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Published: Sunday, 11/17/2002

Challenges replace fading numbness in storm-torn areas

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
AND MITCH WEISS
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Black fingers reached from the sky and scraped the plains of northwest Ohio a week ago today, following the paths and patterns of thousands of years of weather.

This time, five people died. Twenty-six were hurt seriously. Hundreds were left homeless. Lives changed radically, in a thousand different ways.

There are losses to face and mourn, and hopefully overcome.

Homes, lives, livelihoods, friends, fingers, cattle, cake pans, and roofs - all were lost. But important things are being found in the rubble in these later days as the numbness wears away and the challenge takes shape.

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PAT BOWEN lost his retirement home in Fostoria.

“We put up our storm windows Saturday afternoon,” he said. “The storm came Sunday. I think the window-glass is in the living room now.”

The house at 218 Vickie St. was lifted off its concrete slab, stabbed through with timbers, and thumped back down as a funhouse of odd angles and cockeyed corners.

“We've been here six years. We just got the siding done a month ago,” Mr. Bowen said. “Every year we do a big project: the windows, the porch, the roof. We were two projects away from having it just how we wanted.”

The insurance man still has not phoned with a verdict, so Mr. Bowen waits, and helps clean-up crews clear the yards and streets.

“This is hardest on Judy, my wife. She's a neat freak. She kept everything just perfect. This is just killing her,” Mr. Bowen said.

In the community of Roselms, every home was destroyed or damaged, and the brick church was reduced to rubble. In the community of Roselms, every home was destroyed or damaged, and the brick church was reduced to rubble.
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ELMA JEAN LANG may have lost her hometown.

Few places were hit harder than the unincorporated village of Roselms, an old railroad town in Paulding County. Before Sunday, the crossroads of State Rt. 114 and County Rd. 177 consisted of about 10 homes and 20 people, a red brick church, and two Washington Township office buildings, all of them joined in a network of worn footpaths.

Sunday evening, Mrs. Lang and her son's family heard the sirens and took cover in their late grandfather's house. The church exploded. The township buildings were flattened. Most of the homes suffered serious damage. Some were just blown away.

“Nothing was spared,'' said Randy Shaffer, director of the Paulding County Emergency Management Agency.

No one knows what will happen to Roselms.

Mrs. Lang said she doesn't know if she'll stay. She's living at a Defiance motel with her husband while she decides.

Her father died in August. Her mobile home is gone.

“While I was in the fields looking for pictures, I found a photo of my grandfather standing beside a rose bush - his favorite bush. I found it right where the bush used to be. It was like he was leaving me a message,'' she said, wiping away a tear.

“I left Roselms before, but was drawn back because of my father.''

She paused and looked at her father's house.

“There's nothing drawing me back here anymore,'' she said.

IF VAN WERT was a family, the neighbors would say “they're hurting.”

With about 10,690 people living there, the city is not in danger of disappearing. But a tornado that ranks four out of five on the Fujita scale is a body blow to a town that has struggled for years to pay its bills.

KAM Manufacturing co-owner Kim Adams inspects her ravaged plant. Meanwhile, she worries about the 100-plus displaced workers. 'We're very close with our workers,' she says. KAM Manufacturing co-owner Kim Adams inspects her ravaged plant. Meanwhile, she worries about the 100-plus displaced workers. 'We're very close with our workers,' she says.
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Mayor Stephen Gehres said Van Wert lost more than 350 factory jobs in the last three years. During that time, the operating budget has been reduced from $7.2 million to $4 million. A tax issue for police and fire protection failed Nov. 5. Families are in trouble. Even before the disaster, local food banks struggled to meet the demand.

The tornado damaged or destroyed 90 homes in the county, and destroyed five businesses in the Vision Industrial Park, leaving about 500 workers jobless. Some of the factories may reopen outside Van Wert at least temporarily, a move that could mean a loss in income tax revenue for the city. Now, Van Wert may have to cut back services and lay off workers to make ends meet.

Little Caylib Pruett bounced in his mother's lap while she listened to a job counselor explain her new unemployment and family benefits. For days, exhausted-looking people like Mrs. Pruett have flooded the downtown Van Wert County Department of Jobs and Family Services office.

"I don't know if I still have a job or if I still have health insurance,'' said Mrs. Pruett. "Christmas is coming up. I'm pregnant. I have my husband's income - he's in construction - but it's not going to cover all the bills.''

Mrs. Pruett worked more than two years at KAM Manufacturing, a maker of upscale handbags. She earned up to $500 a week.

“This was a good job,” she said. “It was four blocks from my house. But what do you do when you don't have that second income?”

“We're looking at another location. We don't have anything secured right now,'' she said as she walked through a muddy field littered with sewing machines, desks, and colorful cloth. “We don't want to lose anybody. Our concern is that we'll lose our help. We're very close with our workers.''

Last Sunday's storms spared Ralph Shields' favorite chair but left little else of the home they built in 1964. Mr. Shields and his wife, Grace, survived by taking shelter in the basement of the home of Van Wert's Zook Road. Last Sunday's storms spared Ralph Shields' favorite chair but left little else of the home they built in 1964. Mr. Shields and his wife, Grace, survived by taking shelter in the basement of the home of Van Wert's Zook Road.
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BOB HUGHES is 75, a leathery, upright farmer who lives alone in a Victorian house outside Republic. He lost plenty on Sunday – a roof, a barn, and a good old friend.

He's farmed these 165 acres since he was 15 years old. Sunday evening, Mr. Hughes lost the pine forest that comprised his front yard. The trees punctured his house, tore off the tin roof and much of the second floor, and smashed it into the barn and the hog and chicken houses. They were reduced to foundations, leaving behind only a stark Golgotha of timbers, tin, wire, and ruined hay.

His 53 beef cows lived; they bawl a backbeat now to roaring tractors and whining chainsaws. His neighbors lent him some money. They brought food, and a backhoe and power tools from up the road to help him dismantle the barn, get a roof on the house, clear the fallen trees, and recover what he can of his equipment. There's not enough insurance to cover it all, he said.

“I'll keep farming. It's all I know to do,” he said. “I got to get my cows under cover before it gets too cold out.”

Chris Campbell fills out an assistance application for Bobie Pruett as she comforts her son, Caylib. Ms. Pruett's home and family survived, but her job did not. Chris Campbell fills out an assistance application for Bobie Pruett as she comforts her son, Caylib. Ms. Pruett's home and family survived, but her job did not.
BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Only one loss is irretrievable, he said.

“I lost my main dog, Lady,” he said. “I saw how black it was getting, so I went out to the barn to let the cows out. I told her to stay on the porch. I took Daisy with me. She's the pup. We were out there in the barn when it hit the house.

“They found Lady down the road about a quarter mile, over the road there,” he said.

Lady's body came down on County Road 38, near Darren Smith's house. Mr. Smith and two friends were inside when the tornado blasted the building to the ground. The friends were hurt, but they will live. The 28-year-old homeowner was killed trying to shield them.

Brush burned; the smoke stung noses and eyes. It made Mr. Hughes look like he'd been crying.

Out along County Road 38, SUVs drove past police barriers. The drivers stopped and hefted cameras to record the devastation. Then they drove on.

IN FOSTORIA, Tina Bryant lost it all.

Braxton rummaged through the debris, looking for his special blanket. He found a mother lode in a cardboard box behind the doghouses. A bright green Teletubby doll. A tiny plaster carousel horse he'd given his mom for her birthday. A too-small Halloween costume, from the year he dressed as a pea pod.

The Red Cross has put the family in a hotel for now, Ms. Bryant said, but they don't know where they will go from there. The family of six lives from paycheck to paycheck. They had no insurance.

“Try finding someone to insure a 1965 mobile home,” she said.

The Franciscan Center in Tiffin was hit hard, losing roofs, windows, trees, and two senior citizen condominiums. The Franciscan Center in Tiffin was hit hard, losing roofs, windows, trees, and two senior citizen condominiums.
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In Tiffin, the Franciscan convent campus lost roofs, windows, trees, and two senior citizen condominiums to the tempest. The tornado followed the same path taken by a predecessor about 60 years ago, said Paul Fisher, a displaced resident at St. Francis Villas retirement community. The storm took his summer home, and the nuns' garden, and the Way of The Cross.

The big bronze statue of St. Clare lies on its back, hands extended toward the sky.

DR. EDDIE ESTRADA lost his fingertip to the same tornado that took Mr. Fisher's villa.

He's a merry man, father of three, and chief of staff at Mercy Hospital of Tiffin.

“Everyone got into the basement. I was last, coming round the top of the basement steps when it came up the backyard. It was like driving 90 mph with all the car windows down, with explosions added in. Every door in the house slammed shut. And I was still hanging onto the doorsill with my left hand.”

He felt it pinch, he said. He tumbled backward down the steps, into the little bathroom where the family was holed up.

“A partial amputation of the distal phalange,” he said. “My left middle finger, the tip. The surgeon sewed it on. I have to wait a while before I know if it will work the same.”

Dr. Estrada is an obstetrician. He's right-handed. He doesn't think the injury will hurt his livelihood and he expects to be back in the office within a week. But he'll pass on surgeries for a while.

One of his few delights from the experience is the videotape he pulled from his home security camera the following day, with alternating views of the backyard and front walk.

It's a herky-jerky, yet vivid portrait of a passing tornado tip, a ghostly white triangle driving up to the swimming pool fence, kicking it flat, and sucking all the furniture away after it. Out front, the camera captured the family minivan as it spun and danced out into the yard.

SUNDAY MORNING, Ralph Shields taught a Sunday School lesson on the suffering of Job, a Bible prophet who lost everything, but never stopped loving his Lord.

Sunday night, Mr. Shields suddenly found himself living the Scripture.

Ralph and Grace Shields are retirees. They've lived 40 years on Zook Road in a close-knit neighborhood of 1960's-era ranch-style houses in Pleasant Township, about three miles from Van Wert.

Like many others, they took shelter in their basement just before the twister struck. They were not hurt, but had to wait for Ohio City volunteer firefighters to uncover the basement entrance and free them. Where the hallway should have been, Mrs. Shields saw only starlight.

A neighbor, Alfred Germann, 75, died while shielding his wheelchair-bound wife, Judith. Another neighbor broke an arm. Everyone else was safe, even if their homes were shredded like confetti.

One of Mr. Shields' Sunday School students offered them a place to stay.

A volunteer with a metal detector found Mrs. Shields' wedding ring embedded in the front yard.

Mr. Shields said he is insured. He will rebuild.

Ottawa County authorities turned to jail inmates for help in cleaning up tornado debris on Ash Street in Port Clinton. Ottawa County authorities turned to jail inmates for help in cleaning up tornado debris on Ash Street in Port Clinton.
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THOSE WHO LOST so much constantly point at those who lost more. National Guard soldiers, standing in a driving rain guarding stricken streets of Port Clinton, point at the demolished houses nearby and say, “Hey. That could've been me.”

Among the losses, plenty is being found, the victims say.

Mayor Gehres said Van Wert will bounce back. Federal and state aid, including low-interest loans, will bring back the factories, he insisted.

“The community has come together. There's a great spirit here. Look at how the community has responded. Neighbors are helping neighbors,” he said.

When he drove to the industrial park Sunday night, he said he “shined my flashlight up and saw flags flying. Most of the Old Glories are tattered, ripped, but they are flying. I think that represents the spirit of this community.''

Mr. Bowen is restless. He feels he's imposing on the friends from Alveda who are sheltering him and his wife.

“But what can we do?” he said. “It doesn't do any good to sit and cry. I'm just one of many. And now I can say I lived through a tornado. I know what it feels like.”

Mr. Hughes said no storm can put him out of the farming business.

“This isn't anything to feel sorry about,” he said. “It's warm air and cold air mixing up. It doesn't mean anything. I still got my neighbors helping me out.”

Dr. Estrada is from Puerto Rico. He lived through Hurricane Hugo, 12 hours of 120-mph winds, with his wife expecting their second child at any time. Tornadoes are worse, he said, because there isn't time to run away.

“This is just another experience,” he said. “Another reason to appreciate what we have, another reason to give thanks for things that really matter.”

Mr. Shields, the Sunday School teacher, isn't one to let a whirlwind carry away a good lesson. “You know what the Book of Job says: `The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,'” he said. “`Blessed be the name of the Lord.'”



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