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I Want To See My Kids Smile: Tornado Recovery Continues In Hard-Hit Northridge

People across the Miami Valley are continuing to clean up from the Memorial Day tornadoes. Among the strongest of the outbreak’s 15 twisters was an EF4 tornado that carved a path of destruction just north of downtown Dayton.

It hit Montgomery County’s Harrison Township especially hard, leaving almost 2,000 properties damaged. Now, six months after the storm, signs of recovery are visible in the small community. But for many Northridge residents, full recovery remains a far-off dream.

Sounds of construction fill the air in Northridge.

But on this residential street off North Dixie Drive, it’s as if the tornado hit yesterday.

The windows of one two-story house with brick and white siding are busted out, the roof is open to the sky, debris is everywhere. A large apple tree in the yard that once offered shade is gnarled and twisted, its branches tangled in heaps nearby.

The quarter-acre yard is littered with clothing, furniture, golf clubs, childrens bikes.

Timothy Walker and his wife became first-time homeowners when they bought this house in 2005.

“As you can see, there's there's really not much left of it," he says, standing in the driveway. "The tornado picked up our house and tore the roof off. The roof is over here in the backyard now."

It’s the only home their two children have ever known. Now it holds terrifying memories for the family.

“My wife and both the kids were inside on Memorial Day when the tornado hit. I work third shift at Caterpillar in Clayton, the warehouse. And I had just arrived at work when the tornado destroyed our house," he says. "It picked the house up and moved it off the foundation about 10 feet while they were inside.”

Longtime Northridge resident Beth Wentz wearing a necklace with her children's names. It's a replacement, purchased for her by her husband. She lost the original in the chaos of the tornado.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO
Longtime Northridge resident Beth Wentz wearing a necklace with her children's names. It's a replacement, purchased for her by her husband. She lost the original in the chaos of the tornado.

Tim calls his wife Beth Wentz a hero for keeping herself, their kids and dogs alive that night.

Beth recalls how they ran for the basement when she realized a funnel cloud was headed their way.

“The Northridge sirens went off and I literally had one minute and I got them on the stairwell. I started grabbing blankets and I put the dogs behind me and I sat down. It was on top of us that quick,” she says.

They never made it all the way to the basement. They huddled together on the stairs as the tornado made contact, ripping the house apart above them as the children screamed in terror.

Standing at the side of the house, Beth points through an open exterior wall to what’s left of their stairwell hiding spot.

"We were literally sitting right there," she says. "The tornado flipped all the clothes racks and that big, huge concrete post all the way up to the chimney, it knocked it down. Then we started getting hit in the face and pelted with water and debris," she says. "I felt like the kids were being sucked out of my hands. I didn't realize why then, until I came back and I saw that we were getting all the suctioning because the house was literally off off the foundation. We were just getting hit with water and debris and wind.”

Her eyes wet with tears, Beth says she can’t believe they made it out of the house in one piece after the storm.

“I don't think people realize. They see pictures of it, but when you're in it, it's like, oh, my God, we're so lucky to be alive. That's what you have to be thankful for. We made it through this.”

Beth and her husband are among the thousands of people across the Miami Valley who survived the disaster.

The outbreak killed one person, an 81-year-old Celina man who died when a parked car hit his house, and injured dozens of others.

Thousands of people whose homes and apartments were hit remain displaced.

“In Harrison, 15 percent of the properties in Harrison Township suffered some type of damage,” says Montgomery County Auditor Karl Keith.

Assessors from his office have spent the last six months inspecting property damage in the tornado zone. The latest tally shows 4,400 properties were affected. 

“There's 253,000 parcels in Montgomery County, so to have 4,400 of them impacted is not a significant amount. But certainly in Trotwood and Harrison Township, Brookville, those communities took the brunt of the storm,” he says.  

Keith pegs the county’s lost property value at more than $46 million.

“That loss of value is going to have an impact on those communities, an impact on their school districts. It is going to result in some loss of tax dollars, revenue. It's going to have an impact for some time.”

School districts are expecting nearly a million dollars in lost revenue, according to the latest assessments.

On top of that, the county faces the cost of emergency response and recovery efforts, and damage to county property.

Officials from Montgomery and other counties are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to receive Public Assistance. The disaster aid would partially reimburse them for storm-related expenses, including debris cleanup, public building and infrastructure repair and the cost of demolishing abandoned buildings.

Harrison Township Development Director Cathi Spaugy says she’s hoping to see that FEMA Public Assistance begin to flow over the next six to 12 months.

The township is dotted with roughly four dozen tornado-related abandoned properties. Spaugy's staff is still working to locate residents who are still displaced.

“Folks with different situations, most of the time they’re uninsured and lost everything and just have essentially walked away,” she says. 

At least 81 businesses were also affected. Dozens of others lost revenue when the tornado knocked out power and water for a few days. Spaugy says other township businesses are seeing a financial hit now.

“It's a domino effect," Spaugy says. "There's a longterm economic impact to our businesses that might not have been damaged by the storm, but since we've lost people, that means their customer base has been affected.”

T-shirts in Spaugy's office. The volunteer effort continues in Harrison Township.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO
T-shirts in Spaugy's office. The volunteer effort continues in Harrison Township.

And Spaugy says some of the township's residential neighborhoods still need assistance with tarping roofs, boarding windows and removing downed trees. A team of volunteers plans to help for as long as the weather holds out.

At Timothy Walker and Beth Wentz’s place, A red heart is spray-painted on the side of the house. Next to it in big red and blue block letters reads, “THANK YOU! #NorthridgeStrong.”

“Thank God for people, friends, families, churches and community. Honestly,” says Beth. 

After the tornado a friend helped them move into a mobile home in Clark County until they get back on their feet. 

“My kids are in new schools and I mean, [we have] new furniture, new beds, new toys, new clothes. I mean, just everything. Like, nothing is the same,” she says. 

They’re still adjusting. It’s especially tough losing family photos, Christmas decorations, stuff that belonged to her dad, who recently passed away.

Beth visits the Northridge home as often as she can. She finds what she calls a “weird peace” here.

Her 12-year-old son loves looking for belongings in the wreckage. They call it “salvaging.”

“He likes to salvage and it makes him feel good to bring something of his home. He'll walk through the yard and there might be a toy that had gotten flung in the yard and he's like, look what I found, mom," Beth says. "My daughter, she doesn't like to see the house. It gives her terrible anxiety. She just wants to leave.”

She and the kids suffer a lot of trauma and anxiety, anxiety, she says, that will be a reality until they can find a new house, she says.

Timothy Walker and Beth Wentz outside their destroyed Northridge home.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO
Timothy Walker and Beth Wentz outside their destroyed Northridge home.

Beth can’t wait to settle down in their own house again.

“I can't wait to plant a garden and buy new furniture and paint walls and just make it our home," Beth says. "I want to see my kids smile. And I want to see them play in the grass and ride their bikes and just know that everything is going to be OK.”

Beth and her husband Tim are already looking at houses to buy. They hope to find one soon, make new memories with their kids and get back to doing everyday things.