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Survivors of past tornadoes give advice on moving forward

Monday, May 30, 2011 | 6:03 p.m. CDT; updated 3:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 14, 2011
On May 25, Tom Stanton, a former councilman and mayor of the community, stands by the memorial dedicated in honor of the victims of the devastating tornadoes of May 31, 1985, in Wheatland, Pa.

WHEATLAND, Pa. — As they dig out, survivors of the tornadoes in the South and Midwest might find it hard to see past the wreckage of their communities to a future in which homes and businesses are rebuilt, trees are once again standing tall and proud and life is back to normal.

Maxine "Sis" Cluse knows how they feel. She lost everything she owned exactly 26 years ago when the deadliest U.S. tornado outbreak between 1974 and this catastrophic season nearly flattened her hometown of Wheatland, Pa.

Her simple advice to tornado victims: "You can't give up."

Today, a visitor would be hard-pressed to detect any physical sign of the twister that wrecked Wheatland on May 31, 1985. The same goes for Niles, Ohio, a town just over the state line from Wheatland that was changed forever by the same tornado.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Niles, Wheatland and other towns devastated by past disasters, it's that communities are resilient. Rebuilding, however slow, fitful, frustrating and expensive, will probably take place, though what emerges will not necessarily be a carbon copy of what was there before.

The calamity that devastated Niles and Wheatland has become an important part of both cities' lore. More than a generation removed from the tornado outbreak in three states and Canada that killed about 90 people, storm survivors still talk about what it was like — and some still get nervous when the forecast calls for severe weather.

The monster funnel, classified as an EF5 tornado on the Fujita tornado intensity scale, destroyed three miles of Niles before slamming into Wheatland. It was the strongest twister in Pennsylvania's recorded history.

Though they fell victim to the same tornado, the towns took different paths to recovery.

In Wheatland, the storm killed eight residents, leveled most of the industrial base and left 400 people homeless in the town's rough-and-tumble Flats section near the Shenango River.

Wheatland rebuilt, but it wasn't the same. Modern zoning precluded the kind of industrial-residential mix that had emerged gradually over many decades in the Flats, and the town council voted to turn the entire neighborhood into a 60-acre industrial park. A promotional brochure from the era boasted, "Wheatland: The Town a Tornado Couldn't Beat!"

The new industrial park welcomed several specialty steel companies, a trucking firm, a storage business, a machine shop and a manufacturer of cylinder caps.

Yet most of the displaced residents never came back to Wheatland and couldn't even if they wanted to because of a lack of housing and room to build. By 1990, the town's population had plummeted by hundreds of residents to 760.

"Wheatland has changed a lot," said Sharon Stinedurf, the town's secretary. "We lost half of our residents, but we're still a close-knit community."

A small memorial in the industrial park marks the devastating path of the tornado. Flowers are laid there on each anniversary of the storm.

About 15 miles to the west in Niles, the tornado killed nine people, destroyed 100 homes and businesses and damaged 250 more. The economic loss totaled more than $60 million.

Tom Telego, the city's business manager and director of emergency management, said it took the city five years to fully recover. Population loss was minimal — Niles' population now stands at 19,000. Most businesses rebuilt, and the ones that didn't were replaced by other businesses.

Telego, who was a Red Cross volunteer in 1985, said the rebuilding effort was helped by a sense of shared purpose.

"It gives you a commonality that allows you to bond together and overcome it," he said.

Overcoming is not the same as forgetting. Though Niles' tornado sirens are tested at the same time every Saturday, residents still tend to look skyward — just to be sure.

Delena Bowman remembers making dinner for her husband when the winds arrived that dark day, "like four trains coming through." The family took refuge in the basement while the storm ripped away part of their home.

Afterward, the Bowmans and their two children stayed in the wreckage for three weeks until they found a temporary place to live.

Six months after that, during Thanksgiving weekend, they moved into their brand-new split-level home, built on the site of their old home.

It was a lot of hard work. At times, Bowman felt aggravated and depressed, but she got through it.

"We just took it day by day," she said. "That's about all you can do when something like that happens."

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., a much larger city where 41 people died and more than 5,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by a tornado on April 27, a 50-member task force is already putting together a long-term recovery plan. Everything's on the table — stricter building standards, improved infrastructure, even aesthetics. A report to the mayor is due July 1.

"We are in the juxtaposition of having to move swiftly but deliberately," Mayor  Walt Maddox said. "We have managed the crisis very well. Now we have an opportunity to manage the recovery in a way that honors all who have lost so much."

He said the task force and members of his own staff are reaching out to other cities and towns that have rebuilt from disaster.

"How did they move forward?" Maddox asked. "What did they do right, and what are some lessons learned?"

For answers, Tuscaloosa might look to Xenia, Ohio, where a monster tornado from the fierce outbreak of April 1974 killed 33 residents and leveled more than 1,000 homes and businesses.

The southwestern Ohio city looks a lot different today than it did then.

Business leaders and politicians argued over how to rebuild the heavily damaged downtown, and five years passed before developers broke ground on a strip shopping center that replaced quaint brick storefronts dating back to the late 1800s.

"At the time, it seemed like a great concept because they were trying to re-energize the downtown," said Tim Sontag, owner of a shoe store, "but it lost some of the qualities of a good downtown."

Alan King, who owns a child care center, said he wishes city leaders would have created a destination shopping area, not a strip mall with acres of parking and fast food restaurants.

His advice to those just starting to rebuild: "Don't rush just to fill space. ... Do something that will give you a vibrant community down the line."

Economist Daniel Sutter said the pace and strength of disaster recovery can turn on a number of factors, including the extent of the destruction, the wealth or poverty of the community and the strength of its social and civic institutions.

"Part of it becomes, what do you mean by recovery?" said Sutter, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. "Is a full recovery the same population and employment levels you had prior to the disaster? Do you get back in the same growth path you had prior to the disaster?"

"Everything is going to get picked up, the damaged buildings torn down and the streets cleared," he said, "but if a community is much smaller, you might question whether there has been a recovery."

As Cluse found out, recovery isn't easy.

For six weeks after the tornado hit, she and her three young children — all of whom suffered injuries — slept on the carpet of a rented house devoid of furniture.

Gradually, she replaced belongings and rebuilt her life. In 2000, Cluse moved into one of five new houses offered to Wheatland's tornado victims, funded by grants and built by a charitable organization.

"It's been a struggle after a struggle," said Cluse, now 53. "I've come a long way."

Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio.

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