With thousands of buildings unlivable, tornado survivors seek alternatives

A month after destructive tornadoes wracked the region, an updated damage assessment shows 2,236 structures in Montgomery County were destroyed or made uninhabitable.

The information released Tuesday by the county reiterates the destructive storm’s force on Trotwood, where 1,144 structures — mainly homes — where left unusable, and in Harrison Twp., where 774 residential and commercial structures were either destroyed or sustained major damage.

Though estimated in the thousands, it remains unclear precisely how many people were displaced by the damage. However, the Dayton Daily News has learned that many of those people have found housing elsewhere, or found temporary respite with family or friends. Others are staying in hotel rooms or homeless shelters, or some have continued to tough it out inside the damaged shell of a residence.

MORE: News Center 7 to air Memorial Day tornado special this Thursday

‘Living house to house’

Marceia Lamb and Lamesha Martin were uprooted from their Westbrooke Village apartment in Trotwood. They’ve now stayed with different friends and shuttled their 14-year-old daughter between grandparents in Louisville and Middletown.

“We are just living house to house,” Martin said.

Home this week is a friend’s Dayton living room, where the couple is sleeping on an air mattress.

“I feel like we’re invading their space,” Martin said.

Lamb added: “They say they don’t have any problem with us living with them. Of course, being adults we want to be in our own space, so we feel like it’s a problem.”

The married couple was told it could be six months before they are able to return to their apartment complex.

PHOTOS: Tornado outbreak in Miami Valley

Not having their daughter with them has been a challenge and hard on the teen, a Trotwood-Madison High School student, they said.

“She’s missing out on a lot as far as her summer vacation: cheerleading and volleyball,” Lamb said.

Two neighbors, two different outcomes

Chris and Robin Sassenberg, whose nearly-destroyed house in Dayton sits on the border with Harrison Twp., are faring better than many. A daughter’s sister-in-law is letting them stay in her home so long as they cover the mortgage and utilities. But that arrangement will last only a couple of months.

“We got pretty lucky,” said Chris Sassenberg about finding the quarters with a fenced yard for their dogs in a quiet Riverside neighborhood.

While the Sassenbergs expect insurance to fully pay to rebuild the Hillsdale Avenue house they own, that may not happen for months.

In the meantime, constant rains continue to compound the tornado damage. Earlier this week, the Sassenbergs readied yet another tarp: this one to catch the gypsum board now falling off the downstairs ceiling due to intruding rainwater.

MORE: Tornado victims get tax deadline break, could seek reduction in value

Gwendolyn Stephens lives next door to the Sassenbergs. Though her home’s roof is intact, the rental house sustained major damage and her limited resources leave her with few options but remain in the house with boarded up windows and no electricity and a month after the storm.

“I have flashlights. Plenty of flashlights,” she said.

Stephens had a roommate, but he left for Indiana on Monday.

“It’s pretty much me and my dog staying here,” she said. “I just hope to find somewhere to move to soon.”

Homeless shelters an option for some

Other tornado survivors had no roofs and no other options than the area’s homeless shelters, said Michael Venderburgh, executive director St. Vincent DePaul Society, which operates the Gateway Shelter for Women and Families and the Gateway Shelter for Men.

Vanderburgh said the number of people using shelter services this month are about 10 percent higher than 2018 numbers. The shelters saw about 385 clients a day at this time last year, according to St. Vincent De Paul data.

“People are resistant to going to shelters. So if my numbers are up 10 percent, I can believe there are plenty of others trying to stick it out at mom’s house or a sister’s house or what have you,” Vanderburgh said.

Vanderburgh is also heading the county’s long-term recovery operations group, representing about a dozen nonprofit agencies that are partnering with Montgomery County to help the community rebuild from the tornadoes.

Fifteen tornadoes touched down in the Miami Valley on Memorial Day and the early morning after. An EF-4 tornado with winds up to 170 mph traveled 20 miles causing the worst damage locally through low-income neighborhoods with older homes.

MORE: Dayton to eliminate demolition fees after criticism on tornado cleanup

Renters represent an unknown

Dollar amount losses will prove a poor indicator of the actual long-term struggle to rebound from this particular disaster, Vanderburgh said.

“In this case, that is not the measure that is really helpful because of the disproportionate effect on those who are least able to have the impact absorbed by their financial situation or their family or friends or network of support,” he said.

The recovery operations group met Monday to determine how many renters have abandoned tornado affected areas.

“We don’t know the answer to that,” Vanderburgh said.

Jeff Jordan, the county’s emergency management director told those leading recovery to brace for a long road.

“Long-term recovery, we are looking at a rule of thumb, two years,” he said last week.

Extended stay hotels become home for some

Lamas Crowders could count about 30 families displaced by the tornadoes initially staying at Studio 6 Dayton where he is the maintenance man.

About a month later, eight or nine families still call the extended stay hotel in Miamisburg home, Crowders said.

Crowders said a church group has arrived daily to feed the families. He and others, including NFL football player Cody Latimer, a Jefferson Twp. native, have helped pay for rooms for tornado victims from Dayton, Harrison Twp. and Trotwood.

“A lot of these people are trying to get help, but they are still going through the emotions of it,” Crowders said.

MORE: Tornado timeline: How the record night happened

‘Our house exploded’

Gloria Pennington of Brookville said her family is ironically back in the same two-bedroom condo she and her husband Kevin lived in before they saved enough to purchase a three-bedroom Brookmoor Drive home that disintegrated around them, three sons and their daughter.

“Our house exploded,” she said. “Amongst the kids screaming and me praying, the roof was just being completely ripped off. It was so unreal. There was definitely a moment I was trying to figure out how to hold the kids down.”

Pennington said only a bit of their house remained: the hallway where they huddled and a door that her husband grabbed to shield them from debris.

She said they lost most of their possessions — many attached to memories — but are thankful to be alive and look toward living in a rebuilt house “before the snow flies.”

“After you through something that horrific, you want somewhere to just feel comfortable, and you can’t go home and that’s your comfort spot. Just that alone is hard,” Pennington said. “We weren’t able to save much of our old stuff. So just sticking together as a family is the closest thing we have to home.”


Thursday marks one month since the Memorial Day tornadoes, and special coverage is planned in the Dayton Daily News and on WHIO TV and radio to mark how our community is healing from the devastating storms.

Dayton Daily News: Thursday's paper will feature continuing coverage of the lives of tornado survivors and show how the recovery is affecting their families.

Rise Up: A special one-hour report, Rise Up, airs 8 to 9 p.m. Thursday night on News Center 7 WHIO-TV, and the audio will air again 6:30 p.m. Friday on 1290 and 95.7 WHIO radio.

About the Author