News: The 1999 Tornado

In Search of 'Good Glue'

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Jymi Bolden

The 1999 Tornado

Daylight had broken and the power was on again. The televised shots of our neighborhood quickly told the story.

My 3-year-old, still walking around with his flashlight, took particular interest in the houses he saw on TV that no longer had roofs. He pointed at his own, still intact.

"We have some very good glue up there, mommy," he said. "It's holding our house together."

I thought about explaining to him that, given the workmanship of the popular local builder who built our subdivision, this place would have been dust had the tornado veered about a quarter of a mile west. But he was preoccupied with glue, nails and other objects that hold things together.

It was tragedy, the TV reporters said, that was holding people together now.

Newscast after newscast, neighbors could be seen huddled together hugging, crying and praying amid ruin.

People whose homes weren't damaged were volunteering in droves to help survivors left in the trail of the storm that hit more than 800 homes and apartments in Hamilton, Warren and Clinton counties.

Throughout a weekend of media coverage, this was the good news: The number of people willing to help. The number of people coming together. Victims, overwhelmed by and genuinely grateful for kindness — often extended by strangers.

Admirable, yes. But why was this sense of togetherness and volunteerism mentioned again and again with almost every newscast?

"Because, normally, people live in their own little selfish worlds," my friend Gayle said.

I didn't mean to put her on the spot. I just wanted to hear someone else say it. And on the topic of the tornado, Gayle has more credibility.

Friday morning, she arrived at work about 2 1/2 hours after the tornado to find the building gone and the owner distraught. Initially told by police that no one would be allowed in to attempt to recover hard drives from the business' computers, everyone thought the business was in jeopardy.

But Saturday, employees were allowed to search through the rubble. Of great assistance, Gayle said she would never forget, was a local contractor — one of hundreds helping throughout the disaster area — who volunteered to work all day.

Many who didn't donate physical labor donated money and clothes. There were so many, in fact, that my son's preschool teacher had to stand in line waiting to donate clothes at the Kenwood Towne Center collection point.

Everyone I know wanted to help. My next door neighbor took his son and spent Sunday clearing debris at his supervisor's nearby home that sustained damage. A neighbor farther down the street was ready to organize a search party when her first-grader's friend called in tears because she couldn't find her pet rabbit that was outside when the storm hit. The rabbit was found before her search party was deployed.

In the check-out line at Kroger, people added on to their grocery totals. Cash was the most needed donation.

Throughout the weekend, helicopters buzzed our houses. We learned that our gas station and dry cleaner were gone. Much of the Symmes Township area was under curfew. Our most convenient routes for getting anywhere were closed by police blockades.

But, from what I could see, most of us whose homes weren't hit were resuming life as usual. We went about our normal activities until another reminder crept in.

"Mommy, look at that," my son said, pointing at what appeared to be a crack in the bathroom ceiling. "The tornado did it."

I tried to explain that the spot simply was the result of the home's former owners painting over water damage. This did not calm him.

"We need some more very good glue," he said. "And some more nails!"

When winds began to gust Sunday afternoon, he ran in from outside yelling, "Is the power going out? The power's going out!"

TV news coverage that evening led with a service held by members of the Montgomery Community Baptist Church, which sustained heavy damage in the storm.

This sound bite capped a weekend of one tear-provoking story after another. It came from a congregation member who rose to talk about how he was supposed to be his family's protector. He dissolved into tears when he acknowledged that the storm presented a situation in which he could not protect.

No doubt, this storm victim was fortunate to have a church congregation to support and comfort him. Even if he didn't, help would have been there for a while. It was, after all, a tragedy that brought people together.

But like all tragedies, the memories of this one, for most onlookers, soon will fade. If we haven't already, we will return to our own worlds, nestled together in a larger world where cliques, competition, divisiveness and polarization often rule. Where one group's problem, say those living in poverty, is not our problem. Where some don't think they should extend kindness and respect to people they've chosen not to like. Where some are excluded because of their race, their sexual orientation or the fact that they are just plain different. Where some minorities and gays strike back at all whites or all heterosexuals — not just those who have discriminated against them.

Maybe I've overdosed on news reports and victim's stories. But I'm going to ask the question anyway. Do we have to go back or could we hang on to a piece of this disaster?

When someone is hurting, could we respect their pain? The most-used phrase by reporters and onlookers during the disaster, "It's better to lose your house than it is to lose your life," was even used by tornado victims interviewed on TV. They cried and sobbed anyway. It didn't help them.

Could we remember that any group of people is just a group of people that wants to be right and doesn't have the power to decide who is worthy?

Could we try harder to help out when we see someone in trouble? Could we get to know someone a little before we decide we hate them? Could we get to know someone a little before rejecting them as a racist or a homophobe? Could we stop driving wedges between groups of people?

Could any of these efforts lessen some of life's everyday problems? Could any of them hold people together continuously instead of only when disaster strikes?

I don't know. But I think it's worth trying. It could make some very good glue.

Assistant Editor Nancy Firor lives in Symmes Township, about a mile north of Harper's Point, where the tornado took a heavy toll April 9.

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