Jill Cole: [00:00:02] The neighborhood was an amazing place to be the days and weeks after the tornado. There was a curfew in place for some time, but we were allowed through its residents, and I remember we pulled up to our driveway and parked. I stood there looking at it like, oh my gosh how is this ever going to get fixed. It’s hard to describe the amount of debris and litter that was just everywhere. And pretty soon, it was almost like magical, as if I rubbed a jar three times and my wish was granted. People started walking up the driveway with rakes, bags of clothes, and chainsaws and they never stopped. And then that same day around lunch, I’m like oh my gosh, I’ve got all these people and it’s lunch. What am I going to do? And then Red Cross walked up to the driveway with water and food that people had brought. I know the city worked with people to make sure that this could happen. The’re were food trucks that were out in the street every day for weeks just to help make sure that people were taken care of. It was an amazing sight.
Host: [00:01:14] The devastating tornado that struck on April 9th, 1999, brought much of the city of Montgomery to its knees. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, countless individuals and communities reached out their hands to lift Montgomery up once again. In this episode, we’ll share how Montgomery and its residents began to heal through the help of others. I’m Greg leader, and this is weathering the storm. Episode Three, The recovery.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:02:31] Somehow the word got out.
Host: [00:02:33] That’s Ellen Mavriplis bliss. You may remember her story in episode one about how she and her family lost their home in the tornado.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:02:41] They were letting residents come back to certain points so that we were able to connect with each other and figure out well where do we go next. Some things were happening at this church or that church where you could get a meal, or you could hold a meeting to talk about where you go to find out information about insurance, SBA loans or whatever it may be. So I felt like we were pretty well connected. The city was amazing, the school district was amazing, all the resources that I assume that they were kind of the point people for bringing things in and organizing. It’s probably a blur to me really who did what. There were a lot of people that we crossed paths with that I wouldn’t remember having talked to other than I know that people did a lot for us and they were there. They just appeared, and they did they did all the heavy work.
Host: [00:03:32] Remember Montgomery’s city manager Cheryl Hilvert from Episode Two? She quickly returned to the city to assess the situation and provide leadership to the recovery effort.
Cheryl Hilvert: [00:03:43] When we drove through, it was eerily silent. I put in place a curfew to protect the area and residents not only from gawkers but from would-be thieves. It really created a very strange eerie feeling of loneliness and calm when a very short time before that, it had been anything but that. There was a sea of satellite television trucks up at the high school, and it was unbelievable how quickly they arrived and how many of them there were. And again it was different how the news was reported back then. So this was a big deal.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:04:37] The media was helpful at first obviously. They told us a tornado was coming in. They were there getting the word out. Our area hadn’t really had an experience like that. We were calling ourselves Ground Zero at the time long before 9/11 happened where that had an even bigger meaning. So it was helpful in terms of getting the word out but then it kind of evolved into, I felt like in some ways, it was about the media story and not so much about helping us. Even though our home had been destroyed and imploded and you know, totaled, and we were going to have to go through this whole process rebuilding, it was still our home, and everyone felt that way. There was still a front door, even though the roof was missing. We would come back to help to start salvaging things or start doing whatever you’re doing, and there would be media inside our home. It’s like OK, it’s not a public building now just because we had a tornado. So it just felt like at some points there was a definite invasion of our space and privacy.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:05:38] They would show up at all times I mean because our process went on for quite a while of trying to clean up, salvage, rebuilding, it went on for weeks and months and frequently we would have media show up out of nowhere asking questions with their cameras with their microphones in our faces. They would show up at our children’s school, my kids were at Maple Dale at the time, and really I appreciate very much the principal’s perspective that this was their safe harbor. I was following a lot of school-related activities as well on boards and so forth, so I had a pretty good ongoing relationship with the administration there. I know that they and the teachers were actually having to do a lot to keep the media at bay at school as well so that they wouldn’t come in and interview our children and ask inappropriate questions. Our children were going through a very traumatic experience. Their lives were uprooted. Many of them were diagnosed with PTSD down the road. We were in the midst of it all in the media was even going there. So, as much as you know, it is just a double-edged sword. The media can be very helpful. But sometimes it became about their story, and we just had to be careful not to get sucked into that because it wasn’t really in our best interest. I just felt like the emotional needs of the children, in particular, are most important.
Fire Chief Paul Wright: [00:07:02] I couldn’t get over how many government officials want to come and tour a disaster area when you’re trying to work it and clean it up and help people who have lost everything.
Host: [00:07:12] That’s Fire Chief Paul Wright.
Fire Chief Paul Wright: [00:07:15] We got to the point where we basically said, if you are providing services and help to this effort by way of using your public works department or if your state agency, ODOT, and on all that, if you have a hand in letting that happen, we’ll give you a tour. If if you are jurisdiction and you just want to come to look, and you’re not helping us, no we’re not giving you a tour. We had people from local governments and state government. We even had the Vice President come in which was interesting because that really shut down the whole operation for a day because of security measures. The responders who were just sitting there thinking, this is just killing us here because we’re trying to get some work done and we have to stop so this guy can walk through the area. The side the City’s looking at is, well, maybe this is just a step that we have to go through to get FEMA funding which then we never got FEMA funding, but that’s a whole other story.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:08:15] Al Gore came to town, and we got a phone call, myself and a couple of other people, to meet with him as neighborhood representatives and we were told how to how to dress and what to wear. They told us specifically to come dressed as if you look like you’ve been cleaning up so that I’m thinking, Okay, there’s a photo op you know. It’s not about politics; it’s about a photo op. That was just kind of weird.
Cheryl Hilvert: [00:08:45] Offers of help came very quickly from other cities. We could never repay the 35 local governments from the area that helped for weeks and even months. Those are some of my greatest memories from the event. I remember one of the first calls that I took was from a very good friend who was a manager in a neighboring community who says, I don’t have a lot of guys, I need one to stripe ball fields today, but you could have everybody. I think that kind of speaks to how cities get along and how cities help one another.
Fire Lieutenant Tom Wolf: [00:09:29] At the end of day two I’m walking which was shut things down because we put a curfew on at night.
Host: [00:09:38] We met Tom Wolfe from the City’s fire department in episode two.
Fire Lieutenant Tom Wolf: [00:09:41] I’m back at the emergency operations. And this guy walks up to me. He looks like a Marine drill instructor. He has a uniform on, looks good, he’s got a wide-brimmed hat pulled down. He says, excuse me, can you help me out? I said I’ll see what I can do. He says, my name is Sergeant Mark Caldwell, and I’m with the Lebanon Correctional Institute. I want to let you know that we have here for your disposal, inmates that will assist you in any type of tasks that you need. We will bring these inmates out and they will work all day and do whatever needs to be done. I took a step back, and I said, well Sergeant Caldwell, thank you much, but I don’t know. This is Montgomery, and I’m thinking I don’t really want inmates going through here you know. I was a bit uneasy with that, and I said, what kind of crime did these folks do? He goes, I can assure you that they’re all nonviolent crimes. Mostly stealing and looting and he gives me a wink. I step back, and I’m laughing, and I said, we need help tomorrow because we need more people to help out. Once again, it’s one of those things where the decision is going to be on me you know. I said, okay sergeant, have your folks here at eight o’clock at Sycamore High School. We will assign you with some new USAR guys, and your folks will be going through and helping people get stuff out. Yes sir, we’ll be there at 8:00 am. Sure enough, the next day we’re out there in the field five to 8:00 a.m. and here come the white vans. They pull up, and all these inmates pop out of the vans and on their coveralls, in bold print, it says Lebanon Correctional Institute. I see that, and I’m thinking, I just made my last decision as an employee of the city of Montgomery because people are going to see this that just lost her home and everything and now we’re bringing in inmates and they’re not going to be happy. I’m like, oh what was I thinking last night when I told him yes. I said, come here, Sergeant. He said, yes sir! I said, look, we’re going to hook you up with our guys but what I need you to do is have all your guys put the vest on you know so we know they’re part of our group. That wasn’t the reason at all. I just wanted to hide the name on the back, and he knew that. He said, no problem sir! We’ll have him all wear those vests. The long and short of that is something we didn’t expect. These guys performed great. They did a fantastic job. Well, we’re thanking them for all the help. They loved the food that we were getting at that time, and we used them for two or three days, and they did just absolutely great. And I think they got a lot out of this too as well as we did. It worked out so well that I know the service department went ahead and use them for a long time to help out with the long term stuff like getting all the trees out and debris and all that. That was that ended up being a win-win.
Host: [00:13:10] Remember Shannyn Caldwell from Episode 2. She and her brother Ryan Cooke lost their parents in the tornado.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:13:18] Honestly, when I think about the people that were on the ground clearing debris away and one of my stickiest memories will be, for sure, of some people who had been released from jail. They were wearing jumpers and they were clearing things out of the basement and they were singing hymns down there and you know literally, a man who had recently just that day from jail to help clear this problem, he has a handful of money and jewelry and says to me, is this yours? Take a look. Do you recognize any of this? Did you guys keep cash in the house? If that doesn’t show you the best in people, nothing well. So when you really do see the worst things, sometimes they really do bring out the best in people. And that’s priceless because we don’t get a chance to see the best in people very much. When we do, it’s worth pausing and just going it was amazing.
Cheryl Hilvert: [00:14:32] The residents and businesses of the community were rocks of strength during this time. They helped one another through volunteering donations and just about any kind of support that you could imagine. The residents and homeowners in the area were it was directly hit by the tornado, but who did not sustain damage themselves, were unbelievable. They created phone trees and remained in contact with those who lost their homes and moved elsewhere temporarily. They served as our communication link with those that were most impacted. They offered help in cleaning up properties, and they worked tirelessly to help their neighbors. They had a weekly dinner for anyone who wanted to show up. Sometimes they would have an inspirational speaker. Sometimes they would pray together. Sometimes they just talked about baseball or whatever was going on in the area at the time. We tried to have staff people attend this whenever we could to show our support for what they were doing and also to share information and answer questions that they had it. It quickly became something that wasn’t a have to do but something that we wanted to do.
Denny Reidmiller: [00:15:59] I’m Denny Reid Miller. I was a resident on a hill way on April 9th, 1999. We received the call. My wife and I were in Brown County Indiana at a Bed and Breakfast. Wendy’s close friend said your neighbor just got wiped out by a tornado. Our first thought our two girls. We knew that Lauren, my stepdaughter was at home. She worked at WCPO at the time. We knew Beth was staying with a neighbor. We did hear on the radio that you people were killed and of course, you could just imagine we were a little concerned. We left the bed and breakfast and unfortunately, a lady hydroplaned because the streets are still wet from the rain that went through in Indiana and she hit us at 55 miles per hour on the driver’s side. I was almost killed. I don’t remember how, I think we spun, the lady went off the road. She did survive the crash. The police said I’m going to take you to the hospital and I said, no I’ve got to get home. So the policeman took us to a car rental place. The car was destroyed totally. The bumpers were off; all the windows were out, the back door on the driver’s side was totally bent in so if somebody had been in that back seat, I survived by a fraction of a second. So we got back, and it was very emotional. I did find out that Lauren was okay at the house. We did have damage to the house. She was the first reporter in the nation to go out to start talking with people, and she had a live feed to WCPO. We did find out Beth was a different part of the neighborhood and she was okay. The next day there was a news meeting at St. Barnabas. I recommended that we start a volunteer committee of people can sign up if they want to. We eventually had twenty-five hundred volunteers signed up for the program. And fortunately, that day Cheryl Hilvert, city manager, came to me said, Denny, tell us what you need. I really worked very closely with the City for several weeks as we got back on our feet and a lot of small projects, everything from removal of trees, dead animals, helping people find lost jewelry, just anything that we could do to help out. The neat thing is that we were fortunate to get a sidewalk in our neighborhood and that became a lifeline because there’s so much traffic because of all the construction vehicles A lot of people set up where you could get water. St. Barnabas was just fantastic. American Red Cross was very instrumental, and you can get us back on our feet. That really lasted for several months. I guess my favorite thing was working with a City in crisis management. I was so impressed by what was going on. As far as a city you know responding and the local communities. Fire, police, and everybody was very cooperative. Statistically, I believe we had 58 homes destroyed or damaged in the Montgomery Woods area, and that’s everything from somebody losing a roof to complete devastation. People were helping out bringing food and in, offering places for people to stay. We were able to get in contact with the insurance companies to help individual families get through. It was quite an event. I understand the City Montgomery did receive special recognition for what they did during the disaster and the cooperation of all the communities. It’s a shining light. Eventually, we had a couple of things happen. We have a monument which is now on the school property at Sycamore High School with a boulder and a plaque. We also have another plaque at the Johnson Nation Preserve. As you go into the city building, you’ll see from the Cincinnati Enquirer and artist Jim Borgman all of us coming together. The thing about tragedies, we always hear about the negative but you know it was very positive. The thing that happened to us is that it kept our communities very close.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:20:37] It was just such an outpouring from every service agency that you’ve ever or never heard of. The church and just everybody, from the way, that the disaster relief workers themselves coordinated with local officials and fire and police the blockades, and in the middle of all of that, a youth group is there cleaning debris, and somebody from the Red Cross is passing out chocolate dipped strawberries. It was like, are you kidding me. The Red Cross just held us in the palm of their hand. We had a place to stay. We didn’t have to think about it. They provided a hotel room for us. The church, some of them were our mom at that church, but some of them were just church of Montgomery. Casseroles and you name it. It was like days and days worth of food. That was my biggest takeaway. Truly, it was the amazing power of people when they come together with no agenda at all but to just help one another. Wow, can you move a mountain and even mild while doing it. Brad and Amy Johnson and their beautiful family they were my brother’s young life leader. When school ended, he needed a place to come, and they prepared a room for Ryan so that he could still come back to Cincinnati. That was amazing to me. Ryan’s youth group, they gathered together, and they each wrote individual prayers. They gave each of us a notebook. One was for Ryan, and one was for me, and each child wrote a prayer for us. For years I read these prayers from these youth group kids.
Host: [00:22:52] Even during some of the most tragic of moments there are great examples of hope. Here’s Ellen Mavriplis once again.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:23:02] One of my sons had a young kitten that had been a stray that came to us at Thanksgiving before the tornado. It’s still a very young kitten. She was missing, and it was maybe after day two or three, it was right before they told us we could go back in the house, one of the fire department people were giving the final walk-through, and they heard a kitten meowing in our house, but it wouldn’t come to him. It had gone and lodged itself behind the toilet in one of our small bathrooms. It wouldn’t come to him. It was so terrified. He was able to tell me that they think we have a kitten and I was able to go and she came to me. I remember that phone call to my son who was four and a half at the time and told me that we found Elly. This little boy’s voice in my head, I’ll never forget, he said, I thought she was blowed away.