You could feel it in the unseasonably steamy and thick air Monday afternoon: The atmosphere was charged, storms were brewing.

And the meteorologists hunkered down at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington could see it on the monitors and radars in front of them. A warm air mass hovered and the clouds were starting to swirl. The stage was set for tornadoes. Watches were issued.

But no one predicted this many tornadoes: at least 20 across Ohio, with a record-breaking 18 of those in the region served by the Wilmington office. There were also a confirmed EF1 tornado with 100 mph winds near Roseville in Perry County and crossing into Muskingum County reported by the NWS Pittsburgh and NWS Charleston offices and an EF0 tornado confirmed near Zaleski in Vinton County confirmed by the NWS Charleston office.

And certainly, no one expected them to be so strong and catastrophic.

On Thursday, a monster tornado that hit Trotwood, northern Dayton and Harrison Township late Monday night was upgraded to an EF4 with 170 mph winds. Only one category is higher on the Enhanced Fujita scale.

An EF3 tornado almost three-quarters of a mile wide stayed on the ground for nearly 20 minutes in Montgomery and Greene counties. Winds in excess of 140 mph blew apart buildings, lifted homes completely off their cinder-block foundations, snapped trees with trunks more than 2 feet in diameter and destroyed neighborhoods.

During the five-hour period that began late Memorial Day and stretched into the early hours of Tuesday, 150 mph winds from an EF3 tornado transformed an unoccupied 1976 station wagon into a rocket and sent it soaring through the air in Celina. The car torpedoed into a home, killing 82-year-old Melvin Dale Hanna, who was inside.

"The air was unstable. There were certainly some indications that there would be the potential for tornadic activity," said NWS meteorologist Myron Padgett, a nearly 30-year veteran who is incredulous about many things that happened in this tornadic outbreak, a 24-hour record for his region. "But we just don't, thankfully, see these intense tornadoes here. They are few and far between."

Teams of Weather Service experts were still in the field assessing damage Thursday.

Because the attention has been focused on meeting immediate needs in the communities hit — metropolitan Dayton was without municipal water until Thursday, for example, and natural gas was cut off to 2,500 customers because of so many leaks — officials are only now shifting efforts to assessing the cost of the damage, said Jay Carey, external affairs chief for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency in Greene, Mercer and Montgomery counties. On Thursday, his administration asked that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conduct an assessment to determine whether state or federal funds would be available to help reconstruction efforts in 10 counties.

A key element in this step is looking at insured damage vs. uninsured damage. Homeowners' and business insurance typically covers damage from winds, but damage from flooding is usually ineligible. If the state's request is approved, FEMA will begin surveying the following counties June 4: Auglaize, Darke, Greene, Hocking, Mercer, Miami, Montgomery, Muskingum, Perry and Pickaway.

"What we saw two days ago was frankly worse than I had been led to believe it was or that I thought it was," said DeWine, who toured some of the hard-hit areas. "The odds are no one's going back to those homes and they'll have to be rebuilt."

Carey, speaking Thursday from the state's emergency operations center that opened early Tuesday morning, agreed.

He said he has never seen anything quite like these storms, and added that so many should feel fortunate, even if it doesn't seem like it now.

"We had a tornado with 150 mph winds on the ground for 20 minutes. Twenty minutes! And no one died there. It is really remarkable," Carey said of the EF3 that hit populated areas such as Trotwood, the Dayton north side, and other populated areas of Montgomery County. "That's a credit to what radar can tell us and predict for us now."


 

Dispatch reporter Ben Deeter contributed to this story.