Memorial Day tornado two years later: Destroyed apartments remain virtually untouched

·8 min read

May 27—Darius Stephens, 23, was trying to rest following a double shift at Chipotle when he recalled having an eerie feeling on Memorial Day in 2019. "Something was not right," Stephens said.

His mother called him around 11:30 p.m. warning him about the tornado. He collected some valuables and moved his then pregnant girlfriend and their dog into the bathroom of their Woodland Hills apartment.

They sat in the bathtub as the rain outside slowed and the tornado sirens blared. Stephens said he remembers a brief moment of calm and quiet before the rain resumed and violent wind gusts up to 170 mph snapped trees and took down powerlines.

"It was an indescribable feeling. At the time you just feel so small like you're protected in this big building and then you just feel the building shaking. It started getting louder, louder, and louder," he said

When the quiet returned, Stephens went outside to complete darkness in what used to be a well lit parking lot. With his first steps he could feel the castle like roofing of his building at his feet.

It has been two years today since the powerful EF4 tornado ripped through the Trotwood community on Memorial Day weekend. The days following the storm were filled with uncertainty and hopelessness as cleanup and recovery efforts were underway for some.

Ruins remain from apartments

The Woodland Hills Apartments in Trotwood remain in ruins, a stark contrast to nearby Westbrooke Village which has been rebuilt and reoccupied. Trotwood officials say the net-unit deficit from the loss of Woodland Hills still impacts the city preventing people from moving back.

The apartment had over 430 units housing over which will keep at least 400 families from returning to the city that were displaced.

Trotwood Deputy City Manager Stephanie Kellum said there has been some cleanup on the property, but an ongoing legal dispute between the insurance company and the private owners, Woodland Hills Association, LLC, has slowed the process.

"There are efforts to clean up and restore the Woodland Hills apartments. The owners have held several conversations with city leadership informing us of their desire to rebuild the complex in Trotwood," she said.

However, if something isn't done soon the buildings will be beyond repair, said Director of Housing for the Trotwood Community Improvement Corporation Chad Downing.

"The fact that we're coming up on two years and this apartment complex is still sitting like this is extremely disappointing for us, but when we take the entire recovery effort, we're very excited about how this has gone forward," he said. "We've been using the tools that we have available to us through code enforcement and those aspects to apply pressure and encourage the redevelopment."

Currently, Woodland Hills is riddled with trees, branches, appliances, and other debris throughout the parking lot and no trespassing signs along the main entrance. The roofs of several buildings remain exposed to the sky and some with blue tarps covering damaged shingles.

Trees jut from behind the perimeter fencing and hang over the sidewalk. The missing siding and roofing give a direct view into what used to be someone's home. Forced to leave their things behind, families belongings are still where they left them two years ago.

"Sometimes I do appreciate it, I'm glad I got out of that, but I do feel a way that they didn't build nothing or they didn't do anything with that space and now it's just there," Stephens said. He lived in Woodland Hills for almost two years before being displaced by the storm.

Forced to move from their homes

About 1,800 residents of multifamily housing units in Trotwood were forced to move as a result of the tornadoes creating an housing deficit for the city.

According to the Ohio Office of Community Development's community development block grant disaster recovery plan, 120 apartments were impacted and 629 were destroyed. Overall, 1,105 apartment buildings sustained some form of damage.

Trotwood officials said there have been developers interested in the Woodland Hills property but definitive plans can't be disclosed at this time.

"We can state that we would like to see it restored to the affordable workforce housing it was prior to the tornado. We will do what we can within the scope of our authority to assist with that process," Kellum said.

Downing said the city is more than willing to assist as much as possible with rebuilding and recovery the same way they provided assistance to the owners of Westbrooke Village.

While many single family homes were destroyed from the tornado, the renting population took a very hard hit with roughly half of Trotwood's population being renters. With a median household income of just $32,977 and a poverty rate of 25.6%, this population is most likely to experience housing instability as a result of the tornadoes, according to the state's Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Plan.

Helping others move back in

Local organizations like the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group and Ohio Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster groups including Mennonite Disaster Services have honed in on rebuilding homes and turning renters into home owners that were displaced by the tornadoes. The Tornado Survivors Pathway to Ownership Project helps families become mortgage ready while houses are being built from which they will have first pick.

"If you exclude Woodland Hills, the recovery has actually been just tremendous," Downing said.

Overall in Trotwood the recovery rate for impacted properties is 86.77% and 95.14% recovery rate for individuals who sought assistance from the MVLTROG, according to the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission.

While some families look forward to rebuilding or returning to the city others have made their home elsewhere.

"It is our understanding that the majority of Trotwood's displaced citizens would like to return home. However, we understand that a trauma of this magnitude causes people to seek comfort where there are. So, there are some who have made their temporary housing a 'home'," Kellum said.

Following the tornado Stephens and his family including his mother, father, girlfriend, his siblings, and their dog stayed in two hotel rooms in Miamisburg. Last July, he moved into a newly built first floor apartment at Westbrooke Village.

About six minutes away from Woodland Hills, the Westbrooke Village apartments sustained severe structural damage to all 13 of their buildings including the clubhouse.

Owner Daniel Penn said he too experienced a battle with the insurance company to get the property rebuilt and reoccupied.

"I will tell you, it would have been the easiest thing to walk away," Penn said. "We fought the insurance company, lenders, adjusters, engineers, everybody everyday for months."

The continued kindness and support of the community and ultimately feeling that it was their responsibility to rebuild the homes lost made the choice to fight to rebuild hard to walk away from Penn said.

With help from Mayor Mary McDonald, City Manager Quincy Pope, and Housing Director Chad Downing of the city's community improvement corporation, that battle was won. McDonald was one of the first city leaders to write a letter to the lender that wanted to close the loan and collect the insurance money.

"Sometimes you don't need money. Sometimes you just need someone to have your back," Penn said.

Although Stephens is enjoying his place at Westbrooke Village, he said he would return to Woodland Hills if it was ever rebuilt as it was it his first apartment.

Unmatched coverage

The Dayton Daily News has chronicled the destruction left by 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes and the impact it has had on the Dayton region. Count on us for continued coverage.

Where to still get help, donate

Residents affected by the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes can still get help with repairs and to replace trees lost in the storm. Financial donations can also be made to support the initiatives.

Assistance for homeowners

Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group

Homeowners needing assistance should contact the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Group's case management team soon as one federal funding source will expire in June and the group will end its work in October. For help call 937-223-7217 ext. 1137.

Rebuilding Together Dayton

Rebuilding Together Dayton is still offering assistance to homeowners who need help with tornado repairs. For help call 937-223-4893 visit online at https://rtdayton.org/disasterrecovery or email disasterrecovery@rtdayton.org.

Tornado Survivors' Pathways to Homeownership Program

How to apply: Tornado-impacted non-homeowners who would like to become mortgage-ready to own a home can apply for the program at www.homeownershipdayton.org.

How to donate: You can contribute to the Tornado Survivors' Pathways to Homeownership Fund (Fund #8561) at The Dayton Foundation, online at: https://www.daytonfoundation.org/ccgift.html?ReturnFundID=8561&ReturnFundName=Tornado Survivors Pathway to Homeownership%20&Source=EXT. You mail also mail a check with the fund name and number referenced on the memo line or attached letter to: The Dayton Foundation, 1401 S. Main St., Suite 100, Dayton, Ohio 45409.

RETREET Program

How to apply: The program will help replace 1,000 trees in tornado-damaged areas. Impacted homeowners interested in having free, native trees planted at their homes can apply at www.retreet.org/mvtc.

How to donate: You can contribute financially to the Miami Valley TREEcovery Campaign (Fund #8647) at The Dayton Foundation, online at: https://www.daytonfoundation.org/ccgift.html?ReturnFundID=8647&ReturnFundName=Miami_Valley_TREEcovery_Campaign%20&Source=EXT or mail a check with the fund name and number referenced on the memo line or attached letter to: The Dayton Foundation, 1401 S. Main St., Suite 100, Dayton, Ohio 45409.

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