BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FALMOUTH - Seeing his Dairy Queen restaurant packed with familiar faces made Howard Hoess realize his decision to rebuild was the right one.
''I said I'd reopen and I wanted to keep my word,'' Mr. Hoess said as he worked a lunch hour the other day in the store's kitchen, trying to figure out how to work the new soft-serve equipment. ''But I won't do it again.''
Just a mile down the road, as many of Falmouth's residents relished the taste of a DQ hamburger, state and federal officials continued hauling in and hooking up mobile homes.
The trailers are popping up like rows of corn in the small community of New Hope, soon to be overflowing with residents made homeless by Licking River floodwaters on March 1, almost two months ago.
The rampaging waters killed five people. With the force of tornado-like winds, the water destroyed 300 homes and 200 other buildings in its path, leaving more than 1,500 people homeless. Many are still living in church annexes or with relatives.
As some of the homeless move into their new quarters, city council members are deciding the fate of their former homes. City Councilman Jeff Carson, who owns Carson Automobile and Tractor Supply, has been working well past midnight for days, trying to meet an April 30 deadline for submitting a buyout application.
He has 208 properties to prioritize, deciding which homes are more qualified for purchase based on damages, value and whether they were a primary residence.
City council has worked out a system of ranking damaged properties, giving a primary residence higher priority than a rental unit.
The work is grueling and draining. Mr. Carson knows most of the people who lived on the lots. Each property requesting to be bought out gets highlighted on a city map with a bright, glaring marker.
''They stick out like a sore thumb,'' Mr. Carson said.
He has to give the federal government a good idea of which homes desperately need to be purchased and others that can find different ways of tackling the future. This way the Federal Emergency Management Agency can make its decisions quickly.
The task of deciding which homeowners get a chance at rebirth and which might have to find other options eats away at Mr. Carson. As soon as this job is completed, he's taking a vacation.
Concern for Plains
Mr. Hoess is all smiles as he fries, pours, tells jokes and shouts out orders behind the counter at his Dairy Queen. But inside, his heart is aching.
''I feel sorry for the people in Dakota,'' he said. ''We were back in in three days. They've got three weeks. I don't even know how to tell them to begin again.''
There are other signs of normalcy in Falmouth.
It can be seen in the face of Kendra Blevins, 3, as she gets her first Teenie Beanie Baby at the local McDonald's. ''I want the lizard,'' she tells her grandfather, Russell Dawalt.
Kendra finds Pinky the flamingo nestled between her cheeseburger and small fries. She's ecstatic, displaying her new friend proudly to all who will look her way.
As he watched his granddaughter, Mr. Dawalt talked with the couple sitting next to him.
They were from Cincinnati. They came to Falmouth to get Beanie Babies because they knew the restaurant hadn't been hit by the wave of parents trying to make their children happy with the stuffed animals. Then an employee told Mr. Dawalt of a woman who came in and bought 42 Happy Meals just to get the toys.
Mr. Dawalt stood up and went back to the counter. He returned with more Teenie Beanies. Granddaughter Kendra doesn't notice. With her cheeseburger in one hand and Pinky the flamingo in the other, things are back to normal for this little girl.
Not so for FEMA worker Joe Bonomo. As he gets ready to inspect the 31 white trailers propped on cinder blocks in New Hope, he's already thinking ahead.
The Florida resident won't be headed home for some time. His next assignment is North Dakota. ''What's happening there makes this look easy,'' he said as he walked down Hope Street. ''You know, I've been to 46 states, but I've only seen them in disasters.''
Inside the Dairy Queen, the food tasted as good as Margie Pribble, 74, and Isabel Wilson, 80, remembered it, but the decor will take some getting used to. Pink curtains shaded the windows as wooden accents helped brighten the sunny dining area.
The two friends and Ms. Wilson's brother, Oscar Scott, 93, were ''just tickled to death'' to be able to get back to their normal luncheon routine.
It was easier on Mr. Hoess to make some changes in color and design. Yet even as he soaked in the joy of returning to his livelihood, Mr. Hoess said he couldn't handle another flood.
''Honey, I was in tears when I saw this place ruined,'' he said. ''It's been tough to get back to where we are.''
Things getting better
Falmouth's McDonald's couldn't hold back the flood of hungry Beanie Baby collectors for long. They're down to just a few now. Mr. Dawalt is glad he stocked up. He knows Kendra will want more of the tiny toys.
''I wanted Santa Claus to bring them to me, but I guess he couldn't,'' she said.
Perhaps he was busy playing a hand in reworking the magic he created in A Miracle On 34th Street, this time delivering new homes to Falmouth.
Mr. Carson said it makes him feel good to see people moving into their new homes. He's glad to have his friends and neighbors back living in Pendleton County.
Though life isn't normal here now, it is getting better. Mr. Carson just hopes residents understand if FEMA doesn't fund every applicant for the buyout program.
''The overriding factor here is not to cure everybody's economic woes,'' Mr. Carson said. ''It's to make sure people can get on with their lives.''