“This Beautiful, Sweet Little Town Is Just Gone.”

On March 2, 2012, an EF3 tornado with 160 mph winds slammed into Moscow, Ohio. Half the village was destroyed or damaged, leaving many Muscovites to wonder: Should they stay or should they go?
“This Beautiful, Sweet Little Town Is Just Gone.”

Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photograph provided by National Weather Service

The storm worries A.J. Ollendick. It’s March 2, his first day as a guard supervisor at the W.H. Zimmer energy plant in Moscow, Ohio, just 28 miles up-river from Cincinnati, and there’s lightning all around. Clouds sprint across the sky. The storm front is vast and moving fast. It has dropped four tornadoes in Indiana and Kentucky in the past hour—though A.J. doesn’t know that, yet. Around 4:40 p.m., A.J. is inside the guard trailer at Gate 4, talking to his boss about the weather, when a friend calls him on his cell. “Hey man, I just wanted to make sure you were all right,” the friend says. “They had tornadoes touch down in Kentucky and it’s heading your way.”

Just then A.J. hears the sirens go off in Moscow and the first thought in his head is: I’m getting out of here.

He tells his guards to lock up and head for cover, and they all sprint about 1,500 feet to the main building near the plant’s immense cooling tower. As he reaches the door, A.J. looks south, toward the village. And that’s when he sees it.

The tornado lurches over the last hill on the Kentucky riverbank. It doesn’t look like those thin tornadoes you see in movies, A.J. thinks. It’s a malevolent, roiling cloud of debris, the wind picking up and carrying whatever it can tear loose or uproot in its path. “I tell you what, if that doesn’t make you pucker, I don’t know what will,” he’ll say later.

A.J. watches as the tornado picks up an electrical tower like it’s made of toothpicks and drops the power lines into the water. He watches it move over the river; water rises into the funnel, turning it mud brown. Then he watches the tornado slam into Moscow.

A few buildings in town explode as the tornado reaches the Ohio side of the river (“It started tearing into houses,” he recalls). He charges the last few steps into Zimmer’s main building and slams the door shut behind him, the last man in, only to have the wind pry it back open.

He begins to pray. His grandparents, Wally and Wanda Woodruff, are two of the 250 people living in Moscow, and the tornado is right on top of them. Lord, he prays, keep them safe. “That was my concern,” he remembers. “What’s going to happen to grandma and grandpa?”

Wanda Woodruff has lived in Moscow longer than anybody except her older brother. The village is five blocks wide. The roads crisscross in an L-shape right up against the Ohio River, which flows north along the village’s western edge. It takes only 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other, a bit longer if you stop to say hello to people along the way—and you will stop to say hello, because everyone knows everyone else in Moscow.

Moscow is known for its Independence Day fireworks show, its excellent trick-or-treating opportunities, the old historic homes that line the riverfront, its place on the Ohio River, and the floods that come with it. Wanda moved here with her family in 1939, after the big 1937 flood. Everyone calls her “Sis,” and her yard is one of those yards that people slow down to see. “People would come and say, Your yard is so pretty,” she says. She’s even sent pictures of it to the newspaper.

Wanda remembers when Moscow was bustling. They had a hardware store, a beauty shop, restaurants, a bank, a hotel, even a mercantile. People came down from the hills to catch the ferry up or down the river, and people off the river stopped and stayed in town. But that was a long time ago.

“They say a tornado sounds like a train. It’s 10 trains, and you’re strapped on the end. You can’t even hear yourself think.”

Other things in Moscow haven’t changed. It still has a handful of nearly 200-year-old houses. The alleys are still named for the fruit distillery that operated there in the late 19th century. And everyone in the town is still connected. Stand on Elizabeth Street and you can go east to get to Wanda’s, or west to see Steve Roark, who was born here and now works for the village as the maintenance supervisor. He’s got a goatee and a bit of a twang in his voice. His sister is married to Wanda’s son.

When Wanda was younger, she used to make money by cleaning the Spate House, where Linda Niehoff now lives. It’s a big old place that sits on the river’s edge, built with bricks that were made right here. Linda goes all-out on Halloween. She and her friend, Mickey Hanselman, may do more decorating than anyone else in town for the hundreds of Clermont County kids who descend each October. They put out carved pumpkins, dry ice, “skull soup.” Mickey dresses as a witch and serves only chocolate. “It can be chocolate anything, but it’s always chocolate, no doubt,” Mickey says. “I don’t do bubble gum. I don’t do popcorn.”

Even if people don’t get involved with Halloween or Independence Day—the town’s other big celebration—they find some way to get involved. Lawrence Hayward came to the town over 30 years ago and has kept his soft New Hampshire accent. He still does construction work, even at age 72. In his spare time, he’s served on the planning committee, the zoning board, even the city council.

People have to be close-knit in Moscow. When the river floods, their neighbors become a support system; people move in with friends or family until the water recedes again. Once a house is dry, friends and neighbors pitch in to scrub the walls and tear out carpet and gather belongings. And then they move to the next house.

People are used to floods in Moscow. But nothing could prepare them for the tornado. “You can see the flood coming,” says Wanda Woodruff. “With the tornado, you didn’t have time to think.”

The tornado is moving east toward Moscow at 50 miles per hour. It is a third of a mile wide—as wide as the village itself. Inside the main funnel the wind twists at speeds of up to 160 miles per hour with smaller cyclones rotating within the larger cyclone, bouncing chaotically off the inner walls. It’s not just wind that does damage, it’s the debris. As it moves, the tornado scours the ground, swallowing everything—trees, branches, two-by-fours, barns, vegetation, fence posts, nails, woodland animals, cars, windows, rooftops, broken glass, pebbles. A giant cloud of shrapnel that devours anything in its path.

At approximately 4:47 p.m., it hits the riverfront homes. In the first second, a tornado can break every window in a house. It rips shingles loose and pries the roof free, moving over it like air over a jet wing. With the windows now holes, the houses fill with wind. Roofs lift, exterior walls push outward, interior walls collapse. With nothing left to protect the structure, the tornado takes what’s inside—papers, furniture, tools, photographs, instruments, lamps, antique dressers, refrigerators, chairs, sofas, beds—and adds it to its growing, spinning wall.

On the riverfront, Linda Niehoff doesn’t hear the tornado the way almost everyone else will. It hits too fast for that. She is on the second floor of her large brick home, trying to get downstairs, when the lights go out. The tornado is here, she knows it; there’s no time to make it to the lower  level so she dives into the bathroom, near an interior wall where the chimney comes up from the floor below. She crouches in a fireplace as the tornado demolishes her walls and roof, carrying away everything the floods hadn’t been able to over the last 214 years.

Carol Forste goes to the lower level of her Elizabeth Street home, the level they added with FEMA money after the 1997 flood. Carol, her son, Scott, and their two dogs run down the stairs as the tornado hits, and the walls and furniture and everything they’ve ever had comes crashing down on top of them.

A block further into town on Elizabeth Street, Steve Roark grabs his dogs and cat and runs to his basement. He has seen tornadoes before—he followed one in his car once, in 1997—and he knows what’s out there. “It felt to me like the whole house was gone, you could feel the pressure change,” he says. Above him, the wind tears off some siding and a few shingles. It breaks his windows. His parents’ house down the street is barely touched.

Directly south of Steve Roark’s house, on Broadway, Mickey Hanselman has just gotten home from work. Driving in on U.S. 52, she saw a crazy amount of lightning, but it was all coming from the west, away from Moscow. She’s settling in when she hears it. “They say a tornado sounds like a train,” she’ll say later. “It’s 10 trains, and you’re strapped on the end. You can’t even hear yourself think.”

Mickey yells at her husband, “The train! The train!”—which is her way of saying, “There’s a tornado! There’s a tornado!” They quickly go to the basement. Mickey is halfway down the stairs when she thinks of something she wants and runs back up. She’s halfway down again and thinks of something else. Her husband yells at her to get into the cistern. As she runs back and forth, she can hear her windows being pelted.

Wanda and Wally Woodruff would normally go to the storm cellar near the gazebo in their yard on the corner of Fifth and Elizabeth. But not today. When the power goes off and the TV snaps black in front of her, Wanda, who is 77 years old, gets up from her recliner in the living room, walks past the couch, and crawls into a closet beneath the stairs. “I just didn’t have the inclination to go out there to the cellar,” she says. She and Wally, who is 81, and their shih tzu, Itty Bitty, crowd under the stairwell, their ears ringing with the noise.

“I’ve never heard such a sound in all my life,” she says.

“It sounded like the whole house was coming in,” says Wally.

From the closet beneath the stairs, they can look out through two windows at their detached garage. All kinds of stuff flies past. The rain is horizontal. Itty Bitty jumps out of Wally’s arms. He grabs her, pulls her back inside the closet, holds her close. A tree limb breaks free and crashes against their back door, shattering the glass. Parts of the roof lift off, glass breaks and scatters over their bed upstairs and onto the carpet. A huge tree in the yard snaps in half and crashes down on their gazebo—right over the storm cellar.

When the rain picks up, Lawrence Hayward is outside the village limits, working on a piece of property along U.S. 52 that he rents out to people with RVs. He steps inside the storage shed to let it pass. Then the wind comes. It gets dark and loud. The warning sirens go off, but that doesn’t alarm him. “They set these things off every time somebody lets a fart,” he says, “so you just ignore them.”

He stands in the doorway, watching the sky. But the wind becomes louder and louder. It tears the siding loose from his shed. Trash cans blow through the air like toys. Shingles rip loose and flutter by like bits of newspaper. Trees crash down around him, but the noise is so loud he can’t hear the trunks snapping.

And then, no more than a minute after it hits, the tornado is gone.

Mark Baird, chief of the New Richmond fire department, lives outside of Moscow in Washington Township. When the worst of the storm passes, Baird knows he has to get over there, but there are only two streets that go into town: Wells Street on the north end, near the new convenience store that was going up when the tornado struck, and Broadway Street, right by the River of Life Assembly of God. Both streets are blocked. Trees are down everywhere and electrical poles crisscross the road, the wires splayed on the ground, shining in the rain. Baird parks as close as he can to Broadway and starts walking.

Broadway Street twists its way into town; it crosses a wooded creek before straightening out, so it’s not until he reaches the bottom of the hill that he can see the homes, or what’s left of them. “It took me about a block before I really got a sense of what the extent of the damage was,” Baird says. “To see the community I’ve driven through hundreds of times in my life with that kind of damage, it was…” He fumbles for words. “It was just unbelievable. Surreal.”

Mayor Tim Suter is trying to get to his wife and kids driving south on U.S. 52, but he can’t reach Wells Street. He drives over downed tree branches and rubble until he can’t go any further, and then he parks his truck and walks. “Walking is kind of a bad term for it,” he says. “You basically had to crawl around. You had trees and houses [in the way] and every roadway was blocked. Power lines everywhere.”

Already the rain has started to let up, the wind has died down, and some of the town’s 250 residents are beginning to emerge from their houses. One man approaches Tim. He is covered in broken glass and blood.

“He was in total shock,” he recalls. “I tried to get him to come to my home, get him help there, [but] I couldn’t make him go with me. So he went on to the fire station, and then I went home.” Home to his wife and kids and grandkids, who rode the storm out in the basement. Amazingly the whole family made it through unscathed.

Mickey Hanselman and her husband, Rick, come up out of her basement and look outside. There is a tree on their boat, another on their van. The big pine tree in front of their house is bent almost completely on its side. They try to open the door but there is too much debris pressed against it. They give it a shove and then jump over a tree that has landed on their front steps. Out on the street, they look north into town.

“We both stood there and thought, Oh my God,” Mickey says. They see the Church of God bell tower lying on the ground. Once one of the tallest structures in town, aside from Zimmer’s cooling tower, it’s now a pile of bricks. “We didn’t even know where the bell was.”

They set off to look for their friends, Rick heading straight down Fourth Street and Mickey turning left on Broadway, toward the river. As she walks, the damage gets worse. She turns north on Second Street to see if Tim Suter’s mother is OK and stops in her tracks. “You can see whole tops of houses gone. You see metal lying everywhere. And once you get to that block, you can see all the houses that are really destroyed,” she says. The tornado hit the riverfront and the northern half of Moscow the hardest. Elizabeth Street runs east to west through the center of the town. It sustained the most devastation. Tom and Marge Yaegel’s 190-year-old home, the one they restored right before the 1997 flood and then restored again after the flood, has been cut in half. A fireplace hovers in the air on the second floor, the room around it gone.

Mickey finds the mayor’s mother—she’s fine—and goes to look for her friend Linda Niehoff. But she can’t get past the rubble. She tries one way: blocked. Another: blocked. Finally, she finds a route in. A tree lies on top of Linda’s car. The northern side of her home looks almost normal; on the southern side, the entire second story is gone. But Linda is alive.

On Broadway Street, people start poking their heads out of the doors as Chief Baird walks past. “Are you OK?” he says. “We’re fine,” they tell him. “And so is that neighbor and that neighbor, and that one wasn’t home,” they say, pointing to their neighbors’ homes.

“Let me tell you what,” says Baird. “From an emergency responder’s standpoint, to have that kind of information was a huge help to us. I don’t think it would have happened in a community that wasn’t especially tight-knit.”

As Baird works his way toward the riverfront, he comes across Steve Roark, trying to maneuver a backhoe from the city garage to clear the roads. “My biggest priority was to get the streets cleared out so we could get more emergency workers and vehicles and equipment in,” Baird says. “Workers can walk, but they can only carry so much equipment. Steve already knew that. Great guy. I didn’t even have to tell him.”

Most of the residents have only cuts and bruises. But Carol Forste is trapped beneath her home. Somehow her son Scott is able to crawl free, along with the dogs. Scott finds his cousin, Cindy Gorth, and the two of them go back to pull his mother free while she is still alive. But they can’t get to her. They tell a firefighter that she is trapped, and Washington Township assistant fire chief Dana Kellenberger and eight other men begin picking their way through the roads to the house, clearing space in front of the fire truck as they go.

The debris on top of Carol is so thick that the firefighters can’t determine if she’s still alive; nevertheless, they approach it as a rescue effort. In emergency responder parlance, an operation is deemed a “rescue” until they determine there are no “signs of life,” at which point it becomes a “recovery.”

Using a backhoe, they pull the debris aside bit by bit as family members stand by. After a few minutes a firefighter finally sees Carol, and that’s when the rescue becomes a recovery.

Even with that backhoe it will take the firefighters four hours to clear the remains of Carol Forste’s house away from her body. On the outskirts of town, Lawrence Hayward parks his car near Broadway and weaves his way through the wreckage to get to his home on the northwest end. There’s not much to see once he gets there; his home is leveled. “I wasn’t upset or devastated in any way,” he says later. “I was just fired up.” The adrenaline rush is so strong he can’t quite process what has happened.

Almost everyone in the village is out of their house by now. The rain has passed completely. Neighbors stand around and talk, paralyzed by the upturned world around them. “There were people all over the streets here, kind of in a daze,” says Lawrence. “It may seem strange, but lots of us were laughing.”

“What do you do?” says Mickey Hanselman, who along with her husband Rick eventually made her way back to her own damaged home. “You couldn’t do anything. You didn’t know what to do.”

A week after the tornado, you can drive into Moscow—if the sheriff’s deputies let you—but the village resembles a war zone. Homes look like they were picked up, broken in half, shaken, and set back down again. Moscow had beautiful, mature trees that lined its streets. Most of those are gone. Wood chips lie scattered wherever a tree was chain sawed into pieces and removed from the car, road, house, or yard it had fallen on. Clothes, shingles, family pictures, siding, branches—people’s possessions are strewn everywhere.

Moscow isn’t alone. The EF3 tornado that destroyed the town—the “Enhanced Fujita scale” goes from one to five, with five being the strongest—was just one of many that came from what National Weather Service scientist Seth Binau calls a “cyclic supercell thunderstorm.” The storm had the exact conditions—the right temperature between two fronts, rotating clouds, wind moving between the ground and the storm, ideal humidity—to spawn tornado after tornado. An EF4 in Henryville, Indiana. An EF4 in Piner, Kentucky. There were 65 that touched ground on March 2, from Alabama to northern Ohio.

The tornado that hit Moscow is practically the same one that hit Piner, which lies about 17 miles due west. The Piner tornado was a half-mile wide, moved at 50 miles per hour, and killed four people. When it reached the Campbell County line, it briefly dissipated. “There was a five or 10 minute window where there was not a tornado on the ground,” Binau says. “And then the whole process spins up again.” When it reformed, the tornado was only a third of a mile wide but nearly as powerful.

In Moscow, those whose homes were destroyed seek help at the Red Cross service center at River of Life Assembly of God on U.S. 52. The church’s basement is packed so full of donated items that it’s difficult to walk down the aisle. Clothes, shampoo, canned goods, toothpaste, all of it stacked high on folding tables. Residents filter in from motels and friends’ houses to pick up the things they need.

Volunteers are everywhere, sorting the donations as they come in. “I’ve got calls from Maine. I’ve got calls from California. I’ve got calls from Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina” says Ralph Ollendick, River of Life’s pastor and A.J. Ollendick’s dad. He takes his glasses off and wipes tears from his eyes. “It’s unbelievable.”

Hundreds of workers from Home Depot and Lowe’s come into town and rake the debris into piles in each yard. The Salvation Army feeds people. Catholic Relief Services lends a hand wherever it can. The Red Cross gives vouchers for the first few nights in a hotel. The village and surrounding areas set up a Long Term Recovery Committee and a 501(c)3 to take donations and help people through the insurance process.

One noticeably absent organization is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A few days after the tornado struck, Governor Kasich initially said he would not request federal money. Eventually he reversed that decision—only to see Ohio’s request denied by President Obama, who allocated federal funds to Indiana and Kentucky, but not Illinois or Ohio.

On the north edge of town, a field next to the old schoolhouse is designated as the municipal trash pile. Frontloaders run back and forth between destroyed homes and the pile, discarding bricks and insulation and wood and shingles and drywall. Volunteers pick through, looking for personal items like photos or books or notes. They set whatever they find aside to be reclaimed from the wreckage. But no one will recover everything. What wasn’t crushed or held down is flung as far as the wind would carry it; one of Linda Niehoff’s checks will eventually be found 140 miles away in Hocking County.

A lot of people still can’t believe what they’ve been through. Steve Roark points across the river as a steady rain falls. “You can’t really see very well through this fog, but there’s a brick house right over there,” he says, pointing out the width of the tornado on the Kentucky side. Trees are snapped in half across a full third of a mile on the last hill. “[The tornado] went from that little saddle, all the way down to the power lines,” he says. From Moscow’s riverfront, you have to swivel your head to take it all in.

As he turns back into town, a squirrel runs across the road. “The squirrel population was getting to be a problem,” Steve jokes. “I think they’re all gone now, except for a few.”

In the days and weeks after the tornado, neighbors gather to focus their energies on one house at a time—just as they would after a flood. Mickey Hanselman and a dozen or so others pick through Linda Niehoff’s courtyard and load her furniture into portable storage units. They throw limbs into a pile with broken chairs and black plastic bags full of trash.

The 199-year-old Fee Villa, once owned by abolitionist William Fee, stands across the street from Linda’s home. Fee was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and would put a candle in the window to alert slaves it was safe to cross the river. Joel Knueven owns the house now, or what’s left of it. The roof is gone, as is much of the second floor. The windows are broken, boarded over with plywood on which he’s spray-painted: “199 years and counting.”

Lawrence Hayward’s house may be totally destroyed, but a week later he’s still not quite ready to clean it up. “I suppose I’m allowed to,” he says, but he wants to wait for insurance companies to appraise the damage before he does too much. “I moved some of the furnishings into part of the building with partial covering, trying to save what I could.”

The worst part of this whole thing, Lawrence says, is not the loss of his house but the loss of the town. “This beautiful, sweet little town is just gone,” he says. “We had beautiful big trees. It was peaceful.” He lights up a half-cigarette he’s been holding. “It is never going to be the same. I’m concerned about its survival, frankly.”

After the 1997 flood, which inundated almost the entire town, some of the residents took a buyout from FEMA. Their houses were torn down and the lots were left to sit forever empty—FEMA’s not so subtle way of saying Attention citizens: Don’t build your homes on a flood plain. This has already made some blocks of Moscow feel a little deserted. With the desolation of the tornado, Lawrence thinks others will leave, too. Three months after the storm, two in five residents were living elsewhere because their houses were completely destroyed or still too damaged to inhabit.

A small number already know they won’t be coming back. Tom and Marge Yaegel, who owned a 190-year-old home in town, will not rebuild—though they only used the home in the summers. But Mickey Hanselman thinks that most of the others will return. Linda Niehoff and Joel Knueven plan to rebuild. Steve Roark has already patched up his roof and is helping others. Every weekend, people are up on roofs, patching holes, installing new windows. Butch Forste lost more than anyone: The tornado took both his wife and his home—if anyone has a reason to leave, it’s him. Yet he started rebuilding in May. He’s even taken over the council seat that his wife held.

Now the village has a few more empty lots where the insurance companies have razed homes. Immediately after the tornado, Lawrence Hayward thought he might take the money and move on as well. “It isn’t because of the tornado. That’s a one-time occurrence,” he said at the time. “But we are in the flood danger zone here, and that is going to happen again. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.” But as spring came around and he made almost daily trips into town to see friends and check on his property, he began to have second thoughts. He’s lived in Moscow for 34 years. He’s on the planning commission. His friends are there. “I’ve got some very strong ties to the village,” he says.

Lawrence has started to think maybe he will come back. It’s nice. It’s peaceful. The Ohio River is his front yard. “When I’m back there, I think, Wow, I really love it here,” he says. “It’s a very special little place.”

He knows it won’t be easy to rebuild. There are new regulations for houses in the flood plain—expensive regulations—and the insurance companies don’t cover the additional cost. And the village will never be the same, he knows that. Too many houses are gone, and some of his friends won’t return. “I think it’s reasonable for me to move on at this point,” he says. “It’s a crossroads. An opportunity.”

Leaving is certainly the easier choice. He could get his check from the insurance company and walk away. He still has his tools. He can work from anywhere. He can rebuild in another town, one that doesn’t flood.

But then, people won’t know his name in another town. At least not the way they do in Moscow.

Originally published in the July 2012 issue. 

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