Cheryl Hilvert: [00:00:12] It was, in my opinion, certainly a defining moment for the city. It forged cooperative relationships between our city and other jurisdictions that selflessly hoped and in our time. It will also be remembered as a day that led the many positives. It truly defined the word community among neighbors, families, organizations, residents, and our city council and staff.
Police Lieutenant Greg Vonden Benken: [00:00:49] It was obviously a lot of long days. We were extremely tired, but you know what, when you look back and know people lost loved ones, their homes and all their possessions, it was good to be in that position as an officer in the department giving back to the community. That’s something I will always remember.
Dan Miller: [00:01:13] There was a lot of volunteers from the public. It was a pretty unique effort with everybody here. It really showed community. I mean everybody really cared. That’s pretty cool.
Host: [00:01:37] The Collins English Dictionary offers three definitions of the word community. The first definition of a community is all the people who live in a particular area or place. In this series, that area and place is Montgomery, Ohio which was struck by a powerful tornado 20 years ago on April 9th, 1999. In this final episode of our four-part series, we’ll hear how the Montgomery community came together to begin to rebuild and heal from the impact of the tornado. I’m Greg leader, and this is weathering the storm, Episode four, Community.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:02:36] I think of everyone that came to help…
Host: [00:02:37] That is Ellen Mavriplis.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:02:47] A busload of high school kids came, and they were picking up things in our backyard and trying to help in any way they could. The picked up a collection of books and things that flew out whether they were ours or not but thinking that maybe we could salvage them. Unfortunately, most those things couldn’t be because they were full of fiberglass and so forth. They couldn’t be salvaged, but people tried. They didn’t know what was ours or what was important. There were people there with chainsaws cutting the trees up that were piled on top of everything and uprooted. People just came from everywhere, so it was all positive interactions. I can’t think about a negative interaction whatsoever. It was just overwhelming. All of us really, I think experience PTSD from it. The shock served a purpose just to cushion you as you’re getting through all of that so a lot of these memories I’ve probably forgotten over the years. What stands out though is just how positive it all was and how everyone came together, and they were so supportive. Our oldest son Ryan has Down syndrome and he, at the time, was in third grade, and he grew up loving books, and so we had this huge collection of children’s books. When he had a crib, he would literally climb out, take all of his books, put them in the crib, climb in with them and sit there looking through his books. So, it was such an important thing for us, all these books for him, because he loved them. For us, it was like, we were determined he was going to learn to read and he had so much to overcome. Books were really important. So, when his room was blown up, and all those books were blown all over the backyard, that was really like a heartbreaking thing for us. Never mind the roof and furniture. It’s like, books meant so much more and that’s what those high school girls collected in the backyard. They brought us back this box of books, and we thought, oh well this is wonderful we’ll clean them up, but they couldn’t be cleaned. You’d cut your fingers turning the pages. Then the school collected books and gifted them to us. They tried to replace them which was this wonderful gesture as well
Cheryl Hilvert: [00:05:02] After more than 3,000 volunteers showed up two days after the tornado to help, many of which had flip flops on and baby carriages, it became readily apparent that we were not able to manage this large influx of well-intended people.
Host: [00:05:21] That’s Montgomery’s city manager at the time of the tornado, Cheryl Hilvert.
Cheryl Hilvert: [00:05:24] St. Barnabas Church stepped up and hired a full-time volunteer coordinator to assist us for a year and a half with volunteer management for the disaster. I can’t say enough about the work that they did. Other churches prepared and delivered meals for recovery workers and then they did that for months. One church would regularly work out of the very small kitchen with limited facilities that were still at the Public Works building. It was amazing what these two or three ladies were able to cook in crock pots and microwaves, and they were amazing. The food was just always so much better and with it came a whole lot of love from the people that that were providing it.
Host: [00:06:15] The second definition of a community is a group of people who are similar in some way.
Pete Delkus: [00:06:21] I don’t like severe weather…
Host: [00:06:25] That’s former WCPN CPO chief meteorologist Pete Delkus who we met in episode one.
Pete Delkus: [00:06:30] There’s a lot of meteorologists that live for the tornado day, and that’s okay because we learn things with every tornado, but it’s always bothered me from a meteorological standpoint. I would be happy if we never had large hail damaging winds or tornadoes because I know when we have severe weather, I know people get hurt. That morning, knowing what was going on, and now 20 years later, knowing all that I have learned in the last 20 years, looking back, my perspective really hasn’t changed because when I left the studio that morning, when it was all said and done, and I drove north when I went up to Montgomery to see the damage, again that’s where I had lived. I knew those people, and it broke my heart. It broke my heart to see these homes, these beautiful neighborhoods. I lived a couple of blocks from there. It broke my heart to see these neighborhoods that were just flattened. You look at people’s belongings. Their underwear is hanging in trees and bushes. Their clothes are thrown all over. Their pictures, their check register, all of these personal items are just thrown all over the place and the lives that were shattered. There are those people that died. You think about the human impact of that, forget about the meteorological impact, the human impact, the lives that were changed that morning, that’s the kind of stuff that breaks my heart. That’s the reason why I never want bad weather like that to happen. But it really changed me pretty dramatically. To the point where I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to leave Cincinnati. That gave me such an emotional connection. My kids were born there. I was a young man when I started, and I felt like I left nine years later as an adult. It kind of changed my perspective in that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to take a job outside of Cincinnati again because of the emotional connection. It really changed my life to that morning. That’s one of the reasons why, several of the reasons why, I just hate to see storms like that take place.
Jill Cole: [00:08:46] One of my kids was very much impacted by it, the one that was studying the weather that week and, until the last couple of years, he really wanted to be a meteorologist. And he just embraced the study of weather and forecasting, and everyone knows him as the weather guy.
Host: [00:09:07] That’s Jill Cole.
Jill Cole: [00:09:09] My youngest was so young that I think he just kind of missed a lot of it. I think he was like four, almost five then so I don’t know how many actual memories he has versus memories he has that people have told him. My oldest, it seemed to roll off his back a little bit but then actually a couple of years later when 9/11 happened, I think that was just the thing. We did go through some therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and my understanding of it is that sometimes, one day when a normal event happens to you file it away in your filing cabinet, but when something like this happens sometimes, no matter what you try to do, it’s always right there. Part of the therapy is to try to process it to put back; you know it’s always going be in a special drawer maybe but not on the top of your in-basket every day. I thought that one of my kids wound up experiencing that trauma a little bit delayed. My advice would be to anybody is to get the appropriate care. There’s help for these. There’s nothing shameful or bad. It’s your body’s way of assessing what happens. You’re under so much stress of all this adrenaline, and your body just gives out after a while, and that’s how it protects itself. Just being aware of the behaviors and aware of the signs and engaging the care team that can help provide this support because it’s hard to do it on your own.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:10:46] There was definitely a loss of innocence for my children and other people’s children from that event. We couldn’t promise, they knew better. We all knew better, but we couldn’t sit there and say it’s all going to be okay when everyone knows we can’t make that kind of promises in terms of immediate kind of feelings about weather. There’re definitely weather-related issues that have lessened over time but in the short term, for example, after Residents Inn, we found a temporary rental home over in Swaim Field. We stayed in the neighborhood. We wanted to keep the kids at Maple Dale, and everybody was so helpful in helping us get these arrangements together. The home we chose backed up to the highway where they had recently built the sound barrier on the long I-71. We thought we did this great thing. We found a rental home in this neighborhood where they would go to the same school with their friends. We get the kids out of the car to show them this great house we’re going to be in while we build our new one. The first thing that happened after we got out of the car was one of my children walked to the backyard where there was a really cool playhouse and some trees, and we thought well, we’re giving you back some trees in the backyard because our former house had the whole yard back up to the nature preserve. We thought we were giving them a sense of normalcy. But the first thing that happened was one of our sons immediately got back in the car and didn’t even want to go there. We found out it’s because it sounded like the tornado that hit. The highway behind the house where we thought we were giving them a sense of normalcy, actually sounded like a tornado. And for a long time, it seemed like all roads led back to the tornado. You know, we had just so many obstacles along the way related to insurance and building and emotional issues and taking the kids to therapy. There was just so much it just felt like again all roads led back to the tornado for a good 18 months to two years. After that, after we’re back in our homes and back with our immediate neighbors and working through some of those things, little by little it gets back to the new normal, but it does seem like life was pre-tornado and post-tornado. There was a definite change that really altered our lives forever with respect to weather specifically. My kids now tell me that they have no weather issues whatsoever. I think they’re just trying to…first of all, they point out that I do have weather issues and I do, and I admit it fully. I could be driving down the road and see a little swirl of leaves in the fall, and I feel it. It’s an involuntary, very visceral response but I feel like I’ve got a better handle on it now. I almost feel like they tell me they have no weather issues just to get me to back off when I’m telling them to pay attention to the weather. Hopefully, they actually forget those feelings, but they’ll stay aware of them the rest of their lives as I did.
Host: [00:13:27] We introduced you to Shannyn Caldwell in earlier episodes. Shannyn and her brother, Ryan, lost their parents in the tornado. Shannyn wrote a book called “The Healing Season” in which she shares her healing process following the tornado.
Shannyn Caldwell: [00:13:42] Somebody said to me during the immediate period following the tornado, as soon as I got back to my house and my daughter, she said, you know what the good news is Shannyn? This is the beginning of your healing. This is not the tornado anymore. This is you healing from it. So just be aware of the fact that what you’re doing right now is going to affect all of the steps towards your healing. My friends, they really encouraged me at the time to sort of walk through it in real time because you know, it’s everybody’s inclination to just put a helmet on and bury it because it hurts and who wants that, right? The thing is that we all have to deal with those, one way or another. Something like this will demand your attention, whether it’s crying about it at a therapist’s office or whether it is 20 years down the road when you have a chronic diagnosis. You have to take care of your stuff, and that is why I’m really grateful that my friend said that to me. It allowed me then, in real time, start to work on it and never stop. So initially it meant I had to reduce stress in my life. I was living in an incredibly high-stress work environment and a single mom. And so, I had to say, okay, let’s find some places where I can find joy in peace. It looks like a whole bunch of other things including talk therapy, work with my pastor who was the one who initially threw down the healing season challenge which was to come after this, what I was feeling like was an empty, broken spot inside of me left directly by the tornado. He said look, let’s just go after it right. So that’s where the healing season came from. From that challenge from my pastor and to every person who has been along the road. Just keep walking. Just take one more step. That’s how I continue to try to help, not just myself, but other people including my family. Just take one little step in the right direction or if you have to, stay still and know that you’re not alone. There were definitely days where I had no fight in me, but I wasn’t alone. That was clear. That was so, so clear. You know what? That’s one time the little journal from my brother’s youth group came in handy. So, when my pastor gave me this 40-day challenge, which involved 40 days of really just like…instead of covering over the empty, broken spot and actually like just sitting with it and going, okay, well, how big is it? How intense is it? Any idea what it’s made out of? What are you remembering today?
Prayer, journaling, and scripture meditation for 40 days. I thought, you know if I’m going to go on this journey and I must have some hope that it’s going to work, maybe I should invite my friends who are also heartbroken to try it out for size. Rather than just doing it in a journal on my desk, I did it in a journal on a blog. The Healing Season was a 40-day blog, and actually, in that process, I ended up healing. God filled the empty, broken spot. That was amazing. And it still has that filled now, all this time later. When the blog was complete, I really did feel like prompting to release it. And so, I have. We really, really do all have tornadoes. They’re not all actual tornadoes, but we all get our house turned upside down. So, I wanted somebody to know you know that there really is hope.
Host: [00:18:46] The final definition of a community is friendship between different people or groups and a sense of having something in common.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:18:59] Most of us came out at least physically unscathed. Some people were hurt. Unfortunately, a few people we lost, but for those of us that survived, we actually became much closer. What mattered was that we were all okay. We became friends with some neighbors who we didn’t even know before. As a neighborhood ages, young families move in, and the older ones move away, and you don’t always interact with people, but this brought everyone together, to the point where we were all designing our homes thinking who’s going to have the porch because a porch is where you sit and gather with neighbors. We have a porch all around our house. As a result of the tornado when we had to rebuild, we added things thinking we want to be better connected to our neighbors. Those relationships were really important. Afterward, we used to all get together as neighbors and as we were all starting to demolish what was there and level our lots and make plans to rebuild our homes and then start the rebuilding process, we all seem to gather back at the neighborhood around the same time every night after everyone’s gone to work, or school and the kids are in bed, and we came back in and we would all kind of meet in the evening and we would kind of go a lot to lot, and we’d look at what’s happening on your lot, and what’s happening on your lot. We developed those relationships and conversations that were just…you have friends in your life, but this was something after going through a common experience like that that we all did together. The relationships obviously are what matter.
Jill Cole: [00:20:39] People process things differently, and we try to have space and room for people to handle it how they need to. What I did learn is that people are more important than things. I think we all know that, but I really know it. It was funny; people would say oh my gosh you’ve got this great new house, and everything is new, and you’re kind of lucky, and I would think, oh, not so much, not so much. We were fortunate that we had the resources to have that happen but, I would go back to the day before in a minute. We had a lot of people that were not living in their homes anymore. They were staying at the hotel or in a rental home or whatever. By the time people started getting back to work, what we would do is at the end of the day when everyone’s home from work, we all just wind up in the neighborhood walking around talking to each other. How’s your process? How’s the building? We spent quite a lot of time and helping each other through this. The odd thing was, sometimes bad things like this happen and you’re isolated you’re the only one that it’s happened to but to have a bad thing like this happen and have a community of people that you know, you don’t have to explain what you’re going through. They know what you’re going through.
Ellen Mavriplis: [00:22:20] The tornado happened in April so by summer when everything is greening up again, we all started noticing sunflowers popping up out of the middle of our dirt lots, out of nowhere. None of us had planted or ever had sunflowers, and we were all puzzled by it. But we started noticing them on almost every lot, and we would have a lot of them, and we would have weeds and other things growing up but there would be these sunflowers, and we all loved them, and we wondered where they came from. Someone figured out that one of the houses at the end of the cul-de-sac had in their garage a bag of birdseed that contained sunflower seeds. When that blew up and dispersed, those seeds just kind of flew all around and that started the sunflowers. That became a symbol of hope for all of us in the neighborhood. Now have a painting, a very large painting in my kitchen of sunflowers that is just very meaningful, and it’s something that we tie into gifts that we all give each other periodically like little hand towels with suflowers on it or note cards with sunflowers. It’s just a theme, and in our neighborhood, from those of us who were there at that time, we all know what it means. It was something beautiful and something that has stayed with me forever. For all of us who were there at that time, that has a very special meaning just for the fact that, of all things, sunflowers started popping up out of this traumatic and awful event. It was just such a hopeful and beautiful thing.
Host: [00:23:51] There’s an old saying, the author of which is unknown. I want to be like a sunflower so that even on the darkest days I will stand tall and find the sunlight.
Host: [00:24:12] Weathering the storm was produced by Faith Lynch and Matthew Vanderhorst of the City of Montgomery, and Montgomery Arts Commission Chair Greg Leader. Thank you to Ellen Mavriplis, Jill Cole, Denny Reidmiller, Pete Delkus, Shannyn Caldwell, and Ryan Cook for sharing their stories. Also thank you to the many City employees, retirees, and volunteers that participated in this remembrance project. They include Jerry Beitman, John Crowell, Robert Dunham, Pat Giblin, Mike Harbison, Cheryl Hilvert, Dan Miller, Kirk Nordbloom, Ben Shapiro, Jim Stewart, Greg Vonden Benken, Terry Willenbrink, Tom Wolfe, and Paul Wright. We invite you to go to storm.montgomeryohio.org where you can see photos of the destruction and recovery and leave your own story from the tornado. I’m Greg Leader. On behalf of the City of Montgomery. Thank you for listening.