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Monday, June 21st, 2010

Local woman aids victims

By Margie Wuebker

A tornado stripped away much of the exterior of this Millbury home, leaving some. . .

Deb Hemmelgarn came face to face with overwhelming tragedy and unbelievable destruction in the Wood County community of Millbury.
Hemmelgarn, executive director of the Mercer County chapter of the American Red Cross, traveled to northwest Ohio last week to give her Wood County counterpart, Chris Diefenthaler, a much-needed break.
A string of tornadoes ripped through northwest Ohio the night of June 5, producing damage in Fulton, Lucas, Ottawa and Wood counties. Hardest hit were the Wood County communities of Lake Township, Moline and Millbury.
The powerful twisters claimed six lives, injured dozens of residents and damaged all the designated Red Cross shelters.
"I drove into Millbury on (state Route) 795 prepared to see destruction," Hemmelgarn said. "But it was so much worse than I imagined."
At first glance it appeared damage to the school building was limited to shattered windows, she said. However, traveling a little farther revealed buses tossed about like a child's Matchbox vehicles. The remainder of the sprawling building had been reduced to rubble.
"I thank God the tornadoes blew in around midnight instead of the daytime hours when classes were in session," she said. "The death toll would have been so much higher."
Reaching the Red Cross service center at St. Peter's United Church of Christ was difficult. Numerous streets were closed due to debris and downed utility poles. Homes were destroyed, leaving large piles of debris or nothing but foundations. Here and there relatively unscathed houses stood in the midst of devastation.
"This was a close-knit community where everybody knew each other," Hemmelgarn said. "People worked hard to achieve what they had only to see it blown away in a matter of minutes. And all the time I kept thinking 'this could be Mercer County.' The residents are so similar."
Diefenthaler requested Hemmelgarn be her replacement because of that similarity.
Hemmelgarn noted the tenacity of the survivors who cared more about finding remnants of their life than accepting handouts.
"People are dealing with various stages of acceptance not unlike the death of a loved one," Hemmelgarn said. "Some lost family and friends; others came face to face with the death of their everyday life."
"Working with the people provided a lesson in the strength of spirit," Hemmelgarn said. "An older couple came to the center while trying to deal with the loss of a house they had called home for 42 years. He asked with a twinkle in his eye whether the loss of a marriage certificate meant they were no longer married. She laughed and then tears filled her eyes. They both cried."
The man, who had hoped to retire in two years, told Hemmelgarn there was no telltale sound of an approaching freight train as some tornado victims claim. He described the incredible noise as an entire squadron of fighter jets taking off at the same time.
Another man, who was thrown 60 yards from his home, described the sheer darkness and the terror of not knowing what had happened. Street lights and security lighting went dim in the storm. One minute he was in his home and the next in blackness, lying among debris.
One resident Hemmelgarn encountered lost the farm house he inherited from his mother and the home-based business he operated. He, like other residents hesitant about asking for handouts, finally accepted emergency assistance while awaiting an insurance adjuster. He was among the victims who have said they have no intention of rebuilding. Others diligently cleared debris, declaring to start anew.
Volunteers combed the area hoping to recover belongings, staffed mobile feeding stations and accepted donations. They found a child's large yellow Crayola bank full of coins laying in the midst of a field. Other discoveries included paycheck stubs, death cards and scraps of baby pictures. Anything identifiable went into boxes designated by family names while unmarked items were placed on tables at the service center. Victims reverently searched through the pile hoping to find family treasures.
"Debris was spread over two counties," Hemmelgarn said. "We even heard reports of mail found as far away as Cleveland."
The area was inundated with offers of furniture and household goods. However, the Red Cross director said money is what agencies need to immediately satisfy the needs of victims. The truth is, victims with destroyed or heavily-damaged homes have no place to put "stuff."
Hemmelgarn said the two-day experience proved downright draining, but it afforded her with wonderful training and invaluable experience.
"Mercer County has been fortunate over the years," she said. "I pray I never have to use what I learned in Millbury. However, disaster is only as far away as the next storm."

Mercer County ready for storms:
Mercer County officials say agencies are ready if a tornado or other natural disaster happens. And occasional practice sessions conducted by the local emergency planning committee make sure responders are on the same page.
"There were 23 disasters - all single family fires - in 2009," said Deb Hemmelgarn, executive director of the Mercer County Chapter of the American Red Cross. "The year before we had fires and floods."
The lack of tornado history in the region may gives some people a false sense of security, Hemmelgarn said. However, agencies such as the Red Cross and the Emergency Management Agency have disaster plans with designated shelters and food provisions for 300 to 400 people for 10 days. They also know of related plans at area nursing homes and medical facilities.
Hemmelgarn and EMA Director Wanda Dicke agree a prime consideration is knowing who to call and having emergency and cell phone numbers.
In an emergency, Mercer County Central Dispatch will activate pagers carried by all agency representatives and volunteers, law enforcement officers and firefighters.
"We try to cover all the bases," Hemmelgarn added. "The goal is to have all plans in place before something happens because there is no time afterward."
Agencies have supplies stockpiled here and they also know what is available regionally.
"Training is ongoing," she said. "A volunteer is awesome, but a trained volunteer is priceless. We prepare, educate and practice working together to do the very best we can. What occurred up north is unfortunately not the last disaster Ohio will face."

American Red Cross tornado tips:
• Listen to local news or a NOAA Weather Radio to keep posted on warnings and watches.
• Know your community's warning system.
• Pick a safe room in your home where family members and pets may gather during a tornado. This should be a basement, storm cellar or an interior room on the lowest floor without windows.
• Practice periodic tornado drills so that everyone knows what to do if a tornado approaches.
• Prepare for high winds by removing diseased and damaged limbs from trees.
• Move or secure lawn furniture, trash cans, hanging plants or anything else that may be picked up by the wind and become a projectile.
• Watch for tornado danger signs - dark, often greenish clouds (a phenomenon caused by hail); a wall cloud (an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm); a cloud of debris; large hail; a funnel cloud (a visible rotating extension of the cloud base); and roaring noises.
- Margie Wuebker
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