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Taking Stock Of Recovery One Month After Memorial Day Tornadoes

FEMA inspectors conduct damage assessments in Trotwood, where several large apartment complexes were destroyed in the tornadoes.
April Laissle

It’s been a month since the Memorial Day tornadoes cut a wide path of destruction across the Miami Valley.

Damage assessments continue, but the latest numbers already show roughly 5,700 Montgomery County properties were damaged in the storm. Hundreds more homes and businesses were affected across Mercer and Greene Counties.

It’s still unclear exactly how many residents remain displaced. And, Dayton-area advocates want more people affected by the tornadoes to come forward for FEMA assistance.

By the end of this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have five disaster recovery centers open in tornado-affected areas in Western Ohio.

The centers are offering grants, low-interest loans through the United States Small Business Administration, and referrals to other state, federal and local nonprofit agencies that could help survivors with uninsured losses and expenses related to repairs and relocation.

Find a center closest to you at FEMA.gov.

FEMA is also deploying mobile assistance units to areas that were less heavily affected, including Miami County, beginning Friday. 

So far, FEMA officials report more than 2,000 homeowners, renters and business owners have applied for help. 

Cherish Cronmiller, president and CEO of Miami Valley Community Action Partnership, says that's a fraction of the number of survivors who qualify for federal assistance.

Some of her organization's clients have expressed fears over revealing details of their living situations before the tornadoes to government officials, she says, or of not having enough paperwork to demonstrate every aspect of their storm-related losses to FEMA.

Cronmiller says to qualify for FEMA grants, including up to 18 months of rent payments, documentation is key.

“Do you have your storage bill, did you put things in storage, did you rent a car for a while, did you have expenses for childcare? Bring any contracts," she says, "anything that documents what you had is really crucial to what you’ll qualify for with FEMA.”

More than 60 percent of the nearly 600 people who've sought help at Community Action for tornado-related social services urgently needed funds to pay for first and last month's rent and other moving expenses.

Some homeowners and renters displaced by the disaster, Cronmiller says, may never return to Dayton. 

"If you look at other communities that have experienced similar large-scale weather-related disasters, you see a number of neighborhoods where houses are never rebuilt, neighborhoods where the houses are interspersed with vacant lots," she says.   

Other agencies around the Dayton area are also assisting tornado survivors.

Around two dozen Miami Valley groups, including nonprofits, government and faith-based organizations, recently joined together to oversee and coordinate relief efforts and mobilize volunteers for cleanup.

The group meets weekly in Trotwood.

The coalition and Montgomery County are also gathering data to try and pinpoint how many renters and homeowners are still couchsurfing with friends and relatives and are in need of new housing, and how many business owners are struggling. 

Montgomery and Greene County both launched special programs to assist affected employers and displaced workers, and to replace groceries lost during the storm.

As of Tuesday in Montgomery County, officials processed 8,780 applications for replacement low-income SNAP food assistance.

"As of now, we have processed 425 applications related to tornado loss and provided $348,965 in relief vouchers for items like clothing, furniture and major appliances," says county spokewoman Brianna Wooten.
The county's Environmental Services department is also temporarily waiving fees for water and sewer customers with property damage.

The fee-waiver would apply to both residential and commercial properties, and include emergency shut-off fees, trip charge fees, pull meter service fees, lost meter fees, late fees, and abandonment permit fees.

Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman says the waiver is aimed at helping people as they recover.

“My fellow Commissioners and I have spent a lot of time in the areas devastated by the tornadoes, and the destruction is hard to put into words. We want to do everything we can to remove barriers and ease any burdens people might face in putting their lives back together,” she said in a written statement. “We know that it will take months, maybe years, to recover from this disaster. Montgomery County is committed to helping our community for as long as it takes.”

Harry “Leo” Skinner, a FEMA spokesman, urges anyone with storm damage or related losses to start an application for assistance as soon as possible, with whatever documentation they have.

The application process includes in-person loss inspections and he says FEMA investigators typically work with survivors to identify any additional necessary documents for the claim.

The fastest way to open a claim for disaster assistance is online at DisasterAssistance.gov; or by phone, at 800-621-3362, before showing up in person at a disaster recovery center. 

FEMA reports the agency has already distributed at least $1.5 million in assistance across the Dayton area.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has also requested a FEMA damage assessment that could soon unlock federal reimbursements related to debris removal, public works, police and fire overtime, road, building and bridge repair and other disaster-related government costs.

Any federal reimbursements would cover 75 percent of the state's approved expenses.

DeWine made the request for public assistance after seeking FEMA individual assistance, which was made possible by the White House's official Presidential Disaster Declaration for Auglaize, Darke, Greene, Hocking, Mercer, Miami, Montgomery, Muskingum, Perry, and Pickaway counties.

Twenty-one confirmed tornadoes touched down across Western Ohio during the evening of May 27 and early morning of May 28.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.
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