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 all the way 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.
Today the Brookville street where Terie Fox has spent most of her life looks nothing like where the 54-year-old grew up.
The Terrace Park neighborhood was pulverized by the largest of the Memorial Day tornadoes. Nearly 70 percent of the 192 homes in the subdivision were affected; one in three of them destroyed or severely damaged.
Dayton Daily News Reporters Josh Sweigart and Chris Stewart, joined by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs, are walking the nearly 20-mile path of the EF4 tornado that tore through Montgomery County on May 27. They arrived in Terrace Park after leaving Brookville High School.
They found there a patchwork recovery as neighbors grapple with insurance and debate whether to rebuild.
Fox’s home on Crosswell Avenue remains uninhabitable. A Ford Mustang bumper still lies on her daughter’s bed, where it landed while they huddled in a hall closet and heard the windows crashing during the tornado.
She stopped by earlier this month to pick up a few things — she is staying at a rental in Lewisburg — and allowed reporters to walk inside. Plywood covers window openings. She tests light switches. Some work. Some don’t.
“I’ve met with four contractors and two want to take it all the way down to the slab and two say, ‘No, you don’t have to,’” she said.
But wrangling with insurance and difficulty getting contractors has made it unclear what she can actually do.
“I want to come back to Brookville,” she said. “I’ve lived on this street 90 percent of my life.”
That Mustang bumper came from a home that backs up to the high school, a home that is now gone. It’s been replaced with fresh dirt peppered with crab grass. A few doors down, another home looks like a dollhouse, the roof and south-facing wall missing.
The tornado came down Croswell Avenue, which cuts through the middle of Terrace Park, and blasted the subdivision, from top to bottom.
The modest, one-story brick homes here don’t have basements. Ed Kirklin walked across the empty slab that once held his house on Crosswell to show where he and his family gathered in an interior hallway as the wind roared.
“Everything imploded. The roof ripped off, the walls were just vibrating,” he said. “I was trying to block stuff that was coming down the hallway, and in 30 seconds, it was back to dead silence.”
His youngest daughter, a high school student, was knocked unconscious by debris. She physically recovered but was traumatized by the experience.
“All four of us are struggling in our own ways. It’s not something that just goes away,” he said. “You’ve got to work through it. You’ve got to allow yourself to accept it. Some days that’s easy, some days it’s not.”
Asked what tornado survivors need most right now, Kirklin said empathy and understanding.
“Things that money can replace aren’t worth worrying about,” he said.
Kirklin decided to tear down his home, sell the parcel and move to Englewood, partly to get away from the constant reminders of that night. He’s also uncertain about the future of the neighborhood.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in this area? Who knows if every house is going to be rebuilt? And would you want to build a $180,000 home in the middle of what might get done and what might not get done? You just don’t know. There’s so much unknown.”
“I can tell you it will bounce back,” Brookville City Manager Sonja Keaton said.
The city and county have waived permitting fees for tornado-damaged properties, but home improvements still need to be reported and inspected. They are balancing being patient with homeowners who need time, Keaton said, with being firm about addressing blight and safety issues.
Of the 228 Brookville homes damaged in the storm, Keaton said four have been reduced to slab; three were demolished, including the slab; three are being fixed up for resale; three are for sale; five are not habitable but the property owners can’t be found; 49 are under construction; and 161 either had the work completed or are in the process of completing minor repairs.
Keaton said she is only aware of a handful of families who plan to leave.
A block further along the storm’s path, Phil Rawlins oversaw workers making repairs to a house he owns on Doyle Avenue. They have installed a new roof and hope to start on drywall within weeks. It’s one of two rental properties Rawlins and his son own in the neighborhood.
His insurance company offered him a check for $20,000 for one of the properties, Rawlins said, based on the damage they assessed. He wrote back.
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“I wrote a piece of paper this long on what (they’ve) missed on my estimate, obvious things,” he said.
That included replacing awnings and the power meter that was ripped from the house. The insurance company offered $350 to repair brick damage, though he said the eastern wall was leaning and eventually would collapse.
The insurance company sent out a construction consultant who spent three hours examining the property. They then added another $58,000 to the estimate.
“There’s a lot of people, I hate to say it, who took that $20,000,” said Rawlins, a professional carpenter. “They don’t know.
“I’ve been building houses 15 years. I don’t know everything, but I know $20,000 is not going to put this house back together, especially when (they) missed so much,” he said.
The other house Rawlins and his son own is on Whitfield Avenue and was leveled. Because of delays in getting an architect, permitting and other necessary steps, he said it might not be rebuilt for another year.
Rawlins loves the neighborhood and might buy more properties as people move out.
‘This is our home’
On Brookmore Drive along the outer eastern edge of Terrace Park, the house Gloria and Kevin Pennington are rebuilding will include hurricane clips to help hold down the roof in case of severe winds. They also intend to build an underground tornado shelter just out the back door.
A new frame is up and they hope to move in by Thanksgiving.
The couple spent the harrowing minutes of the storm huddled with their children — Noah, 13; Ayden and Alyson, 10-year-old twins; and Owen, 2. Kevin Pennington grabbed a door and held it over the family as the home disintegrated around them.
“Our house exploded,” Gloria Pennington said. “Among the kids screaming and me praying, the roof was just being completely ripped off. It was so unreal. There was definitely a moment I was trying to figure out how to hold the kids down.”
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Kevin Pennington was thrown by the wind and suffered a concussion. Only a small part of the hallway where they took refuge remained; they looked up and saw the stars. The neighborhood reeked of gas.
Most of their belongings were gone, including the Christmas ornaments that the children had made through the years. “Stuff we can’t replace,” Gloria Pennington said. The ornaments were stored in the garage, which was destroyed, along with both of their vehicles.
A few things, like Kevin Pennington’s bass boat, were found in trees to the east.
Before the tornado, Gloria Pennington considered at times moving to a new home, like after Owen was born and the house seemed much smaller. Then one day recently she stood on the blank foundation where the front door of their house used to open. She gazed west across Terrace Park.
“I looked out at my neighborhood and I imagined my kids playing in the yard and my baby riding his bike down the sidewalk for the first time,” she said. “That’s why I decided we were going to stay. I wasn’t going to let a tornado push me out of my community. This is our home.”
It doesn’t feel like home for Debbie Bush, who moved back into her house across the street just days before reporters met her on her front porch. She had spent the previous four months at a Holiday Inn.
“It’s not like it was,” she said. “Everything is so different now. The whole plat’s so different … there were trees. It probably will be a while before it feels like home again.”
After ravaging the Terrace Park subdivision, the tornado continued east. It crossed Wolf Creek, hit a water treatment facility and destroyed a massage and wellness center on South Wolf Creek Street. It left Brookville as it crossed Heckathorn Road.
The brush and trees along the Wolf Creek Recreation Trail where it intersects Heckathorn Road remain twisted and gnarled, blended with the remnants of a destroyed mobile home. Sheets of tin still wrap around trees, a window hangs from a limb and a Santa Claus hat dangles from a high branch. The debris continues for at least a half mile along the trail.
Dream home destroyed
Beyond a row of downed trees is a couple’s dream home, built in 2006 on Heckathorn Road. The two-story, 2,500-square-foot home was valued for tax purposes at $268,600. Now it’s mostly building rubble with exposed framing jutting out at odd angles, mixed with appliances and baby toys.
“It’s sad to see the way it looks now,” Jen Seebach said.
Six months pregnant on Memorial Day, Jen Seebach rushed to shelter that night with her husband, Shannon Seebach, and their 5-year-old son.
“I was a very high-risk pregnancy. I was terrified I was going to lose the baby because it was the most terrifying thing we’ve been through,” she said. “Praise God, we all got to the basement just in time. As we were walking down the stairs, our ears popped and I just screamed, ‘Run!’ We sandwiched our little boy in between us and we just held tight to each other.”
It took Shannon Seebach about 40 minutes to clear an exit through the debris after the roof collapsed over the basement stairs.
Total loss. That’s how the damage is summed up on a county auditor’s spreadsheet.
Immediately after the tornado, the family stayed in Lewisburg with Jen Seebach’s father. Now they are renting a home in Westbrook Meadows in Clayton.
The Seebachs are working to rebuild, but they’ve run into snags, primarily with insurance adjusters.
“They got so much stuff wrong and it’s taken us weeks and weeks and weeks and months to try to get it corrected,” Jen Seebach said.
Their insurance company sent out two adjusters, one for personal property and another to assess the structure. Neither she nor her husband were present when they visited.
“I’ve been telling everybody, if you have a fire or a flood or a tornado, you stay on site with your insurance people and walk through the house with them so they don’t miss anything,” Jen Seebach said.
A tree limb remains impaled in the siding above the Seebach’s front porch, a piercing calling card left before the tornado moved on. The storm then followed Westbrook Road toward the water tower sitting on the Clayton and Trotwood line. The communities there were next in its path.
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