includes a fallout shelter, a feature their old basement also had that they credit for saving their lives last May. If all goes well, Wanda said they will be in a new house by Christmas.
The process has been slow, Wanda King said. Despite having insurance, it’s taken nearly a year to finish demolition, and line up an architect and contractor.
“We’re looking forward to getting it done,” Wanda King said. “I don’t want to have to go through that again. But you know, we take each day at a time.”
While renting a house in Brookville, their property in the township has provided a respite for the Kings during the pandemic.
“We’ve been fortunate to have the property because we don’t feel like we’ve had to be locked in our house,” she said. “We can go over to the property anytime we want and still be able to get out, see how it’s going, clean up or cut some dead wood.”
Perry Twp. Trustee President Melissa Mears said the worst damaged homes in the township all appear to be in the rebuilding process. A couple are now vacant lots for sale. But some things will take much longer.
“(Rebuilding) may be slow, but we’re getting it done,” she said. “When I drive around and see the trees gone and things like that, that’s going to be quite a while before we get back to where it was. It won’t be in my lifetime.”
Terie Fox has until the end of this month to get back into her home in Brookville’s Terrace Park subdivision. That’s when her insurance company will cut off paying for the Lewisburg rental she has lived in the past year.
Repairs are mostly done — a neighbor’s Ford Mustang was hurled into the side of the house by the storm — but she said she can’t get the final sign-off from housing inspectors because the siding and soffit on her porch isn’t done.
Insurance wasn’t enough to cover everything, Fox said, but she secured a Small Business Administration loan and had help from ministries, both local and from Pennsylvania. The out-of-state volunteers stopped coming in March.
“The volunteers haven’t been coming but this one (local) man has seen to it my house was being done,” she said. “I’m hoping to be in by the end of the month.”
Local government officials interviewed by the Dayton Daily News spoke in positive tones about the recovery, focusing on the majority of properties that were fixed, under repair now or were cleared.
Brookville City Manager Sonja Keaton described progress as “really good.”
Of the 228, homes damaged in the storm, 39 were left uninhabitable. Of those, 27 have been torn down. Most of the destroyed homes were rebuilt, some are still under construction and six empty lots are for sale. Only two homes remain in their post-storm state.
The damage was concentrated in the Terrace Park subdivision. Keaton said it looks completely different now, partly from the lack of trees. But also in positive ways.
“Before (the storm) a lot of the homes looked very similar,” she said. “Now they’ve added some front porches, they’ve done a really nice design change back there.”
Natasha Woods was pregnant with her second son and living in a top-floor Trotwood apartment when one of the night’s twisters turned Woodland Hills into one of the region’s most devastated apartment complexes.
“I’ve picked myself up pretty good,” Woods said. “I’m still working on it, little odds and ends. But the necessities, I have.”
About 1,800 residents of multifamily housing units in Trotwood were displaced by the Memorial Day tornadoes, according to city officials.
After the storm, Woods went to a FEMA disaster recovery center set up at Trotwood-Madison High School. She was awarded assistance to help pay for the deposit and rent on a new apartment. She also got help from the Red Cross.
Woods, who had been a tenant in some of the most affordable housing in the region, soon found out that rent almost everywhere else was more expensive.
“I had a really hard time finding a place. Period,” she said. “Everywhere had been taken up and nobody had available units.”
She lived with her father for a time in Dayton and finally found another apartment in Trotwood. The monthly rent there is $800, more than the $560 a month she paid at Woodland Hills.
Her second son was born in December and Woods remains thankful she has maintained her job while recovering from the tornado and now through the coronavirus pandemic. She’s a nurse’s aide — an essential worker — at a nursing and rehabilitation center.
The 432-unit Woodland Hills complex off Westbrook Road remains a ghost town today. Rafters still dangle from some of the buildings. Clothes hang in closets. The area is scattered with personal belongings.
And Woods thinks her 2012 Kia is still sitting crushed under debris.
“I haven’t heard anything. So, I’m assuming it’s probably still under the carport,” she said.
‘People are rebuilding’ but insurance still an issue
Recovery work in Trotwood is about 80% complete, City Manager Quincy Pope said.
“People are rebuilding and things are going pretty well for us,” he said.
Pope applauded the owner of the Westbrooke Village Apartments, where people are already moving back in, and commended his city colleagues for rezoning the Hara Arena site to pave the way for redevelopment there.
However, the owners of Woodland Hills remain in a stalemate with their insurance company, Pope said.
“That’s not uncommon right now. I’ve been hearing all across Montgomery County about problems with insurance,” he said. “They probably are the last major issue in terms of recovery we’re dealing with.”
Pope said the city could not have made it through without the help of about 3,000 volunteers that pitched in on clean-up and recovery efforts.
A few blocks away from the Beckers’ place, mushrooms grow in what used to be Mike Horn’s living room, piled with debris from the collapsed second floor. He hopes to have the house torn down this month so he can rebuild.
Horn has insurance but said he struggled with unreliable contractors at first, and now is fighting with agencies such as AT&T and DP&L to take down a broken pole on his property. And now the coronavirus is slowing repairs.
“With the coronavirus a lot of the government offices are closed, and you got to try to do things online,” he said. “It makes it tougher to do.”
Five doors down, Lee Combs is rebuilding the fence around his still-damaged house along Wagner Ford Road because people have stolen equipment from his yard.
“(Things were stolen) right in the middle of a freaking storm. That’s some pretty low life (expletive),” he said.
Combs is close to paying off the house under a land contract and was in the process of getting insurance when the tornado hit. He is paying for repairs out of pocket, insisting on not borrowing money.
“I make too much for one (program) and I don’t make enough to do it on my own,” he said. His goal this summer is to replace the roof and downstairs windows.
“It sucks. But I’ll get through. I’ll rebuild.”
Old North Dayton
Gina Maxb’s health has steadily declined since the tornado, when her scooter was knocked over in the storm and she suffered a leg injury that later got infected. Then earlier this year she got a terrible respiratory disease she suspects might have been the coronavirus.
“It’s like ever since the tornado came, I’ve had one health issue after another,” said the Old North Dayton resident who’s now homebound.
She’s grateful Habitat for Humanity volunteers replaced her roof last month after it was covered with a tarp all winter, and then replaced her siding this month.
Repairs on Maxb’s home were supposed to be done by out-of-state volunteers, but their visit this spring was cancelled because of the coronavirus, so local agencies did the work.
Down the road on Macready Avenue, workers from Habitat for Humanity were working on a pair of homes. One house was just demolished.
The financial model for rebuilding it is the same as with other people who need and qualify for assistance. It will be rebuilt with with a combination of government loans, grants, donated goods — in this case, shingles and siding — donated labor, and community donations to the Dayton Foundation.
The Dayton Foundation currently has about $1.5 million on hand and is spending it judiciously, Vice President of Operations Jeanne Holihan said.
“Right now we’re triaging the ones that need to be done immediately because of health and safety needs,” she said.
In addition to lining up workers, Habitat for Humanity is one of four area agencies that helps people get up to $20,000 grants from the Federal Home Loan Bank. Eligibility is income-based.
Former Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Frank Gorman came out of retirement to help the agency line up the funds. The program got off to a slow start.
On a recent weekday, Gorman was volunteering to fix up the Macready house, which had a facade on an enclosed porch fall off and need to be propped back up. Now that the money is flowing, he said the problem is a lack of volunteers because of the coronavirus.
“It’s just starting to get back to the point where we’re comfortable with volunteers, we’ve limited it to no more than six volunteers per site to help with social distancing,” he said. “It’s been significant in the sense that it’s really delayed us on the project. But hopefully things will start to open back up here.”
A block away, Ibrahim Suleyman was getting no help with his property on Troy Street. Suleyman didn’t live there. He rented it to his nephew. He had no insurance, and because it’s not owner-occupied, qualifies for little help.
“I’m slowly trying to buy materials,” he said after fetching a cordless drill from a garage sloping at a dangerous angle, held up in part by a board nailed to a nearby tree. Home Depot and Menards have helped by giving him discounts on materials, he said.
‘We were making progress’
Deep Patel, owner of the Grocery Lane, said he initially intended to rebuild and reopen the store that’s been shuttered since the storm. But because he doesn’t own the building, he wasn’t eligible for Small Business Administration assistance. The store also continues to suffer repeated damage from vandals stealing copper and the small bit of remaining inventory.
“The store is rebuilt but we’re just not reopening because of the theft issue,” he said. “They do it every day. I fix it, they break it.”
Matt Tepper, president of the Old North Dayton Neighborhood Association, estimates his organization and its partners have substantially repaired about 30 properties.
“We were making progress up until the pandemic,” he said.
They were anticipating an influx of out-of-state volunteers last month, but that was cancelled because of the coronavirus. They hope it’s a temporary setback.
Meanwhile, previously unnoticed damage from the tornado continues to emerge.
“One thing I learned about a tornado is it ages things real fast,” he said.
“All of those things you look at and say, ‘I have to get to’ on your house, a tornado will age that process until the whole list is due to do,” he said. “All those deferred maintenance issues catch up all at once.”
One thing that won’t happen this year is the Memorial Day picnic. The neighborhood had one for the first time last year before the tornado.
“This year the idea was floated to continue that effort, but we’re not going to be doing that this year. It’s just not safe to do,” he said.
The longer the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, the greater the worry becomes that fewer skilled volunteers will be available to help with tornado recovery here, said Michael Vanderburgh, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and chairman of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group.
Other areas of the country will experience floods, hurricanes, fires — and tornadoes — and national volunteers will deploy where the needs are immediate and urgent.
“These are things that will get the attention away from our recovery the longer that we go. Right now we need to focus on the follow-through and the execution,” he said. “We’re still hoping to recover some of the national skilled volunteer groups that can help us with repair and rebuild that will be willing to come to Dayton. That contributed labor is a huge factor for us to be able to work on these cases that remain for people who still need help a year later. And coronavirus just complicates everything.”
‘It shouldn’t be forgotten’
While roads and power lines are cleared, debris from fallen trees continues to clutter properties a year later, particularly in rural areas.
Union Twp., in Miami County, surveyed residents in tornado-impacted areas this year and found debris cleanup was the No. 1 requested need, though housing repairs, demolition help and insurance problems were also identified. The county, township and affected villages identified resources to help homeowners.
“We had a debris pickup planned in April but it got canceled due to COVID 19,” Miami County Planning and Zoning Director Dan Suerdick said.
Beavercreek City Manager Pete Landrum said with help from other jurisdictions, they hauled off 596 truckloads of debris this year. “I mean, 18-wheeler-size truckloads,” he said.
An assessment in January found that of 139 residential properties and 131 commercial properties that were seriously damaged or destroyed, only six homes and two commercial properties — including one owned by the city — weren’t making progress. Thirteen damaged homes are now vacant lots.
Landrum said he’s sure the coronavirus slowed things down.
“They thought they were getting repairs, then here comes shelter in place. That had to impact people,” he said.
And Beavercreek had hoped to hold a gathering, “maybe a memorial time to acknowledge the one year, but with this COVID, it’s really kind of sad we can’t join together.”
“It helps people heal and talk about it and show, hey, we survived, we rebuilt,” he said. “It shouldn’t be forgotten.”
It won’t be forgotten by Kristi Armbruster. The single mother won’t forget how neighbors with the Beavercreek High School marching band and the Beavercreek Tornado Network stored her belongings as she bounced from a hotel to other places for months before now moving to Xenia.
“So many helped my little family after the tornado,” she wrote in response to the Dayton Daily News survey this month. “We are just now beginning to really start again, and I haven’t had a panic attack in few months.”
Responding to the question about what recovery would like for her, she wrote: “The fresh start we were meant to have.”
Time running out to ask for recovery help
Individuals whose homes were damaged by the Memorial Day tornadoes and still need help with rebuilding or repairs are urged to call United Way’s Helplink number at 211 or 937-225-3000.
Homeowners who were uninsured or under-insured may be eligible for free assistance from the Miami Valley Long Term Recovery Group. The deadline to ask for help is Aug. 1.
Calling Helplink will enter eligible individuals into the disaster case management system and connect them with a disaster recovery case manager. Calling 211 also connects individuals to resources for spiritual and emotional support.