After the storm: Tornado cleanup helps crop farmers

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TIFFIN, Ohio – Thousands of shingles are scattered in the wheat fields.

Sections of garage doors and their reels are piled near one tree, fallen across the woven wire fence that once separated the fields.

Some of that tree’s branches, more than a foot in diameter, are yards away, tangled with house siding.

Twenty-year-old Cory Zoeller looks across the fields and shakes his head.

The Nov. 10, 2002, tornado that ripped through Seneca, Huron and Erie counties in northwestern Ohio was too close for comfort.

The twister had winds up to 206 miles per hour and cut a swath through the counties 35 miles long and 200 yards wide.

Hitting home. Zoeller had just finished a long day’s work as a farmhand when the tornado, officially rated as an F3 by the National Weather Service, began brewing.

“I drove through hail on my way home with my son and girlfriend. The whole way we were just hoping that hail wouldn’t break the windshield,” he said.

“We ran to the basement as soon as we got [home]. I would have never guessed this would happen here,” Zoeller said.

Shortly after being spotted and with little warning, the tornado hopped its way over a rural housing development just outside Tiffin.

Remnants of many of those houses lay scattered across fields owned by Jerry Kelbley, Zoeller’s boss, until last week when nearly a dozen volunteers showed up to help in cleanup efforts.

Help now. Though cleanup has been ongoing since November, a real push was needed to help clear fields so farmers could continue with spring planting and crop management.

“The tornado that ripped through Seneca County last fall left a swath of substantial damage and debris. We’re here to get some of that cleaned up,” said Mike Darling, volunteer coordinator and manager of the Seneca Recycling and Litter Prevention group.

“These farms really need help to get going again.”

Kelbley agreed.

“We had the equivalent of two houses in 10 acres. It’s great they came out to help.

“How else would you do it? It takes a lot of manpower to do that kind of work,” he said.

Members of the Sentinel FFA chapter helped gather many large pieces of debris immediately after the storm, but piles they made are still waiting to be gathered.

Home no more. On the first trip to the fields, less than a handful of volunteers made a small dent in the effort and collected large items – a wheelbarrow, garage doors, trusses.

Volunteers are now concentrating on other items.

“Even the largest pieces are very little,” said Darling.

The volunteers – members of church groups, United Way, and local residents – wandered across three fields and collected tennis shoes, globes, Christmas ornaments and toys.

At the end of one day of cleanup, volunteers had collected an estimated 1,000 pounds of aluminum siding and 11 tons of building material and household contents, numbers described by Mike Darling as “pretty conservative.”

“We can tell the pieces and parts of bedrooms, living rooms, banisters, garages,” Darling said.

Crews found a porcelain doll – its dress was also found yards away, caked with mud – stuffed animals, Legos and pieces to a dollhouse.

“We found little kids’ toys, somebody’s T-shirts and lots of people’s roofs,” echoed Janet Dundore, a volunteer from nearby Bellevue, Ohio.

“We’re still not sure what else we’ll find in the other fields,” she said.

But Dundore is sure of one thing.

“I don’t think I’ll ever eat wheat or bread again without first thinking of this,” she said, referring to the littered wheat field she stood in.

Living again. For residents of that small neighborhood bordered by the wheat fields, life goes on.

Many of the homes show off new siding, new concrete driveways and new lawns. Near one street corner, a foundation awaits new construction.

Though the storm made a definite impact, it won’t be soon forgotten.

Tree limbs collected will be chipped and shredded; the mulch will be used on local playgrounds.

Steel and metal will be recycled, and other debris will be landfilled, according to Darling.

More cleanup dates will be set each week. To volunteer, call Darling at 419-443-7922.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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