EDITOR’S NOTE: Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — traveled 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 gathered people’s stories and investigated obstacles to recovery. This story is part of that coverage. Go here for the full project.
The 18-mile path of the EF4 tornado that carved its way across Montgomery County on Memorial Day appears as a large beige swath on a county auditor’s map, filled in with dots color-coded to signify major or minor damage.
Each dot represents a home or a livelihood impacted by the storm. There are thousands of them. Each has a story to tell.
We wanted to find those stories.
So we sent reporters to travel the length of that swath. Along the way, they spoke to people about their memories from that night, about their lives since, about their hopes and frustrations.
Our reporters also investigated obstacles those people told us they faced in putting their lives back together.
This story is about what our reporters learned while walking the path of the storm.
PODCAST FINALE: What we learned ‘Walking the Path of the Storm’:
Early warnings saved lives
Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart were joined along the path of the storm by McCall Vrydaghs, chief meteorologist for Storm Center 7.
When they asked Steven Griffin of Riverside what he was doing when the storm rolled in, he pointed at Vrydaghs and recalled watching her on TV.
“When you said, ‘If you live in Page Manor, you better get in your safe place,’ I kind of hesitated but my fiancee, she said, ‘Come on, let’s get into the bathroom,’” he said. “So we grabbed the cat and took a couple of pillows, wrapped them around our head. She was sitting on the floor. I was sitting on the toilet cause there’s not much room in there.”
Griffin feared for his life but suffered no injuries, despite parts of neighboring homes flying like spears into his small house.
The storm caused one death and contributed to another. But considering the record 16 tornadoes destroyed hundreds of properties, many people expressed relief it wasn’t worse. That was attributed, in part, to early warning systems like phone weather alerts, as well as meteorologists like Vrydaghs and the radar technology at her disposal.
“I was certain when I went to bed the night of the Memorial Day tornado outbreak that there would be thousands injured and dozens of deaths,” Vrydaghs said. “I was shocked to hear that’s not what happened.”
Few people received federal aid
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has helped 1,639 people in 11 counties hit by the storm. But it turned down nearly three times as many applications. About 9 percent of homeowners were approved in Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties.
People told us they credited local governments for being there. Police kept looting at bay. Firefighters cleared brush from roads. These governments are applying to FEMA for reimbursements and we will watch to see how much the storm ends up costing.
Neighbors helped neighbors
As soon as the storm subsided, neighbors carried flashlights down streets checking on each other. They used chainsaws to clear roads and hacked through brush to free people trapped in their homes. By morning, volunteers started showing up with food and bottled water.
The hashtags soon followed: #DaytonStrong. #TrotwoodStrong. #BrookvilleStrong. #NorthridgeStrong. People rallied together in strength.
In some areas — particularly in Harrison Twp. and Old North Dayton — reporters met people with few resources to rebuild. Many owned their homes outright and didn’t have insurance.
But when the Dayton Daily News told their stories, people stepped forward to help.
Lutheran Social Services and Rebuilding Together Dayton are getting a new roof and windows for the Harrison Twp. house where Roberta Fleet lives with her disabled mother and three young children.
PODCAST EPISODE 3: Where is the money donated for tornado relief going?:
“They were much more helpful than any government services,” Fleet said.
Elmo Blanken, a Harrison Twp. veteran who received enough money from FEMA to repair his roof but was left with tarps covering his windows as winter approached, got new windows — and a porch — from Lowe’s Home Improvement.
An Old North Dayton resident turned down three times for FEMA help got a new roof from his neighborhood association and area churches.
Rebuilding a long process
Laura Mercer, executive director of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group, estimates it will take individuals up to three years to recover from the storm, and it could take communities a decade to rebuild things such as infrastructure.
“We’re still in the early stages of recovery,” she said
Officials said 465 people from Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties have called the 211 helpline and gotten into a case management system to help meet household needs caused by the tornadoes. Mercer’s group is stockpiling building materials and plan to hit the ground with roughly 50 rebuilding jobs when the ground thaws in March.
Nonprofits faced hurdles
For months only one full-time caseworker handled cases for people who called 211. They have since added three more caseworkers and received federal funds for six more.
Area agencies risk leaving more than $1 million in repair grants on the table because of difficulties getting people into another program by the end of 2019. Officials say they will have access to another $2 million from that program in 2020 and are in better shape to access those funds.
Meanwhile the Dayton Foundation is holding onto more than $1 million in donated funds until other resources are exhausted to make sure those dollars go where they are truly needed.
Careful attention will need to be paid going forward to make sure area nonprofits and governments working together on rebuilding do so efficiently and effectively.
Some areas fear population loss
The tornadoes cut across demographics. They obliterated country homes, sprawling apartment complexes, business parks, and dense urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Each community — each person — was affected differently.
A resident in a golf course community in Trotwood, some of the most expensive homes in the storm’s path, is concerned that many of her neighbors will relocate. Elsewhere in the city, two massive apartment complexes were left uninhabitable, displacing people from more than 750 apartments.
Trotwood leaders are concerned that a temporary population loss could affect next year’s U.S. census, costing them federal funds for the next decade.
Rental market tightened
The closure of the large apartment complexes in Trotwood also removed some of the region’s most affordable housing, Dayton Daily News reporters found.
Rental unit occupancy was already above 93 percent in all areas of the Dayton metropolitan area and rents had been on an upswing for years, including a 5.5% increase just between 2017 and 2018, according to a study done for local home builders.
So many displaced people ended up paying more for rent elsewhere.
Reporters found that rents varied greatly by location. A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the north part of the metro area — areas within the tornado’s path — averaged $709 a month before the storm. A similar unit rented as high as $1,367 in the central part of the Dayton metro area.
The owner of Westbrooke Village, one of the big complexes in Trotwood, said some buildings will reopen to tenants early in the year. Trotwood officials said the owners of Woodland Hills, which remains unrepaired and vacant, are still working through insurance issues.
Across urban and suburban neighborhoods, most homeowners our reporters talked to had insurance. But many homes remain covered with blue tarps as residents haggle with their insurance companies, reporters found.
A Dayton Daily News analysis of county records found most people who reported having insurance received less from their insurance company than their estimated property damage.
Julia Stewart’s Beavercreek home still has a blue tarp covering her crumbling chimney, which her insurance company refuses to pay to repair. Stewart, her husband and their 11-year-old daughter live in two rooms of their house, warmed by space heaters, because they said they can’t fix the tornado-damaged HVAC system until they get the insurance company to repair cracks extending down to the foundation.
“It’s been challenging,” she said in an interview last week, followed by an exasperated laugh. “All we’ve ever done is pay our insurance on time to avoid this situation.”
She advocates changes to Ohio laws allowing homeowners to select an independent insurance adjuster that the insurance company has to abide by.
Impact to insurance rates
Homeowners insurance rates across the region could go up if insurance companies decide the Memorial Day tornadoes represent an increased risk of wind damage in the Miami Valley, according to Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America.
But he expects the change to be no more than 1 or 2 percent, as long as the Ohio Department of Insurance keeps an eye out for companies using the storm as an opportunity to boost rates — and profits. He saw some insurance companies after Hurricane Andrew try to do that.
“I don’t think it would have any kind of significant impact, particularly if the regulators are alert and making sure (companies) are not taking advantage,” he said.
Dean Fadel, president of the Ohio Insurance Institute, said Ohio has a very competitive homeowners insurance market. On average Ohioans pay the ninth lowest average rate in the U.S., he said, “so if someone does not like the rate they are paying, there are plenty of other options.”
Contractors charged with crimes
Some homeowners told reporters that damage from the storm was compounded by home improvement contractors who took their money and were either slow to do work or didn’t show up at all.
The Dayton Daily News uncovered two local contractors facing criminal charges. Prosecutors have said they will seek additional indictments after our reporting.
Several homeowners asked if more can be done to regulate home improvement contractors, especially as both contractors had previous arrests.
Trauma will live on
Our reporters asked every person they met what that night was like. Most people responded in vivid detail; it’s a night they will never forget.
Small triggers have led some people to re-experience the terror. For one Harrison Twp. woman, it’s the sound of water rushing through pipes. For others, it’s a thunderstorm rolling in.
“Seeing trees blowing in the wind and thunder will probably scare me the rest of my life,” said Maddy Kirklin, 15, who huddled with her parents and sister as their Brookville house ripped apart around them.
Maddy started the school year at Brookville High School, where damage was not fully repaired and memories raw. The sophomore soon experienced flashbacks and panic attacks. With the family uprooted to Englewood, she transferred to Northmont High School.
“In the two weeks she spent in Brookville after school started, I think she made it through four complete days without having to come home,” said Anne Kirklin, Maddy’s mother.
Maddy has seen mental health professionals who prescribed medications to control PTSD-induced panic attacks. The switch in schools also has helped, she said.
“It’s new people who haven’t experienced the same thing and people who don’t live in an area that got hit,” she said. “So it’s nice to not hear about it every day. They don’t worry about. In Brookville you heard about it every single day.”
Mental health resources available
DaytonHeals.org was created by Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services to ease access to care for those experiencing trauma or mental health effects from this summer’s tragedies.
You can also call ADAMHS at 937-443-0416. In the case of a mental health emergency, call Samaritan Behavioral Health’s CrisisCare Program at 937-224-4646.
Fifty tornado survivors got help through the hotline, according to ADAMHS Associate Director Jodi Long, though far more people likely sought help through their primary care physician or private counseling.
ADAMHS spokeswoman Ann Stevens said people should reach out if they are still dealing with depression, constant memories of the storm or difficulties coping with life.
“Trauma effects people at different stages, so it could be a year from now that somebody might be feeling the effects of the tornado,” Stevens said.
“It’s going to take people a long time, especially with everything the city’s been through.”
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