Today's Edition About us Local Opinion Obits Sports Things to do Classifieds Newsletters Podcasts Contact us

Tornado recovery likely reaching its final days

by Joe Gamm | May 22, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Susan Cook-Willliams receives a hug from Dwight Days Tuesday, May 17, 2022, after she told him that she found someone who would store his items free of charge. They are shown at his Jefferson City home at 500 E. Ashley St., a structure in where he has not been able to live since the May 22, 2019 tornado left it heavily damaged. Cook-Williams is the executive director of River City Habitat for Humanity, one of the organizations that will help with the re-build. Days is the 611th tornado victim that the Long Term Recovery Committee has aided and will will help pay for replacing his home. (Julie Smith/News Tribune photo)

Dwight Days stood Tuesday in front of what's left of his childhood home, a tarp-covered shell that looks as if it has been sheered off right above ground level.

And he smiled.

It wasn't a cynical smile, saved for responses to nosy neighbors, reporters and others who wondered why his home has remained in essentially the same condition for three years -- since an EF-3 tornado ripped the upper half away.

It was the kind of smile that reached up through the 62-year-old man's cheeks, flared his nostrils, extended to his eyes, caused the crows feet alongside them to appear first as small lines, then deepen into grooves.

And his eyes shone brightly and sparkled.

It was a smile of gratitude and joy.

You see, Days' home at 500 E. Ashley St., is one of the last truly visible marks left by the May 22, 2019, tornado that damaged or destroyed more than 700 structures in Miller and Cole counties.

Days, a U.S. Army veteran, had resisted help, when it was offered. He clung to the remnants of his home because they represented what his mother had left him. He can point out the places where his mother planted flowers, where he jumped off the roof as a child holding an umbrella, thinking that like Mary Poppins he might drift softly to the ground, or where a tree once stood holding up his tree house, into which he drove enough nails, he thinks he killed the tree.

So, Days resisted help after the storm.

He refused help for years, said Susan Cook-Williams, executive director of River City Habitat for Humanity.

"So many different people tried to step in and help him with different things, but he was just adamant that he stayed with his family home," Cook-Williams said.

Days accepted limited help about seven months after the storm, when Pat Rowe Kerr, the founder of the nonprofit When the Yellow Ribbon Fades -- an all-volunteer organization that assists veterans through advocacy, education, navigation of resources, and coordination of benefits and financial resources -- brought in crews of veterans to whom Days could relate to help clean up the site. However, he remained aloof and quiet.

No, Tuesday's smile was the smile of a man who after three years had accepted a plan for replacing his home -- a plan involving River City Habitat for Humanity, the United Way of Central Missouri and the area's Long Term Recovery Committee (LTRC), created shortly after the tornado.

"It's a blessing," he said. "The wait is excruciating."

Days said when he was born, his family lived on Dunklin Street, but moved to a bungalow-style house on his family homesite shortly afterward. They moved out to the projects in 1968, he said, while the old house was torn down and the current home went in.

Days added that he misses a giant cedar tree that before the tornado shaded his home from morning until night. The tree fell over in the tornado. Its stump (more than 3 feet wide) remains on the east side of the home.

Over the years, other houses in his neighborhood became rental properties. Connections with neighbors broke.

It took a long-time acquaintance, who is also a Jefferson City native, to get Days to acquiesce and let folks help him.

Kimberley Woodruff, the local Habitat's volunteer coordinator, was a friend when they were very young.

"We grew up together. I grew up on the corner of Jackson and Roland streets," Woodruff said. "I grew up with Dwight's youngest sister. My dad used to be Dwight's Boy Scout leader."

We all have to be in a place where we're ready to let go, Cook-Williams said.

"The trauma he endured during the tornado and throughout the rest of his life that he's dealt with," she said.

Now, the plan for Days' home, she said, is to perform a veterans build. Habitat for Humanity is a faith-based program in which the new homeowner helps with construction of the home, then buys it through a zero interest mortgage. Participants in the program must attend classes in personal finances, home maintenance and other relevant topics to ensure they are capable of meeting the demands of home ownership.

Once veterans sign up for benefits they've earned and deserve, that sometimes puts them on good footing with Habitat International, Cook-Williams said, which in turn will assure veterans in the program are receiving all the benefits they deserve.

A lot of veterans may not feel like they deserve help from Habitat or other organizations because they weren't in active duty or weren't in combat, Cook-Williams said. However, they do deserve help.

Days is already in budgeting classes, she said.

"Rebuilding the home is emotional (for Day). For him, even if he's not working up a sweat every day," she said. "He'll be on the job site every day doing what he can to help the crew."

Veterans' builds for Habitat for Humanity International are meant to build for veterans, invite veterans to come build and raise awareness for veterans, she said.

Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood used to travel to Jefferson City several times a year to help with houses the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity builds. That stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cook-Williams hopes to get soldiers involved again.

If things go as planned, the LTRC is going to help pay the mortgage, she said. However, Habitat for Humanity still has to raise funds to pay costs of constructing the project.

Sales at the ReStore have helped pay for about three houses annually. Aluminum can recycling has paid for several houses. Locally, Thrivent Financial has paid for half a house a year for a decade under its Thrivent Builds program.

"With the costs of a house going up, Thrivent discontinued that program," Cook-Williams said. "We no longer get that money."

The ReStore is doing well, she said, but Habitat for Humanity will have to conduct more intentional fundraising.

A long recovery

State and federal emergency management agencies' disaster experts told recovery leaders in Cole County that it would be three to five years before the response to the tornado was completed, said Ann Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri.

Here we are, three years to the day.

Immediately after the storm, the community created a short-term recovery committee, which transitioned into an intermediate-term recovery committee, which later transitioned into the Long Term Recovery Committee.

Caseworkers have been assisting survivors ever since.

They had 611 cases over those past three years.

Days' case is one of the final two active cases.

Cases normally remain anonymous, so even the committee that pays for services doesn't know who they're serving. Days' case is unusual, in that it will require help from Habitat for Humanity with replacement of his home.

"In my role as part of LTRC, we don't know all the details for the survivors," Bax said. "You and I know more about Dwight. ... Every other disaster survivor, I have no idea of their names or situations. That's the case manager's job."

For a large portion of those three years, Days lived in squalor but is finally safe in a Jefferson City Housing Authority apartment, Bax said.

"So ... I know Dwight, as I told you, he was the first survivor, other than my father-in-law, that I met after the tornado hit," Bax said. "The Short Term Recovery Committee was meeting at Memorial Baptist Church, down in the basement. I'll never forget. He came in, and he was so defeated. I sat and talked to him. He was just trying to find a tarp to put over his roof, which was gone."

He remained in the house for months.

It had been his own choice to live in harsh conditions, because he wished to stay within sight of his home, she said. Later, to enter the Housing Authority, he was required to enter a program and remain sober.

That led to dominoes falling, like the one in which Habitat for Humanity is helping with his home.

Cook-Williams has reported to the LTRC that Days has done what he needs to do to be considered by Habitat.

So she felt good about being able to recommend the committee consider helping as well, Bax said.

Cook-Williams said Habitat never expects to have perfect homeowners.

"Everybody who enters our program is a human being with backgrounds or flaws," she said. "Everybody deserves a safe place to live."

Her organization's goal is to provide that for Days.

"Talk about coming full circle three years later," Bax said. "I'm very excited that he has gotten to a point where he is willing to seek help and do what he needs to do. We can help him really make a reality of this."

The LTRC met early Thursday morning.

One of its cases that was thought to be completed had a change. It created what Bax described as a "lively discussion."

Committee flexibility

Within the LTRC's changed case, a mother in her late 70s and her son in his 50s lived in their original home, which the tornado damaged extensively. Both are disabled, and he could never work because of his disabilities.

They never moved out of their home after the storm, Bax said.

"I don't know if some of the things going on with the home were happening before, but by the time the caseworker got to them, probably a year after the disaster, there was raw sewage in the basement," Bax said. "They were living in this place with rampant mold. Holes in the ceiling. Nonworking utilities. It was just horrendous."

It took months for the caseworker to gain their trust. She got them to move out of the home, which led to other hoops they needed to jump through, such as getting identifications.

So, the caseworker found them housing in a ground-floor apartment. The LTRC payed for their rent for the first year, thinking they were going to get into the Section 8 voucher program, and they were going to be able to meet their rent.

However, their landlord recently decided that he would not do Section 8.

"We had done all that work getting them rehoused, and now he's changed his mind. So, now here we are with this family that may be displaced again," Bax said.

The committee can't support survivors forever, she said.

"We also can't just say, 'Good luck. We've helped you this far, but sorry,'" Bax said.

The LTRC has to show compassion, but knows it can't support them forever. It didn't have enough information to make any decisions for that case Thursday morning.

Like other Habitat participants, Days will have to put in sweat equity on his house and get a loan from the nonprofit to purchase it.

"Habitat families have to pay off their notes," Bax said. "Our money is going to go toward helping pay off the note. Not paying off -- helping pay off."

By helping Days, the LTRC is also helping the larger community, she said.

"That area that was heavily impacted, having that foundation sitting there as a constant reminder and not being able for the community -- that little neighborhood -- to move forward, that's another thing that's been a big conversation point," she said. "It's the right thing to do."

The committee can't commit to paying 100 percent of Days' mortgage, and wouldn't, Bax said. However, it is committed to helping him in a substantial way so he can move forward.

"We weren't sure this would ever come to fruition with Dwight. He struggled," Bax said. "Money is going to help survivors. It is playing out as we were told -- there will be a small number of individuals helped with the most amount of money from the LTRC.

"Some people may not understand that or appreciate that, but we are following the plan. We don't want to leave anybody unsupported."

It's been rewarding, Bax said, to see how the community agencies and faith groups came together and what disaster experts trained them to do the first couple of months after the tornado. If nothing else, the community has done the best it could with the information and training it got, and with disaster survivors in the community at heart.

For his part, Days said he's grateful for the blessings that the community has offered him.

"I have to (smile). That's the best medicine in the world is smiling," Days said Tuesday. "I don't argue with people. When people start arguing with me, I just walk away. Once they get you angry, your blood pressure goes up, then you go to the doctor and you have to pay the doctor."

Print Headline: Tornado recovery likely reaching its final days


Sponsor Content