Lillian Martin of Brookville planted a new tree to replace one in her front yard destroyed on Deger Court along with several of her neighbors’ homes. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

Months later, tornado debris remains ‘such a horrible reminder’

While some areas have begun rebuilding, others are untouched.

More than three months after record-breaking tornadoes hit the area, many severely damaged houses remain untouched — even as other homes are rapidly being rebuilt.

That’s left some neighbors like Trotwood’s Gerald Black wondering if certain blocks will languish in ruin.

Black can look down Greenbrook Drive from his front yard and still see homes all-but-obliterated with walls and roofs missing.

“I know that the neighborhood definitely is not going to bounce back 100%,” Black said. “There’s no coming back from that. Those are complete totals. They will have to be demolished, so that will be empty lots, and it’s going to be an eyesore.”

The tornadoes destroyed or severely damaged more than 1,200 structures in neighborhoods across Greene County, Miami County and Montgomery County, where 915 were left uninhabitable.

INTERACTIVE MAP: See where thousands of properties were damaged in Montgomery County tornadoes

The Miami Valley is coming together to make a difference after more than a dozen tornadoes hit the area Memorial Day night and left behind a path of destruction.

Damage maps like those compiled by Miami County emergency management officials and the auditors in Greene and Montgomery counties show the challenges faced up and down dozens of streets in subdivisions that took a direct hit like Trotwood’s Greenbrook Drive, where 30 of 31 houses on the street were damaged, nearly 60 percent of those with major damage requiring demolition or extensive rebuilding.

In Greene County, 293 structures had major damage or were destroyed of 1,445 affected. In Miami County, 144 structures were affected and 42 leveled or severely damaged.

Officials are hopeful, but say multiple factors will determine whether a decimated street can rebound and how long it will take.

“People will come back,” said Al Kuzma, Greene County’s chief building official, said. “It’s going to take a while.”

MORE: Tornadoes have hundreds of households struggling for housing

Kuzma said the rebuilding process can be painfully slow as property owners sort out any FEMA assistance, slog through insurance settlements and face a contractor shortage, an issue even before the tornadoes.

“All the contractors I talk to are as busy as can be, and you throw a tornado into the mix, and it makes it more difficult,” he said.

Kuzma and other officials said it’s too soon to compel property owners to take action on properties that have been untouched following the tornadoes.

“We’re just trying to be patient as work schedules go through and insurance companies respond,” he said. “We really don’t have any deadlines at this point as far as forcing the issue.”

MORE: Beavercreek efforts target student victims of tornado

Can’t come back

While people may eventually return, it may not be the same family and not the same house.

“I can’t even come back to the plat. I can’t drive into the plat,” said Leann Trochelman, who hasn’t been back to the family’s Terrace Park home in Brookville since the tornado. What remained standing was torn down last week.

Trochelman and her husband Norman are purchasing a house in Clayton and plan to sell the empty lot on Deger Court.

MORE: Thousands more denied than awarded FEMA grants

Lillian Martin has lived across the street since 1965. Martin lost a garage and had extensive damage to her roof and exterior, but her house weathered the storm better than the Trochelman house and two beside it, one now demolished and another that’s slow to come down.

“I hate looking at that mess,” Martin, 81, said. “It’s just such a horrible reminder. You want to have good memories of things instead of having all of this in your mind all the time.”

Martin planted a new tree in her front yard to replace one ripped out by the tornado. And while she likes living on the cul-de-sac, which was quiet before the clamor of construction and demolition equipment, she fears diminished property values.

“I’ve always been worried about that,” she said. “I’m almost ashamed now to tell people where I live.”

Despite having no insurance and still appealing a FEMA denial, Craig Gitzinger, with the help of an understanding employer, managed to put a new roof on his family’s Brookville house on Crosswell Avenue, a street on which every house was damaged, including four destroyed. A street away, a new house rises from where one sat before the tornado.

“Everyday I see work going on,” Gitzinger said. “I think we’re going to bounce back, I really do.”

Daily calls about insurance

On Berquist Drive in Trotwood, all 17 houses were damaged, including Robert Edward’s. Four on the street were destroyed, according to the county’s damage map.

Edwards, 79, said one neighbor had power restored just last week another plans to rebuild from the ground up. Edwards is still waiting on new shingles and gutters. Their experiences illustrate the maze of complexity that has to navigated to rebuild.

“It depends on the insurance company. It depends on the contractor. It depends on the mortgage company,” Edwards said. “It’s 2019. They are talking about going to Mars. We are talking about a house that has been damaged or destroyed. It shouldn’t take long to fix that.”

Trotwood City Manager Quincy Pope said the city has been working to help residents sort out insurance problems, which are numerous.

“You wouldn’t believe the misunderstanding about how insurance works,” Pope said. “I get calls daily about insurance issues.”

Pope said people need to work through their insurance company and, if they feel there is still a problem, to lodge a complaint with the Ohio Department of Insurance.

Awards, settlements slow process

Contractors, too, often feel pinched between homeowners’ expectations and trying to make repairs under modest FEMA awards or low-ball insurance settlements from companies that want to keep losses slim, said Tim Crouch, the CEO of Untethered Builders.

Funding is the biggest obstacle, said Crouch, who was born and raised in Dayton and now lives in Chicago. The company is currently working on four tornado-damaged houses in Trotwood.

“My team, my employees, they still have to be paid and fed. And material costs, you can’t get around that,” Crouch said. “It’s work. We’re navigating through that process now.”

MORE: Local tornado victims slow to get FEMA aid approval

The costs across the state to replace homes and automobiles following the record-breaking 21 tornadoes across the state Memorial Day weekend are staggering and still being accounted for, according to the Ohio Insurance Institute, an industry group.

The preliminary range of insured losses for the storm, mostly impacting the western part of the state, is between $465 million and $480 million, representing more than 30,000 claims filed. About 70% of the insured losses were personal homeowners and auto insurance claims, according to the industry group.

Neighborhood ‘hammered’

In block-long stretches of Neff Road and Maplegrove Avenue just east of North Dixie Drive, as well as adjacent properties on the main artery, 37 of 41 properties were affected. Five businesses on the corners of North Dixie Drive and 24 homes there were either destroyed or received major damage.

The Northridge neighborhood “got hammered,” said Heather Weikert, 45, whose family’s home was heavily damaged and their detached garage destroyed.

MORE: Northridge Schools asks community to send encouraging letters to students

Some neighbors left because their houses were destroyed. A large tree rests through the roof on yet another nearby house. Yet still, another resident has since died, putting that unrepaired property into jeopardy, Weikert said.

“The storm is one problem. It’s all the problems that come after that,” she said.

Nearly 15 percent of all properties in Harrison Twp. were affected by the storm, including 1,626 residences and 184 businesses. According to the county’s damage map 371, had major damage or were destroyed.

‘It takes time’

Dozens of damaged properties, including some businesses, have remained untouched, but it’s too soon to tell which may fester into protracted problems for the community, said Kris McClintick, the township’s administrator.

The township sent out a “very gentle letter” two months after the tornadoes to residential property owners who had done little cleanup or repair asking about their plans, McClintick said.

“We are cognizant of the fact that our neighbors have just been hit by a tornado, and it takes time,” he said. “We didn’t want to upset anybody who was working with insurance or working with FEMA.”

MORE: Busing issues, building repairs plague school districts after tornadoes

With the FEMA individual assistance registration period coming to an end last week, it should become more evident in coming weeks how many uninsured or underinsured homeowners will get assistance to repair properties. The close of FEMA registration will also open the doors to assistance to those without other means to rebuild using volunteer labor and materials coordinated through the Miami Valley Long-term Operations Group, a coalition of area non-profit organizations.

While officials would like to see everyone rebuild, that won’t be the case, they acknowledge. Municipalities will be left with scores of abandoned properties.

Making a list

Harrison Twp. is putting together a list of properties where owners have been unresponsive or have indicated they are walking away. The list may grow to as many as 200 residential properties, he said.

While localities may be on the hook for commercial properties that are left in disrepair, some including Harrison Twp. plan to apply for a FEMA program that provides funding to remove debris from private property.

The debris removal program requires either the owner’s consent or for the local governing authority to declare that debris on private property is a health and safety threat to the public, according to FEMA.

Officials: Everyone has role in next tornado recovery phase

McClintick expects a completed list of properties will go in front of Harrison Twp. trustees and be declared dangerous properties at a hearing sometime in October. The declarations will allow the township to apply for the FEMA funding and await the result.

“The expectation is really that it’s going to be two years before we really kind of start to see all the damaged structures that weren’t repaired are down and it kind of starts to look normal again,” McClintick said.

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