Long after tornadoes have passed, a lens on poststorm life

To a random passer-through, Rineyville, Ky., looks like a perfectly normal little farm town on the eastern edge of the Heartland.

But a year after a twister destroyed 11 homes here on May 11, 2003, Jody Meredith looks around at everything that vanished: two cattle barns across the street, blue spruce trees in his yard, a neighbor's house that's now a vast green lawn. There were no funerals here. But beneath the apparent normalcy are stubborn scars, and these days, when storms roll in, the Merediths' border collie runs into the wind, snapping his teeth. After what Rineyville's been through, you can hardly blame him for his fits.

As towns across the Midwest and South - like devastated Marengo, Ind. - clean up after one of the worst spates of tornadoes in recent memory, places like Rineyville offer lessons for life after a storm. Some, of course - especially towns that were small and poor to begin with - flounder or disappear. Yet others survive, even flourish, as residents rebuild. And almost everywhere, say experts, the worst storms test not only a town's economic resilience, but the stamina of its people.

Often, it's a reminder of how quickly a place can return to a semblance of itself - "a new normal," in the words of survivor Chris Nichols. But it's also a lens on the tumult of poststorm life.

The rush of hospitality brings solace, but seeps away. And for years, there are hardships - lack of insurance, predatory lenders, shady contractors, fatalities, and a landscape changed.

"The whole state of mind is analogous to the camaraderie of war," says Bill Burton, whose book, "Tornado: A Look Back at Louisville's Dark Day, April 3, 1974," recounts the city's devastation and rebuilding after America's biggest single day of tornadoes swept through. Even 30 years later, he says, survivors know each other and talk for hours when the topic comes up.

The tornado transformed the city for the better, he says: Innovative planning created a greenscape; neighborhoods formed associations that survive to this day. When many of the well-heeled moved from the Highlands neighborhood, choosing not to rebuild, the younger, less affluent moved in - and transformed the shells of old Victorians into one of the city's hippest areas. And the storm made for legendary lore, like the tale of a hostess with an admired silver dinner service - lost in the storm, and found miles away in the woods. Still, the tornadoes were fatal. They swept away old trees. Recovery took years.

In Rineyville, one year later, recovery is far from complete. "Living through a tornado is not just about what you don't recover.... It's also about the opportunities that you've lost," says Steven Xanthopoulos, executive director of West Tennessee Legal Services, which not only helps tornado victims, but was itself struck by a deadly twister last May. "Recovery takes a lot longer - and is a lot more complex - than people think."

At the Merediths' house, the roof flew off and the lawn was strewn with fallen full-sized oaks. An iron bar from a nearby barn was driven so deep into a tree that it couldn't be pulled out with a truck. Three miles outside of town, the twister tore up a white farmhouse and swept a collection of antique guns into the backyard pond. Behind the cattle-and-corn farm at the town crossroads, a maple tree came out of the ground and was jammed six feet into the soil, "as though that's where it had growed up," says farmer Floyd Prather. Up the street, the Nichols kids - Chris Jr. and Shara-Lynn, "Boy" and "Shorty" to their parents - were asleep on the couch.

Boy tried to shake Shorty awake. But his sister was thrown outside and trapped under a falling wall. The family thought they'd lost her. Then they heard a yell: "You're stepping on me!"

The next three weeks were a blur. For six months, until the new house was ready, the family camped on the lot "to try to return ourselves to some kind of normal schedule," says Ms. Nichols.

"You sit down and you realize you've forgotten how to tie your shoes," says her husband. A year later, the porch is still not up and he's lost his job. To this day, the family holes up in a new storm shelter "as soon as the wind starts blowing."

Rineyville, at least, is still standing. But tornadoes can sap the lifeblood of towns. Five years ago, a storm in Stroud, Okla., wiped out 20 businesses. Despite firms' promises of staying, they left, and Stroud's whole economy was destroyed.

"We're floundering," says Judy Walkingstick, president of the Stroud Chamber of Commerce. "We had an outlet mall and [the storm] blew that away, and we've watched the slab grow weeds.... You go from being somewhat of a thriving community with a tax base, with a mall, with everything pretty rosy, and overnight you're just a bedroom community of people who work in some large metropolis, or retirees, or a bunch of druggies."

As dropping land values sink insurance assessments, many may find it too expensive - or daunting - to rebuild. Others face exploitation. "Most [builders] are legit," says Mr. Xanthopoulous, "but, my goodness, you have a lot ... who aren't, and people, especially in low-income communities, get preyed on."

Up north in newly devastated Marengo, where the population's been shrinking for years, the future is unclear. "I have a feeling a lot of these folks won't rebuild," says a convenience store owner. It doesn't help that Crawford County is the second poorest in the state.

In Vine Grove, Ky.,, five miles from Rineyville, some changes following the 2002 storm were for the better. Those who hadn't kept up their homes got a complete remodeling. And with the destruction of half the town's old-growth hardwood trees, the costs of spring debris pickup have shrunk. "The town just looks nicer," says 10-year veteran mailman Tom Miller. "In a round-about way, I think the storm did us a favor."

Rineyville, like the Nicholses' house, has work to do: While one man moved to Elizabethtown, others are still rebuilding. Experts say it takes about three years to erase the remnants of a twister.

Still, there's a new gas station and a carwash, and the highway gets busier every year. New developments have doubled the town's size from 600 to about 1,200 in 10 years.

During the last two weeks, Mr. Meredith and others have watched images from Marengo in what's become a yearly ritual for many in Tornado Alley. The devastation was familiar. Yet in the end, say many here, it can be worthwhile. "It's amazing what our town looked like right after the tornado - and it's amazing what it looks like now," says Mr. Meredith.

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