Volunteer groups to rebuild damaged tornado homes

A cavalry of skilled volunteers is on its way to the Dayton region next month to rebuild the homes of tornado survivors who lacked insurance or other means.

The Repair and Rebuild Task Force’s goal is to have 40 to 50 tornado-damaged properties identified and ready for volunteers to tackle in March and April. About 25 homes are already on the list. The task force includes members from local governments, nonprofits and faith-based disaster recovery groups.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Walking the Path of the Storm

“I’m excited about the second round of the cavalry that’s going to arrive,” said Cathi Spaugy, the development director in Harrison Twp., where dozens of homes remain little changed since torn apart by the most powerful of 16 Memorial Day tornadoes to hit the western Ohio.

Thousands of volunteers helped remove downed trees and building debris from disaster areas in Greene, Miami and Montgomery counties in the days and weeks following the storm. Insurance helped many rebuild in the nine months since. But for hundreds of others in Harrison Twp., Old North Dayton and elsewhere, repairs stalled due to lack of resources and other factors.

“The path of the tornadoes disproportionately hit low-income areas. These are folks who do not have a lot of resiliency or capacity to recover on their own,” said Laura Mercer, executive director of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group. “They were uninsured, underinsured. They have a host of sometimes legal issues that have followed them, in terms of houses’ titles not being transferred correctly, back taxes and things we have to untangle.”

The volunteer-led rebuilding effort might include as many as 500 large projects and last two to three years, said Paul Nelson, construction coordinator for the recovery group.

“We are in it for a very long haul,” he said.

‘Never thought I’d be homeless’

Christine Creager’s home in on the list to be repaired this spring. She and her daughter are among 756 households with unmet needs who have called 2-1-1 and entered into the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group case management system. About half the cases — 381 — are homeowners.

“I didn’t have homeowners insurance because I couldn’t afford it,” Creager said. “We just never thought a tornado was going to hit Dayton and we weren’t in a flood zone, so I just never thought in a million years this would ever happen.”

As the tornado hit, Creager, her 17-year-old daughter, Kansas, and their cat, Midnight, took refuge in the basement of their Macready Avenue home in Old North Dayton.

“It was just unreal — the creaking, the house blowing away,” Creager said. “I went out there in the dark and looked up and my roof was gone … All the trees and everything was down. It was unbelievable. It was like World War III out there.”

It was another three weeks before they could coax Midnight from the rubble.

Creager’s parents, who lived next door, also lost their house. They stayed together in a Centerville hotel immediately after the storm but soon ran short of money and moved to a Red Cross shelter.

“I never thought I’d be homeless in my life. That was traumatizing,” said Creager, who owned her property outright.

Now she is splitting rent – $1,650 a month for a Miami Twp. house – with her parents, who also had no mortgage.

Creager recently learned she would be able to rebuild her Old North Dayton house with a low-interest disaster loan and the help of the skilled volunteers set to begin work in the region next month.

“My house is going to basically be a total rehab,” she said. “I had no idea that there were volunteer groups out here in the United States like this. There are people coming from all over the place to help.”

Filling gaps

A tornado survivor calls 2-1-1 to reach the “front door” for the individual recovery process. The line is open to tornado survivors from any affected county. Once a caller says they’re a tornado survivor, the operator fills out a form that’s forwarded to disaster case managers.

Ten case managers are now working with survivors. Also called disaster navigators, they triage the cases and work to develop a recovery plan for each individual or family. A primary goal is to repair and rebuild homes for those lacking insurance, but some survivors only need help with food or paying their rent and utilities.

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If a determination is made that property damage is an obstacle to recovery, then a construction team assesses the property and makes a detailed estimate of the costs to make the home safe, sanitary, secure and functional.

If a recovery plan requires resources beyond what individuals have because they were uninsured or underinsured, the case managers bring the case to a “resource table.” Donated housing materials and volunteer manpower are used first to address those needs, drawing on donated money as a last resort.

Once all the materials, financing and labor are lined up and approved, it is turned over to skilled nonprofits and faith-based groups, many who will travel from out of state to the area.

“We bring in volunteers, muscles and tools and just get it done,” said Bryan Autullo with Team Rubicon, a national volunteer disaster recovery group made up primarily of veterans along with current and retired law enforcement officers.

Living in unsafe housing

Of the 381 homeowners in the case management system, two-thirds indicate they need help rebuilding, according to recovery operations group data as of Thursday.

But many more families are likely living in unsafe housing and haven’t sought help, particularly in Harrison Twp., Spaugy said.

“In the most heavily damaged neighborhood, we have a perfect storm of pride and distrust at work. A greater amount of those folks are not in the system simply because of those two things,” she said.

Once neighbors start seeing houses repaired nearby, word should spread to other survivors not yet in the system that help is available, Mercer said.

“Part of this is to re-energize the community,” she said. “We are just now getting into the phase of repair and rebuild.”

Getting ‘back to normal eventually’

About 60 people representing local governments along with nonprofit and faith-based disaster recovery groups packed a conference room earlier this month at the Dayton Foundation to kick off a spring rebuilding campaign.

Some were there to offer survivors help with financing, drafting construction drawings, or smoothing the permitting process and inspections processes. But most people represented groups that will have boots on the ground and hammers in hand in the coming years.

Jean Peercy, a 23-year veteran of disaster recovery construction with Lutheran Disaster Response, said volunteers will come to the Dayton region out of their “graciousness of their heart” to help people who fell through the cracks.

“FEMA funds weren’t enough or didn’t come through … or those that don’t have insurance,” said Peercy of Hillsboro. “Those are the folks we are here to help in their time of need.”

MORE: Thousands more denied than awarded FEMA grants

Creager thought she was going to be forced to demolish her house, sell an empty lot on Macready Avenue and continue to fork over high rent for the rest of her life.

“I’m so grateful and so thankful. I could not do this on my own,” she said. “And we’re going to have our house back and be able to get back to normal eventually.

“Hope is what’s keeping us going and it always gets better.”

These organizations participated in a task force meeting this month, indicating they will provide volunteer labor on tornado rebuilding projects beginning this spring. Other groups will likely join the years-long recovery effort, according to the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group.

Brethren Disaster Ministries

Centerville Early Response Team (United Methodist Church)

Christian Life Center

Crossroads Dayton Church

Declare/Living City Project

Habitat for Humanity

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 82

Iron Workers Local 290

Lutheran Church of the Resurrection

Lutheran Disaster Response

Lutheran Social Services

Mennonite Disaster Services

Missionary Church Crisis Relief

North Broadway United Methodist Church

Rebuilding Together Dayton

SouthBrook Christian Church Disaster Response Team

Team Rubicon

The Call to Build

United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries

West Dayton Clergy Caravan

Western Ohio Disaster Relief (United Methodist Church)

Were you impacted by tornadoes and still need help?

Call 2-1-1 on Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to be connected to a tornado assistance operator who will screen you to assess your needs and can connect you to a case manager to help you navigate available resources. If 2-1-1 is not available in your area, call 937-225-3000 or the toll-free number 855-405-7629.

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