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.
The EF4 tornado that roared across Montgomery County on Memorial Day ended its 32-minute, 18-mile rampage with one last gust of destruction east of the Mad River before dissipating in Riverside.
The end of its journey is marked by just a few severed tree tops. Before it got there, it leveled businesses on Springfield Street in Dayton and hit hard a large World War II-era housing complex by the Air Force museum.
“It’s crazy how tornadoes work, they take out what they want and then bypass some other things,” said Dan King, who owns King’s Transfer trucking company. He’s among the many in this area still patching their lives back together.
The Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart — joined at times by StormCenter 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs — walked the path of the most destructive of the Memorial Day tornadoes. For this story, they went to the eastern edge of Dayton and into Riverside.
But an unprecedented 16 tornadoes touched down in the region that night. So the reporters also spoke to people in Butler Twp., Miami County and Beavercreek to gauge recovery efforts there as well. One homeowner in Beavercreek described his neighborhood as resembling “a lost land” still.
Business owner: ‘A lot of good people’
The EF4 tornado crossed the Mad River and smashed into an industrial area along Springfield Street.
That’s where reporters found King sitting in an office trailer dispatching trucks on a two-way radio to pick up and drop off loads across town. Outside, workers prepared a concrete foundation to rebuild his office and trucking terminal.
King pulled out his phone and showed pictures of the business the night of the storm. One photo shows a 14,000-pound semi trailer with one end up in the air, leaning on top of two other trailers.
Five of King’s roughly 40 trailers were destroyed. The office and loading dock were reduced to a slab by the tornado, though the garage that held his trucks was left standing. A neighboring carpentry shop was leveled, while other buildings were barely touched.
King had the option of just taking the insurance money and closing up shop. But he felt a responsibility to his 14 employees. And they didn’t lose a day of work.
“I had a Chevy Traverse, so I just dispatched out of it for about two months. The weather was smoking hot, about ruined it sitting out here,” he said.
King is grateful for the help he received from nearby businesses. Pester Plumbing donated equipment to clean up and the office trailer he works in now. King’s trucks operate out of a lot provided by Dayton Bag and Burlap.
“There’s a lot of good people in this world,” King said.
Difficulty finding contractors and workers has slowed rebuilding, he said, but “It doesn’t do any good to get mad and nervous and shook up about it taking a while.”
The carpentry shop next door moved down the road, King said, and he bought the property to expand his parking lot. His is a second generation Dayton business, and after rebuilding, he hopes his son will take it over some day.
The tornado spun east from there, through David Leiser’s Dayton neighborhood, as evidenced today by the occasional tarp, stripped siding or patch of missing shingles.
Leiser is one of 26 tornado survivors across the region who responded to an online Dayton Daily News survey about the recovery process.
He said he expected it to take less than six months to recover. Nine others said they expect it to take more than a year. Ten of the respondents said, “We may never recover.”
WALKING THE PATH OF THE STORM PODCAST EPISODE 4:
Each survey respondent has their own definition of recovery. Several people mentioned returning to “normalcy.” Some said getting back into their home or getting a job.
“Peace of mind,” responded Leiser, who lives in Dayton on Rangeley Avenue near the border with Riverside.
In a follow-up interview, Leiser said rebuilding his home was set back by a contractor he paid $2,500 but who never showed up to do the work. His major concern was getting the roof sealed up before winter, which he paid another contractor out of pocket to do.
“It’s most of my savings,” he said. “I’m 71. I live on Social Security. That’s all I got.”
Leiser sued the company, TK Home Improvement, in Kettering Municipal Court.
The Dayton Daily News reviewed Montgomery County court records and found company owner Robert Greene currently has a warrant for his arrest on theft charges in Montgomery County. He was indicted on similar charges three times since 2012, court records show.
The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office is reviewing Leiser’s allegations after being contacted by the Dayton Daily News.
‘I thought, ‘We’re going to die’
The tornado weakened by the time it reached Riverside, but was still packing winds of up to 110 mph, strong enough to impale a board into the wall of Steve Griffin’s house on Nimitz Drive in the Overlook Mutual Homes complex.
Overlook is a complex of 738 single-story homes built as emergency war housing by the government in 1943. It’s a nonprofit that’s collectively managed by the tenants, who pay less than $500 a month per unit. It’s on a steep hill overlooking the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The board in Griffin’s house still jutted out like a toothpick as he spoke to reporters recently in front of his home about the night he and his girlfriend huddled in their small bathroom.
“The roar just kept getting louder and louder. The wind just kept increasing with the sound. And these houses are not fastened to the ground, they’re just sitting on stilts,” he said. “The floor was actually flexing up and down and I could feel it moving underneath me. At that point I thought, ‘We’re going to die.’ I really thought this house is just going to explode and end up down the hill and we were going to be with it.”
When the wind subsided, they opened the bathroom door.
“It looked like a snow globe because of all the dirt and all the dried out insulation from the attic and little pieces of leaves from the trees over there were floating through the air,” he said.
Although the traumatic experience haunted Griffin for months, he said it also showed him the good in humanity.
“When the chips are down, people really want to help,” he said. “People were going down the street offering food and stuff.”
Griffin’s grateful for Catholic Social Services, which helped with his automobile deductible. Trees fell on his 2014 Chevy Impala, causing $4,700 in body damage.
The storm blew parts of homes down the hill onto other homes. Some damaged four-unit buildings remain empty. Griffin gestured to his neighbor’s house.
“The top of his roof came loose, and it went down there and destroyed some houses down there and then speared my house,” he said.
Overlook did a good job relocating people from damaged homes into other units, Griffin said. He was moving next door so they could fix the hole in his house.
Griffin’s neighbor across Nimitz Drive, Darrel Conley, remembers watching the storm roll in.
“If I’d opened the front door, it would have sucked me completely out of the house,” he said.
The storm was finicky. It ripped the roofs off his neighbors’ houses but spared his porch swing.
“Even my chairs that are leaning up against here,” he said gesturing to his porch. “It didn’t move them at all.”
The EF4 finally died down east of there. Reporters visiting the last area that reported damage from that tornado found homes now in generally good repair. The only real evidence of the storm is the prevalence of stripped and decapitated treetops.
Miami County, Butler Twp.
Twenty-two minutes before the EF4 touched down in Montgomery County, the same roiling weather system spun up a twister that would grow to an EF3 in Miami County. Heavy damage from that tornado is between Laura and West Milton, largely along Ohio 571 and Range Line Road.
Ten homes were destroyed in Miami County; 44 properties were impacted.
“Having talked to most of the folks, it seems they are mostly recovering fairly well as far as … repairs and things of that nature,” Miami County Planning and Zoning Manager Dan Duerdieck said. “There’s lots of folks out there making progress.”
A common need people still have there is help cleaning up brush and trash, Duerdieck said. They cleaned up enough after the storm to access their homes, but don’t know what to do with the significant amount that remains.
Some people haven’t responded to the county’s attempts to contact them.
“Those are the people we’re hoping to find to see what their needs are and if there’s anything we can do to help them,” Duerdieck said.
An EF2 tornado hit Butler Twp. in Montgomery County shortly after the EF4 died down. It blew through a residential area, then the Dayton Memorial Park Cemetery, then more homes and the Miller Lane business park. In Butler Twp., four homes were destroyed and 70 properties were damaged.
Township Administrator Erika Vogel said they are currently conducting a survey of property owners’ progress.
“There are four properties on Sunny Ridge that have not started restoration, two new homes are under construction on Cricket Lane, and a couple apartment units are still vacant in Spanish Villa,” she said, noting the survey isn’t complete.
Most people she has spoken to have insurance and haven’t relayed to her major obstacles.
“We’re pretty fortunate,” she said.
‘A lost land’ in Beavercreek
One minute before the EF4 tornado that rampaged nearly the breadth of Montgomery County died, the 11th tornado of the night was born at 11:12 p.m.
First touching down in Riverside’s Page Manor, the new twister picked up steam, crossed the Greene County line, jumped Interstate 675 and barrelled onto Rushton Drive in Beavercreek.
There, two dozen homes were destroyed and the tree-canopied neighborhood was denuded in an instant.
Aaron Krueger watched “pretty cool lightning” before nature turned cruel. He emerged from his basement that night and “everything was different.”
Krueger lives at the end of Murwood Court off Rushton Drive. Before the storm, Krueger never saw nor heard traffic on the interstate. Today, both are as clear as day.
“Every tree on my property is gone — front, back and everything. I think it sucks. I’m going to stay here, but it’s not like it used to be,” he said.
Krueger got insurance money quickly but said finding contractors is slow.
Windows that were supposed to be fixed by Christmas are still covered by plywood. Siding will have to wait until spring. Electricity remains sketchy on his second floor.
“I don’t have lights in the bathroom,” Krueger said. “The exhaust fan still works for some reason but the lights don’t.”
Farther along Rushton Drive, Jerald Raleigh looks across the street at a string of driveways that lead to no homes.
“It’s like looking out across a lost land,” he said. He pointed at a far-off tower at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “I ain’t seen that tower there in 35 years.”
Raleigh said his home suffered major damage, but he was able to get repairs. One neighbor has already built a new house. Another nearby has a blue tarp collapsing into a gaping hole in the roof.
He believes the neighborhood will bounce back.
“They’re going to rebuild. Everybody loves this place,” he said.
One of the empty lots across the street on Rushton Drive had belonged to Paul and Brandy Howard.
Four sober words describe the Howards’ damage on a form sent to the county auditor seeking property tax relief: “Total loss of home.”
As the tornado approached, Brandy Howard made her sons, ages 14 and 10, put on their bicycle helmets, wrap themselves in blankets and get underneath her in the bathtub.
“I laid on the bathroom floor with a pillow over my head,” Paul Howard said. “The whole house was pretty much gone except a couple of closets in the kids’ bedrooms.”
The family considered rebuilding but Brandy Howard hoped for a new house larger than the lot could accommodate, her husband said. They sold the lot in Grange Hall Acres last month for $30,000 after purchasing it — and the now-demolished house — for $130,000 just last year.
“If we could have built the house she wanted there, it would have been fine. It’s a decent neighborhood,” Paul Howard said. “I see when the neighborhood starts getting rebuilt that the property values over there will probably go up because there’s going to be a lot of brand new houses.”
All but one of the 86 properties destroyed in Greene County and a vast majority of the 206 with major damage were attributed to the same 10-mile long EF3 tornado, according to the county auditor’s damage map. Two more tornadoes would spin up later that night in rural eastern Greene County; neither carried the same wallop.
Mark and Pat Freeze were moving back into their Beavercreek home on Butterfield Drive the day reporters stopped by their Spicer Heights neighborhood.
“It was six months and 10 days I was out of my house,” Mark Freeze said.
For the most part, home has been a hotel suite since Memorial Day.
“I was getting claustrophobic,” he said.
The tornado smashed a large window, damaged the roof and put a huge hole in their garage, raining bricks onto their two-door Nissan Altima coupe. Their swimming pool was filled with wood, a patio heater, fencing and an air conditioner from another house.
The only saving grace was the wind uprooted seven overgrown arborvitae, doing work they had put off.
Aside from a bricklayer he hired, Mark Freeze, who retired as chief of construction management at Wright-Patt, has been unimpressed with the responsiveness of contractors. He fired one electrician.
“He kept putting me off and putting me off and I finally said to heck with it,” Mark Freeze said.
The repairs have cost more than the duplex did in 1988, he said. And the fixes — still not complete — have taken longer than it has to tear down another damaged home in the neighborhood and construct a new one.
“It’s frustrating … in six months and 10 days they built a basement and built that whole new house over there,” he said.
The bushes in front of the Freezes’ home are still dotted with insulation. Even after that’s cleaned up, the neighborhood will never look the way it did before May 27, 2019.
Walking the path of the storm revealed a changed landscape from farm fields to small towns to large apartment complexes to subdivisions to business parks to dense city neighborhoods. The next story will examine what we learned speaking to people along that journey.
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