Saturday, October 09, 1999

Tornado victims wait for repairs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Erni and Dee Lindlar show photos of tornado damage to their Sycamore Twp. home, since repaired.
(Saed Hindash photo)
| ZOOM |
        It is 5:17 on a recent autumn morning on Cornell Road, the moon shrouded behind low fog. It's windy. The darkness is still but not silent. A chorus of crickets plays for no one.

        It was much the same on April 9, when at 5:17 a.m. the wind grew and a tornado swept through at an estimated 260 mph. It reduced this Montgomery neighborhood to splintered trees, homes, and lives.

        The tornado killed four people, injured dozens, caused $125 million in damage and destroyed 95 homes. Most were in Montgomery, Blue Ash, and Sycamore and Symmes townships.

        “It seems like a very long time ago; it really does,” Sycamore High School cafeteria worker Julia Fleisch recalled. She remembered the tornado's moment but not its mile stone.

        Today marks the six-month anniversary. Overall, residents say the recovery — both financial and emotional — is a work in progress.

        Repairs are slow. Results are mixed.

        “It was extremely drain ing,” said Erni Lindlar of Sycamore Township, whose home sustained $60,000 damage.

        Seven subcontractors have been through his house. Work stopped because of a pay conflict between them and his contractor, which wasn't resolved until Mr. Lindlar hired an attorney — at $150 an hour.

        Some homeowners say their rebuilding efforts went fairly smoothly. Some homes are completely repaired and others have progressed quickly. But many homeowners — including those fully insured — still are entangled with insurance companies, contractors, subcontractors, contracts and promises. Some still have blue tarps for roofs. Some exterior walls still have exposed insulation.

        Residents with minor to medium damage say they are, in a sense, victims of a different “whether system”: Whether a contractor wants to take on your rebuilding effort when larger, more lucrative projects await.

        It is simple supply and demand.

        “Insurance hasn't been a problem, but the subcontractors, they don't want to do the small job,” Bob Moeller of Sycamore Township said.

        The Moellers' home sustained $65,000 damage, plus two totaled cars and 27 felled trees in their yard, 12 of them belonging to a neighbor. The Moellers are grateful it wasn't worse.

        In fact, the township and its residents suffered $30 million in losses, Sycamore Administrator Lori Thompson said.

        Mitch Wilson of the Ohio Insurance Institute said 3,955 insurance claims were filed altogether.

        At first, contractors both reputable and otherwise descended on the devastated communities. Prompted by police concerns and the need for consumer protection, local officials set up contractor registration lists. “We had several hundred,” Mrs. Thompson recalled.

        Contractors set about prioritizing projects.

        The need to turn away some work isn't surprising to two businessmen who represent the big and small of tornado recovery: Jay Moore, president of Moore Construction of Anderson Township; and David Rohlfer, president of CR&R Inc. of Winton Place.

        “That's true in our industry — we're short of manpower and materials in general,” Mr. Moore said of repair workers shying away from smaller jobs.

        His lone tornado-related job was big. An hour and a half after the tornado ripped through Snider Road near the Sycamore-Symmes line, Mr. Moore got a call from a previous customer there who sustained “several hundred thousands dollars” in damage, including siding, windows and the roof. e He expects to complete work in three weeks.

        “We had a very difficult time with insurance,” Mr. Moore said. “It took three months to settle the claim. We had five or six adjusters. The actual building part is the most straightforward part.”

        Mr. Rohlfer's company solicited no tornado repair work for about a month, then started picking up about $50,000 worth of “little jobs” others passed on — jobs ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.

        “It's like triage,” he said. “Everybody was focused on the major projects at first.”

        “You still had some people trying to take advantage of people in a vulnerable state,” recalled Mrs. Thompson, Sycamore's administrator.

        Back at Glenmill Court, the Moellers just finished painting last week. Conversely, neighbor Rob Hanna's home sustained $20,000 to $30,000 in damage and “I have no complaints,” he said. Despite the hassles, Mr. Moeller and his wife, Leslie, stress that they feel fortunate for several reasons. No one was hurt. And they were fully insured. Most were.

        Dick Kimmins, spokesman for the Ohio Emergency Man agement Agency, said the current damage estimate is $125 million, based on insurance industry estimates. Preliminary estimates in April were $83 million.

        “These numbers continue to be revised,” Mr. Kimmins said. “It's a moving target.”

        Insurance covered $115 million of the $125 million in losses. Small-business loans to the uninsured amounted to $7 million, Mr. Kimmins said. The remaining $3 million involved state and local governments' costs for cleanup, fire and law enforcement, etc.

        The deadline for local municipalities to apply for state aid is today.

        By contrast, the Ohio River flood of March 1997 caused $180 million in economic loss to the region. Seventeen Southern Ohio counties were declared federal disaster areas.

        The tornado was not only costly to communities, it was time-consuming. Montgomery, for instance, just finished its final tree-removal pickup Sept. 17, Public Works Director Bob Nikula said.

        But because insurance and loans covered nearly all of the tornado losses, federal assistance wasn't necessary, said Carl Suchocka, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

        The total damage, according to FEMA records: 665 primary residences affected, including 95 homes destroyed, 47 with major damage, 143 with minor damage and 370 minimally damaged.

        The emotional toll was, for many, overwhelming. The tornado hit on a Friday. That Sunday was the Lindlars' seventh wedding anniversary.

        They completely forgot.

        In that first week, the Red Cross made 448 “mental-health contacts” with residents traumatized by the tornado. In the months that followed, frustration took hold.

        “People who need roofing, siding, they're going begging,” Mr. Lindlar said, “and it's really sad that there's not something happening.”

        Brad Etherton, who moved to Cornell Road from Houston last fall, added, “It sounds silly, but even just stump removal, it's been impossible to get people to come out.”

        But people on Cornell have perspective.

        Their neighbors, Lee and Jacque Cook, who lived in the Montgomery Woods neighborhood near Sycamore High, were killed when their home was destroyed by the tornado. Their bodies were recovered from a field across the street. They left behind two grown children, one still in college.

        Mrs. Fleisch lives in Sycamore Township. She knew Lee Cook. They used to walk their dogs together around a nearby pond.

        Two motorists also were killed on Interstate 71: Charles Smith, 40, of Loveland and Donald Lewis, 38, of Blanchester.

        Looking back, two phone calls Mrs. Fleisch received that first morning illustrate the speed of the tornado and the speed with which news spread.

        One was from her son, Jay, who was driving north to Columbus on I-71 when he called on his car phone and told her, “Mom, there's cops in the bushes looking for cars.”

        Then “at 8 o'clock,” Mrs. Fleisch recalled, “my daughter (Lisa) in Tampa called. She says "Mom, it just came across the computer. You OK'?”

        She was. But the community is still getting there.

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