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Towns in Pa., Ohio reflect on tornado anniversary

By Michael Rubinkam

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 30 2011 12:50 p.m. MDT

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, on Thanksgiving weekend, they moved into their brand-new split-level — 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 on April 27 this year, 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 deliberatively," 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? 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 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, 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? 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?" said Sutter, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.

"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 roared through her life, she and her three young kids — all of whom had suffered injuries — slept on the carpet of a rented house devoid of furniture.

Gradually, she replaced belongings and rebuilt her life. In 2000, she 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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