Neighbors Must Rely on Each Other After Dayton, Ohio, Tornado

Many living here own their homes but don’t have resources to rebuild. Much of the area remains in shambles, a result of damage that exceeds property values, owners who don’t have insurance or federal aid that’s been denied.

by Chris Stewart Josh Sweigart, Dayton Daily News, Ohio / December 2, 2019
Volunteers hand out food and water to an area that was heavily affected by a tornado. A total of 13 tornadoes touched down in the area, leaving 1 person dead and at least 12 injured. Sipa USA via AP

(TNS) — The largest of the Memorial Day tornadoes tore apart buildings in Northridge and Old North Dayton. It also pulled together neighbors.

Many of the people who live here own their modest homes but don’t have the resources to rebuild. Much of the area remains in shambles, a result of damage that exceeds property values, owners who don’t have insurance or federal aid that’s been denied.

So they’ve turned to each other — as well as neighborhood associations, churches, local businesses and nonprofits — for help.

“As scary, as heart-wrenching and frustrating as this whole situation has been, I met neighbors that I’ve never met who all got together and helped each other out, cleaned each other’s yards,” said Tammie Helgeson, whose roof on her uninsured home was ruined by the storm and then replaced by a charitable contractor. “I have not seen that kind of unity in a long time.”

These neighborhoods have some of the lowest home values in the path of that tornado, many of them owner-occupied.

In Harrison Twp. and Dayton, 136 owner-occupied homes worth $50,000 or less were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of Montgomery County Auditor’s Office data. That makes up a quarter of the hardest-hit properties in those areas.

And the cost of rebuilding some houses exceeds their assessed value.

Justin Kucharski inherited a house on Neva Drive from his mother in 2017 and has been fixing it up. When the tornado destroyed it, the value was assessed at $26,500. He estimates it’ll cost $60,000 to rebuild. He had no insurance and was turned down by FEMA.

Dayton Daily News reporters Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart, joined at times by Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs, went there as they walk the 18-mile path of the most destructive tornado. For this story, they followed the path of that EF4 twister east of I-75 through Northridge and Old North Dayton.

The reporters walked down those streets recently and talked to homeowners preparing for winter with holes in their roofs and windows covered with tarps or plywood. One woman who has insurance plans to winter in an RV in her driveway.

They also found communities rallying to help neighbors who received little help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A Dayton man turned down by FEMA three times recently got a new roof with help from area churches and his neighborhood association.

“We’ve always had an active neighborhood. (The tornado) is just making it a lot more active,” said Old North Dayton Neighborhood Association President Matt Tepper.

Just east of I-75, Little League season in limbo

Northridge is visible from Interstate 75 in Harrison Twp. The skeleton of the former Dayton Hotel stands as a monument to the storm’s destruction. The building’s owner has pulled a permit to tear the building down.

After hitting the hotel, the tornado smashed into the Esther Dennis Middle School at Grafton Kennedy, 2655 Wagner Ford Road.

Only three more days of classes were scheduled at the school before the building was set to be torn down, but the twister beat demolition crews. The remains of the building still stand.

The storm also brought an earlier-than-expected end of the season for 87 Northridge Little Leaguers who played on three ballfields at the school.

The fields, centered by a deteriorating support building, are now overgrown — not least because a thief stole a lawnmower from the facility. Mangled fences are unfixed and one backstop remains bent over home plate.

Sign-up for next season begins in a couple weeks, but the future of the field — and the Northridge teams — remains in limbo, said Mandi Worthington, the league’s president.

“We don’t want to lose a season,” she said.

The school district is working through insurance issues and may ultimately move the ballpark to its new pre-K-12 campus, Worthington said. She would like the fields to remain in the same spot where her father was caretaker for more than a decade and where her 13-year-old son last pitched in May.

The district didn’t return calls from the Dayton Daily News.

The Northridge Little League made “Save Grafton-Kennedy Ballpark” shirts to raise awareness.

“This is a very important thing for our children. There’s not a lot left here right now after the tornado,” Worthington said. “This is one thing we offer the kids … to keep them off the streets, keep them team-oriented, teach them morale and goals.”

Family lived in camper

Across Wagner Ford Road is a slab that used to house a Marathon gas station. Business owner Tom Shaqra believed the building was insured. But he learned after the storm that his insurance had been cancelled, he said, because one of his managers had failed to make premium payments.

“We had no clue about it,” Shaqra said.

He paid out of pocket to remove the debris and had an architect submit drawings to the county. He wants a loan to rebuild, ideally with a 3 to 4 percent interest rate. Shaqra was denied loan assistance from the government and said he’s been offered interest rates twice that. He hopes to rebuild in the spring.

Shaqra believes people in the neighborhood around him received little help from the government.

“They got help from the church, from people they know. But they didn’t get help from the government,” he said.

The tornado ran roughshod over the homes behind the gas station. Houses there today are in various stages of repair — or collapse.

Connie Huselton made it to the basement in time. Her husband Rex Huselton didn’t.

“I only made it to the top of the steps. I just sat down and the next thing I knew — besides all the noise and rain and the hail — there was about a 4x4 piece of plywood with shingles on it right up next to my right ear,” Rex Huselton said.

Their house they rented from their nephew in the 2500 block of Ontario Avenue remains a shattered reminder of the tornado.

“The whole thing just blew the house apart,” Connie Huselton said. “This house just did not hold up at all.”

It teeters to this day with a gaping hole in the roof and collapsed living room ceiling joists that landed where Connie Huselton often nodded off at night watching TV.

“Thank God she was awake,” her husband said. “If she would have been asleep, like she normally would have been, her recliner was right underneath the front of the house where the roof would have come down on her.”

Nearly the entire eastern wall blew away, exposing a cream-colored, subway-tiled shower and other rooms.

“It makes it look like a dollhouse,” Rex Huselton said. “There was actually still a bed made in the front room.”

After the storm they bought a 34-foot, fifth wheel camper, parked it in the backyard and called it home for several months, hoping the house would be repaired before the seasons changed.

But a series of snags — including that the deed remains in the name of Connie Huselton’s brother who died in 2017 — forced them to find another home.

“With winter coming we had no choice but to move on and get another place,” Rex Huselton said.

The Huseltons purchased a house in October about two miles to the west on Old Riverside Drive. They return at times to retrieve belongings from the Ontario Avenue home and revisit the neighborhood where Connie Huselton grew up.

Recently, the township taped a Dangerous Property Notification to the garage at Ontario Avenue, but the Huseltons didn’t see the letter until a few days after a hearing was held. Neither did Connie Huselton’s nephews, who rented the house to her. The fate of the house — along with a couple dozen others on Harrison Twp.’s dangerous property list — remains unclear.

“It’s a good neighborhood over there and I wish we didn’t have to move out of it,” Rex Huselton said. “It was getting to the point when we were living in the RV and you looked out the window, that (damaged house) was the first thing you saw. That was getting old.”

‘I can’t live like that’

Carol Anthony owns two homes in the 2600 block of Ome Avenue. The one she lives in now was her mother’s before her mom passed away in September 2018. Before the storm, Anthony lived in what used to be a two-story house next door that had its entire second floor shaved off.

“The part that blew off was my bedroom,” she said.

Anthony said the night of the storm she was sleeping downstairs because of a back injury. She woke up when a tree came through the window. She ran into the bathroom. Her brother lives up the street and he saw that the top of her house was gone. He ran down the street screaming her name. Her mattress and box spring flew into a neighbor’s yard.

“I lost so much stuff, so much stuff. But I’m alive,” she said.

She intends to put a roof on the remaining part of the house and make it a larger one-story house, but likely won’t get to it until next year.

On the house she’s living in now, she is fighting with her insurance company. They have refused to make roof repairs, claiming damage to the truss pre-dates the storm. Plywood still covers several windows.

The storm also destroyed an RV Anthony had in her driveway. She was able to buy a new one with insurance money. That’s where she plans to spend the winter.

“I got to sleep somewhere, and I can’t sleep in here,” she said. “We got everything boarded up, and the field mice are starting to come in.

“I can’t live like that.”

Anthony has lived in the neighborhood all of her life. She lists off all of her neighbors by first name, as well as their their situations since the storm. Most are not good, though one just had his roof replaced by a church group from Michigan.

“His roof was completely gone and they came in and put it in for him, and bless his heart, he’s got it done,” she said. “Tickled me to death to go by there yesterday and see it done.”

Another neighbor across the street, an 83-year-old retired bricklayer and Air Force veteran named Elmo Blanken, is having his windows and porch replaced by Lowe’s Home Improvement after the Dayton Daily News reported he had only blue tarp covering his windows as temperatures dropped into the 20s. Blanken owns his home outright and said he couldn’t afford insurance. He told reporters he got enough money from FEMA for roof repairs, but not windows.

Many of the neighbors are older, Anthony said.

“They don’t have insurance,” she said. “They’re having an awful hard time putting their places back together.”

Behind Blanken’s house is the Great Miami River. Crossing it, the tornado entered the city of Dayton. There it pummeled an industrial area that’s home to one of the largest employers hit by the storm.

Denied FEMA help, man gets roof from neighbors

About 13 Dayton Phoenix Group employees on a late night shift rode out the storm in a fortified area while the wind ripped the roof off the 640,000-square-foot plant at 1619 Kuntz Road.

The company, a train parts manufacturer, has kept operations going and continues to employ about 300 people in Dayton. Most are working at a temporary location while the plant is fixed, which will cost about $100 million and take until the end of next year.

Nearby the Grocery Lane at the corner of Troy Street and Stanley Avenue looks like the backdrop of a dystopian movie. “Do not enter,” is spray-painted on the glass front doors. “Owner Inside Will Shoot.” Most of the outside glass is missing and plywood is spray-painted with more warnings. Cans of Campbell’s Chunky soup still lay on the pavement outside.

Old North Dayton Neighborhood Association President Matt Tepper said the community is forming a grocery store committee to look at helping with food scarcity, possibly providing transportation to a full-sized grocery store.

The neighborhood association’s response started the night of the storm. They set up cooling centers and brought in bottled water. Within a week they organized hundreds of people in a neighborhood cleanup.

“It seemed like a lot when we did it and it made a huge difference,” Tepper said. “But it was just a little dent in a huge problem.”

More recently, they worked with two local churches to replace Max Shadmanov’s roof in the 100 block of Macready Avenue.

As reporters talked to Shadmanov, workers dangled from ropes on the steep rooftop as they peeled off damaged shingles and tossed them into a pile below. Shadmanov, who has been unable to work because of health problems, expressed his gratitude through a Russian-speaking interpreter. Shadmanov is part of Old North Dayton’s large Ahiska Turkish community.

“He’s really thankful he had neighbors like this,” said the interpreter, Mirza Mirza.

Shadmanov lives with his wife and two children. He bought the $26,000 house in a lease-to-own deal a couple of years ago and doesn’t have insurance.

He applied for FEMA aid and was denied twice. With Tepper’s help, he got the city of Dayton to issue a code violation in order to help with his FEMA application. But the federal agency still said no a third time.

FEMA officials will not comment on specific cases.

“The official response that they have is the house is livable,” Tepper said. “Anybody looking at it can see — no, this is not livable.”

Residents turn to 211, each other

The neighborhood association knocked on doors to ask people what help they needed. They helped 17 people get caseworkers assigned through the United Way’s 211 helplink line, which has resources set aside for tornado survivors. Donations to the Dayton Foundation help support this effort.

Area churches and clubs have held fundraisers, Tepper said, and given money to the neighborhood association for things like fixing Shadmanov’s roof.

“As a neighborhood association, we’re putting a priority on as many roofs as we can, spending the money up front. And if we run out of money, we’ll figure it out later,” Tepper said. “We’re getting the roofs done.”

But it’s already too late for some homes; brick shells are all that remain. One across the street from Shadmanov reportedly started with a small hole in the roof after the storm. But neglected, the roof slowly collapsed and now looks like it was hit by a wrecking ball.

Jessica Poling was going for a walk, enjoying a warm afternoon after this year’s first snowfall recently, when reporters met her in front of that house. She was excited because that day she and her three children were moving back into an apartment one block over on Kelly Avenue.

“I’m getting a place today. It’s been kind of a long six months,” she said. “I want everything to go back to the way it was.”

They have been transient since the storm. They stayed at a shelter, at University of Dayton dorms for a few days, and then with friends at an apartment complex where she didn’t feel safe.

Poling said she called 211 and got help with temporary housing and a rent deposit. She would recommend the service.

The day she met Dayton Daily News reporters, she was just happy to be back in Old North Dayton.

“I’m used to it and I like it and my son’s school is right down the street,” Poling said. “And I’m so used to the neighbors and they know us.”

The Kelly Avenue apartments are rows of single-story buildings with four units each. Some buildings, like Poling’s, have been repaired. Others are still uninhabitable, missing windows and doors.

Demolition under way

At the end of Kelly Avenue, the company Bladecutters was tearing down a 70,000-square-foot warehouse damaged by the storm.

Bladecutters President John Scott talked to reporters over the din of a massive digger scooping up building materials and dropping them into a dump truck. He said his company has picked up about 150 private demolition jobs since the storm.

They also tear down blighted property for the city of Dayton, he said. Usually they do about 300 such properties a year, but this year they are closer to 450.

“A lot of houses don’t have insurance, and a lot of the houses are abandoned,” he said.

Oberer’s Flowers

Flower vases and pots were reduced to shards at Oberer’s Flowers on the southern border of the neighborhood.

The tornado knocked out the windows of 13 delivery vans and two box trucks, peeled back the roofs of the company’s 1448 Troy St. showroom and warehouse, damaged the original 1922 greenhouse, and shattered beyond repair three more greenhouses and three hoop houses.

But the owners say the disaster quickened a plan to build a new production facility and warehouse, allowing the company to open new stores across Ohio and nearby states.

“We talked about growth before and how that process would look, but this (tornado) basically forced our hand to do it sooner rather than later,” co-owner Keith Fields said.

A new $2 million warehouse and production facility should open by the end of next year, Fields said, also increasing employment.

‘I’m going to be a statistic.’

The tornado missed Dayton Children’s Hospital by a whisper; its administrators called it a miracle. In the days after the storm, FEMA opened a disaster recovery center at the hospital’s Child Health Pavilion.

That’s where Tammie Helgeson sought help to fix her roof — and was denied multiple times. FEMA wouldn’t help because she was not displaced from her home less than three blocks away in the 1200 block of Valley Street, Helgeson said.

The roof was cracked and had multiple holes, Helgeson said. But she wasn’t going to leave her three dogs, a cat and pet goat named Baby Butt.

As the weeks passed, Helgeson worried winter would bring larger problems than the hassle of emptying rainwater from pails in the attic.

As the damage worsened, she thought: “I’m going to be a statistic. I’m going to be homeless.”

Helgeson owns her home and said she had homeowner’s insurance until she got sick three years ago. She had “tons of surgeries” and doctors regulated her heart with a pacemaker and defibrillator.

“I was a responsible part of this community, took responsibility for my life and my home,” said Helgeson. “And life happened, unfortunately for me … I had to pick and choose my battles.”

Travis Collette, owner of Collette Roofing, heard about her plight and showed up with a crew one day toward the end of September and fixed her roof.

“I’m extremely grateful for what everybody’s done,” Helgeson said. “These people were absolutely phenomenal.”

The tornado next jumped Ohio 4, devastating more ballfields and tearing apart an indoor facility at Action Sports Center. It has since been torn down. The twister then crossed over the Mad River, where we will begin our next report.

Staff Writer Thomas Gnau contributed to this story.

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©2019 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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