A Race Against Time: Communities struggling to recover months after tornadoes

Tornado Recovery

DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — It was a Memorial Day the Miami Valley will never forget when a tornado outbreak left behind a path of destruction.

May 27, 2019 forever changed the landscape of the region as 15 tornadoes touched down and devastated communities.

“You see it on TV, but to experience it was a whole ‘nother thing,” says Deborah Pendleton who has now relocated to Centerville after the tornadoes made her Harrison Township home uninhabitable. “Trees were everywhere. I couldn’t get out of my driveway. Cars were everywhere. Buildings were down. Roofs gone.”

Pendleton works as the food pantry supervisor at Catholic Social Services. She spends her days helping others, many of them victims of the tornadoes much like herself.

“A lot of my clients come in, and they still don’t have places to live. They still need food. They still need furniture. They’re still trying to rebuild,” describes Pendleton. “I’m working even harder to help them to try to rebuild their life because I understand what it means to go home and start all over again. I usually give them a hug and tell them I’ve been through the same thing.”

Pendleton considers herself one of the lucky ones even though her home home on Lofty Oaks Lane is gone.

“I was just grateful to be alive,” says Pendleton.

Immediately following the tornadoes, the outpouring of community support and response to cleanup was remarkable; now, more than five months later, donations have dwindled and the immediate effort has somewhat dropped off as some neighborhoods appear untouched.

“We know that there are neighborhoods, especially in Trotwood, North Dayton, and Harrison Township — We know there are neighborhoods that are still pretty much where they were back in May,” states Jeanne Holihan, Vice President of Operations for The Dayton Foundation.

The devastation was so wide-spread, it became apparent the rebuild wasn’t going to be quick, hence the formation of The Long Term Recovery Group.

“Housing is currently our biggest need,” says Holihan.

“The things that we have to work on now are harder to get to though. They’re more complex cases,” admits Laura Mercer, the Executive Director of Long Term Recovery. “There are households where people had insurance and then didn’t get enough money so they were under-insured, or they didn’t have insurance. They may have filed with FEMA. They may be running into challenges with getting FEMA claims and going through appeals. They may have not gotten enough money from FEMA in order to do the recovery. So now we have to start to look at what is it going to take, how do we piece together the resources people need in order to recover.”

Dennis Marsh living in the Northridge area is one of those cases. His home sustained extensive damage in the tornadoes, and he didn’t have insurance.

“Roof damage, shingles, a couple porch pillars missing, couple broken windows, and just basic debris like anybody else,” lists Marsh, describing all the damage. “You expect you can do everything on your own, and sometimes you can’t do it at all.”

The Long Term Recovery Group is helping people like Marsh. The organization is made up of about two dozen non-profits and works with those uninsured, under-insured, or those who didn’t get enough money from FEMA.

“One of our hardest tasks is getting those people into the system,” says Holihan.

“There’s help out there if you don’t know what else to do,” says Marsh, who knows firsthand.

Those looking for assistance with recovery should first call United Way’s 211 helpline. From there, a caseworker will be assigned to navigate through the recovery process.

“It is a blessing to me to be able to help somebody else out,” says Tamara Gaddis-Strozier, Disaster Case Manager Navigator with Catholic Social Services. “Sometimes you know that can be difficult, and you have to hold it together as the case manager. I have to hold it together.”

The Long Term Recovery Group is handling more than 200 cases so far; they estimate that could grow to more than 800 cases.

“Everybody’s case is different,” says Gaddis-Strozier.

“We’ve been told by FEMA that we are months ahead of other communities that have suffered a natural disaster,” states Holihan. “Hurricane Harvey, I think, and other communities — Hurricane Michael — they aren’t anywhere near we are. That’s a real tribute to our community.”

Even still, progress doesn’t ease the pain.

“Yes, we are ahead of the curve, but the thing that we try to keep and drive forward is that person-centric model, that survivor-centric model,” says John Pyron, Statewide Director of Disaster Services. “Until all those folks are back in their houses, and all that is, and all that work has been done, our job is not finished.”

While some are making strides, for many cities, it’s a race against the clock.

“It is imperative that we get these homes rebuilt and repaired for the winter,” says Stephanie Kellum, Trotwood’s Deputy City Manager. “We want to eliminate blight, and we want to eliminate the probability of people squatting in these homes trying to find shelter from the winter weather.”

For Unibilt’s President Greg Barney, weather isn’t a concern.

“Rain, snow, sleet doesn’t bother us,” says Barney.

He and his crew are busy pounding away on homes for five families impacted by the tornadoes.

“We’re building indoors, and materials are stored indoors. We’re in a heated environment,” says Barney. “A lot of times we get the call because we can react quickly. We can bring it up in our schedule and really build the house in here in less than three weeks because we’re in this controlled environment.”

With so much work, they’re facing another concern.

“Our schedule is full to start with before the tornadoes,” admits Barney. “Just like everywhere else, getting workers is a challenge.”

The same challenge applies to contractors.

“We can’t get the skilled laborers that we need for the amount of work that’s out there,” says Patrick Archer, owner of Affordable Roofing and Chimney Options (ARCO). “It just was an influx of extra work that we are handling but weren’t ready for.”

ARCO’s tradesmen are working on getting a roof back on John Friedenbach’s Butler Township home on South Sunny Ridge Road.

“It took a while to get everything squared away with the insurance company,” says Friedenbach.

Looking at the big picture, it won’t be a quick-fix and some recoveries will take years.

“Normal recovery from this kind of disaster is about 3-5 years,” states Mercer.

“On the community side, which is a whole ‘nother effort, five to ten years,” says Holihan.

The key in every case is community involvement and patience.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but best efforts are being made throughout this community to meet the needs of those that were impacted,” says Holihan.

“It’s going to take some time for us to mentally get back to where we were and physically,” says Pendleton.

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