Up to 1,100 households were displaced by Memorial Day tornadoes in Montgomery County and more than 750 are still struggling to find a place to live, according to FEMA and county officials.
“We know that Dayton lost a lot of rental property during this tornado. I’m astonished by how many hundreds of units are now offline,” said Susan Jensen, a senior emergency management specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of families … who have maybe moved on and are living with family and friends who don’t have a current long-term permanent housing solution,” she said.
A county-organized Housing Recovery Resource Fair for tornado survivors this week revealed ongoing confusion over FEMA letters and worry over high fees for rental applications and seemingly higher rents – for places not hit by the tornado but that are barely livable.
A second housing fair will be today from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Maranatha Worship Centre, 4501 Wolf Road in Trotwood.
Regina Edwards was in her Woodland Hills Apartments in Trotwood on May 27 when her ears started popping. She crawled into the bathtub just as the ceiling and roof above her peeled away to expose the sky.
“The building is gone. It’s demolished. It’s condemned,” said Edwards, who sought help finding a new place to live at the housing event Tuesday at the Kroc Center in Dayton. “We cannot go back in there for nothing.”
She’s now packed into her mother’s house in Harrison Twp. with her daughter and eight other family members.
“It was total chaos after that from then until now,” Edwards said.
A record-breaking 21 tornadoes struck Ohio on Memorial Day night through the next morning, including 15 in the region. The largest, an EF-4, swept from Brookville to Riverside, inflicting the worst damage on Harrison Twp. in between.
Two and a half months after the tornadoes, Edwards is still looking for a place to stay.
“Some are too expensive, some are too nasty. I just don’t want to accept anything. I want to be there for a while,” she said. “So it’s very complicated.”
Rental application fees alone — $25 to $30 each — chew up resources, Edwards said.
“That’s a whole lot of money. If you apply for five in a day,” she said. “And if it doesn’t go through, that money is non-refundable.”
The FEMA-requested housing recovery events are designed to be one-stop shop for people to gather the information to start the process of stabilizing their lives, said Tom Kelley, assistant Montgomery County administrator for Human Services.
“We are trying to get people to recognize it’s in their best interests to take those steps sooner rather than later, particularly when they have a resource like FEMA available,” Kelley said.
The area’s last FEMA disaster recovery center will close Aug. 30, Jensen announced Tuesday. The deadline to apply for FEMA benefits for the Dayton-area tornadoes is Sept. 3.
“At that point our assistance is not available anymore. I strongly, strongly encourage you to register,” Jensen told participants Tuesday.
As of Wednesday morning, 4,201 individuals or households in Montgomery County had applied for federal disaster assistance, according to FEMA. Applications totaled 548 in Greene County and 111 in Miami County.
For some survivors, the struggle to find permanent housing has them at a breaking point.
One Dayton couple has split time sleeping in their car and on a sofa with their friends’ two dogs.
“They are good dogs, but they just have to be up on the couch,” said Bill Moore.
The tornado damaged their one-bedroom Dayton apartment, but according to FEMA it’s still livable, a finding disputed by Amee Ranta, Moore’s fiancée.
Their troubles were compounded because they were in the middle of moving to a new place just as the storm hit. Many of their belongings on the front porch awaiting the move were blown away. The place they were moving to is now occupied by the owner’s relatives who lost their home in the tornadoes.
“It’s like we don’t exist anymore,” Ranta said.
Ranta said she’s frustrated with the FEMA process, which has taken many calls, two of which lasted more than two hours.
“I told them, ‘Look, I’d rather not deal with you anymore because you’ve got me on an emotional yo-yo rollercoaster and I just can’t take it anymore.’”
Ranta left a job to become a caregiver for Moore, plagued the past two and half years by health problems that include strokes that required brain surgery, a broken back and congestive heart failure.
Moore and Ranta received vouchers for some bedding and furniture, but those will likely go to waste because they expire at the end of the month. A $300 voucher for clothes came the couple’s way, but only several other donations of $20 or less were used to keep gas in the vehicle where they sometimes sleep.
Moore and Ranta have also spent nights in area homeless shelters, but must do so apart.
“He couldn’t do it. He said he’d rather sleep in the car,” Ranta said.
They are living on Moore’s disability of $771 a month and at the time of the tornado were paying $425 a month in rent.
A local housing agency directed the couple to a run-down trailer. They passed on it because it rented for even more and was full of mold and mildew Moore’s failing health would not tolerate.
Moore said they simply can’t find a comparable apartment for anywhere close to what they paid before the storm.
“They raised the rents $150 to $200 a month. It’s bad,” he said. “I don’t see why people have to take advantage of the situation.”
Mary Kucenski, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison, said rent rates before and after the storm in affected neighborhoods is the greatest concern voiced by those seeking housing.
“They are saying they can’t find an affordable rental unit at the rate they were paying pre-storm, and they are not going out of that neighborhood,” she said. “There are resources there … that can help them afford something else at a higher price for a time period to be re-stabilized until they can relocate to something they can afford.”
Ranta said a past job had her responsible for placing a certain product in more than two dozen Kroger stores. She also counseled battered women, she said.
“I did all of these things, and I keep beating myself up because I can’t get help for us,” she said. “I’m so confused.”
Before she left the housing recovery fair, Ranta picked up an application for rental assistance from Greater Dayton Premier Management, the public housing authority. She was told she had to attend an orientation in person.
“I get that, but where am I getting gas to do that?”
She was also told it would take a lot longer to get placed than she expected.
“I started crying. I can’t wait six months,” she said. “We actually thought about getting a tent.”
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