Most people who sought federal disaster assistance after the Memorial Day tornadoes were turned down, and instead neighbors and community groups have led the recovery efforts.
The Dayton Daily News investigated the programs set up to help people in the wake of the storm, how the millions of dollars in assistance has been spent and the challenges those programs have faced.
Among our findings:
• FEMA has helped 1,639 people in 11 counties hit by the storm, but turned down nearly three times as many applications. About 9 percent of homeowners were approved in Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties.
• More than 300 people have called the United Way helplink number and been put into disaster recovery case management. Until mid-November, only one case manager was assigned full-time to help them.
• The Dayton Foundation collected $1.8 million in donations after the storm. A good chunk of that was spent in the early weeks on emergency disaster recovery. The bulk of what’s left is being held until other resources are exhausted.
• Nonprofit agencies could leave more than $1 million on the table in home repair funds, largely because of paperwork delays.
Sixteen tornadoes hit western Ohio on May 27, damaging thousands of properties and leaving more than 1,000 people without homes. Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — have been walking the path of the largest of these, an EF4 tornado that churned across nearly Montgomery County.
The Harrison Twp. home where Roberta Fleet lives with her disabled mother and three young children still has holes in the roof and plywood covering several windows six months after the storm.
“I started taking blankets and blanketing off rooms,” Fleet said about how she’s preparing for winter. In addition to blocking off doorways with blankets, she has covered the windows with trash bags, cardboard and duct tape.
“That’s what we can afford to do on the little we’ve got,” she said.
Neighbors more help than FEMA
Universally tornado survivors told the Dayton Daily News how in the hours after the storm, the buzz of chainsaws filled the air as neighbors came to each other’s aid. The community outpouring continued with food and water distribution, volunteer clean-up efforts and more.
“There were people coming down the hill with food and supplies for a good solid month,” said Roberta Fleet’s mother, Deanna Fleet.
Many people turned to the federal government for help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency received 4,632 applications for assistance from Montgomery County, 600 from Greene County and 117 from Miami County. More than half of the applications in Montgomery County came from renters.
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Of the 2,726 homeowners who applied for help from FEMA in those three counties, 254 were approved. Of the 2,604 renters who applied, 1,057 got help.
In total, the federal agency provided more than $3.7 million.
The most common reasons homeowners were denied assistance included insufficient damage, the damage being insured, the applicant couldn’t be reached for inspection, or the applicant couldn’t verify he or she lived in the home during the storm, according to FEMA.
“In each situation, applicants have the option to appeal FEMA’s determination,” FEMA spokeswoman Cassie Ringsdorf said. “Guidance for submitting an appeal is included in the decision letter each applicant receives.”
Deanna Fleet owns their home on Loretta Drive. The Dayton Daily News contacted the Fleets after Roberta Fleet filled out a survey on the newspaper’s website asking tornado survivors about obstacles they are facing on the road to recovery.
They don’t have homeowner’s insurance.
“I haven’t been able to afford it,” Deanna Fleet said. “I’m on a fixed income, and I barely get through the month.”
She applied to FEMA for help.
“They basically said because the house was safe to occupy, we were not able to get any funding,” she said.
The hole in their roof is over a back room, now separated by the rest of the house by a thick comforter Fleet hung over the open doorway to shield her children — ages 4, 5 and 11 — from the cold. The windows are covered with scrap plywood she found in her yard after the storm, some of which has developed holes showing the cardboard behind.
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“Nobody got any FEMA (assistance) around here we know of. Everyone else gave up on it, too,” Roberta Fleet said.
In response to questions from the Dayton Daily News, FEMA officials said home repair assistance is “intended only to make the damaged home safe, sanitary or functional.” This can include roof and window repairs, they said.
They would not comment on any individual claims, citing privacy laws.
Dayton Foundation money
The day after the storm, the Dayton Foundation created a Disaster Relief Fund to support recovery efforts. Since then, it has received about 3,400 gifts from around the world, totaling roughly $1.8 million.
About $863,000 of that was spent in the immediate aftermath of the storm supporting emergency efforts of groups such as the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter and the Red Cross.
“That was to make sure those impacted by the tornado were getting their basic needs met, whether it be food or shelter,” said Dayton Foundation Vice President of Operations Jeanne Holihan in a recent interview for the Dayton Daily News Walking the Path of the Storm podcast.
“Now we’re transitioning to long-term recovery,” she said.
There are two recovery tracks. One is community recovery — restoring parks and infrastructure — and is expected to take five to 10 years. The Dayton Foundation contributed $180,000 toward a $720,000 grant to pay for someone to coordinate that effort over the next five years.
Then there is individual recovery: helping each family put their lives back together. That is estimated to take one to three years and is led by the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group, formed in July.
Long-term recovery group
Sinclair Community College provided Laura Mercer to lead the group as a loaned executive. The group has a board consisting of representatives from St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Social Services, the Dayton Foundation and Lutheran Social Services Disaster Response. Another roughly 40 government and nongovernmental agencies are involved.
In August, the group began urging people in Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties to call the United Way helpline at 211. Callers are matched up with caseworkers who identify community resources available to them.
If there is a gap between what’s needed and what’s available, they turn to what’s called a “resource table.” There, groups including the Dayton Foundation, discuss whether they can pitch in additional resources to fill that gap.
Dayton Foundation officials say they want to make sure other avenues are exhausted before using its funds to ensure that the donations go where they are truly needed.
Deanna and Roberta Fleet said they called 211 in August.
“That was the only way we got any kind of tarps on the roof, we got some food dropped off, some canned goods and all that,” Roberta Fleet said.
Deanna Fleet said her caseworker came out within a few weeks and picked up paperwork. Fleet said the caseworker told her she could get help soon.
“I’m hoping we don’t have to wait until spring, that would be great,” she said.
More than 300 tornado survivors have called 211. More than half of them were renters. More than 50 households have children younger than 3.
For months, only one full-time caseworker handled these cases.
Michael Perry, who oversees the case management process with Catholic Social Services in a position funded by the Dayton Foundation, said other caseworkers with his agency pitched in.
“It has been overwhelming. We have had to prioritize,” Perry said. “We have done the best we can.”
A second and third caseworker started Nov. 18 and a fourth is in the hiring process. But at that point, each one will still have at least 75 cases, which is more than twice the caseload Perry wants them to have.
They have had to triage cases, Perry said, focusing on those with immediate critical needs, such as keeping utilities on, clothing and food assistance. They recently started getting calls from more people in unstable housing or unsafe conditions such as their car.
“Now that people are getting their feet back under them and going back to work and getting some money saved, they are coming back to us to get into more suitable, long-term housing instead of suffering the quick decisions they had to make just to get housed,” he said.
Meanwhile the more complicated cases, like the Fleets, move more slowly.
“That’s an unfortunate truth that some of the cases have been taking a while to get through,” Perry said.
They are working on ways to streamline some of these programs, he said, and hire more caseworkers. The Red Cross has applied for FEMA funds to hire six more caseworkers, though it’s unclear if or when that will happen.
Home repair grant money unspent
One program the Fleets may qualify for can get them up to $20,000 in grants for home repairs from the Federal Home Loan Bank, which is a consortium of financial institutions.
To qualify, a property must be owner-occupied and the applicant must meet income eligibility requirements of no more than $79,005 for a household of three or more people.
Four local agencies were approved to each process $500,000 in FHLB assistance each calendar year. But so far this year, a small percentage of that money has been tapped. The deadline to access the money is Dec. 31.
The agencies are Habitat for Humanity, Miami Valley Community Action Partnership, CountyCorp and Rebuilding Together Dayton. Altogether, they are processing 56 applications and have completed four projects. Another 14 have funding approved but work hasn’t started.
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“It’s safe to say that each agency has at least another $400,000 available from which to draw,” said Amy Radachi, president of Rebuilding Together Dayton.
Paperwork is a major hurdle, Radachi said. Applicants need utility statements showing they lived in the house in May, documents showing income and so on. They need to show they exhausted their options with insurance and FEMA, and don’t have the work already under contract.
“People aren’t able to get the documentation we need for them to proceed,” she said, expressing the hope that the four agencies can get a shared staffer to help applicants navigate the paperwork.
A contractor shortage also has slowed things down, she said. But she said they have the capacity to help more people if they apply and can get their paperwork together.
“We all have money still that we don’t want to leave on the table,” she said.
Successes and obstacles
Recovery efforts are far ahead of where other disaster-stricken communities have been at this point, Mercer said.
The long-term recovery group has coordinated more than 45,000 volunteer hours hauling off tons of debris. They have helped people access housing and emergency needs. They sealed up homes as winter approaches and helped with repairs at three homes that weren’t worth going through the FHLB process. They are planning a winter clothing drive.
The most extensive rebuilding work will be seen in the spring, Mercer said. Several national volunteer organizations are lined up to do massive rebuilding, including one that is planning a yearlong project.
The long-term recovery group is stockpiling donated building supplies, though they could use more warehouse space. And through the 211 process, they are lining up properties so all these pieces can come together after winter.
“We really are about six months ahead of where anybody would be in terms of disaster recovery work, and I know it doesn’t feel like that if you’re a survivor, but that’s a reality,” she said. “I would love to have hundreds of rebuilds happening, starting in the spring.”
Obstacles have included people not knowing that help is available, difficulty getting together documentation to access some programs, and manpower and contractor shortages, Mercer said.
Meanwhile new needs will continue to emerge, according to Mindi Wynne of Bellbrook. Wynne’s home was damaged in the storm and her family is fighting with insurance over damage they keep finding months later. She has seen her neighbors struggle with the cumulative impact of these costs.
“The tornado crisis is over but the domino effect is continuing on, and people are just now starting to realize we have all this mold in our attic or our wiring is messed up,” she said. “People are finding they spent so much money on repairs (that) these nickles and dimes are adding up over the months and they’re running out of money to continue with day-to-day living.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — are traveling the length of the largest of the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes. It tore a path across Montgomery County, impacting thousands of homes and businesses. We are gathering people’s stories and investigating obstacles to recovery. This story is part of that coverage. Go here for the full project.
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