Holmes County’s compassion shines through the darkness

Holmes County’s compassion shines through the darkness

Image Credit: Dave Mast

Gratitude and compassion.

Those two words were used repeatedly by Holmes County officials to describe the effort put forth by first responders who ventured out in the middle of the night to begin recovery efforts following the derecho storm that attacked Holmes County in the early hours of June 14.

“Seeing our people work and help others, I have this deep appreciation of what Holmes County is,” said Jason Troyer, Holmes County Emergency Management Agency director. “It humbles me to be a part of that, and I am grateful to see such compassion and willingness to do whatever is necessary to help others. It’s phenomenal to see.”

He said he was talking to people from the National Weather Service the day of the storm, and they said after driving around, they have never seen such an impactful cleanup effort in such a short period of time.

“Everyone takes pride here in pitching in wherever they can to work for the common good,” Troyer said.

The national Storm Prediction Center determined the weather event was a derecho with an embedded macroburst. Derechos are widespread, sustained, straight-line wind storms. This derecho brought with it winds from 80-90 mph, peaking at 94 mph.

After the destructive derecho powered through Holmes County, it didn’t take long for the county engineer’s office; Holmes County and Millersburg police, fire and emergency personnel; and local electric companies to jump into action.

“Many of our first responders are non-full-time people with other jobs and families to think about,” Troyer said. “In the middle of all the chaos, they dropped everything and went to work. It was phenomenal to listen to the radio traffic and hear the responses. There were no questions asked. They went out there and got right down to business.”

Troyer said the dedication Holmes County sees from its first responders is always amazing, but in this instance it was something special to witness. He said the commitment and dedication was amazing, and he can’t thank those people enough.

In addition, the county engineer’s office responded in kind. When commissioner Dave Hall and Holmes County engineer Chris Young wanted to meet in Saltillo after the first storm blew through, each had a chain saw, but traversing blocked roads was making connecting nearly impossible.

That was when Young had a wonderful idea. He used something usually reserved for winter efforts: The snowplows.

“Chris said, ‘Why not use the snowplows to clear the roads where we can?’” Hall said. “It turned out to be a brilliant idea and helped clear a number of our roads.”

Troyer said thankfully they had no loss of life during the storm and said that is always priority one. Clearing roads became the second important step because that allowed electrical crews to work on getting people electric.

“This was far worse than what I and many others thought it would be,” Troyer said.

According to Troyer, what made this storm so destructive was how widespread it was, hitting every corner of Holmes County. He said usually when a tornado hits, it leaves a path of destruction that is far less in width and volume. This storm didn’t play favorites, doling out its punishment from border to border.

“This was a monster that affected everyone, which is why it was worse than I anticipated,” Troyer said. “I thought the weather service did a great job of forecasting it and giving everyone a chance to find refuge. This storm was untimely, being in the middle of the night, but our weather services and sirens did a nice job of alerting everyone in a timely fashion.”

Several years ago the county invested CDBG funding to plant weather sirens around the county. Those sirens played a major factor during the storm when many people were already asleep.

For Hall, who helped the county navigate through the ice storm of 2004, this storm was just as impactful in a different way, with all the damage caused by winds accompanied by extremely dangerous heat levels.

“We had a great early warning system,” Hall said. “Sirens throughout the county warned people and communities, and we had plenty of time to respond, to get into the basements and to seek shelter.”

In addition to the responders, many area churches and organizations opened their doors to provide cooling stations where people could find fresh water, snacks, a place to charge their phones or simply an air-conditioned place to stop, take a deep breath and rejuvenate themselves.

Early on those locations included Grace Church in Berlin, the Love Center Food Pantry, Ripley Church of God, Killbuck United Methodist Church, the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and the commissioner’s office. More were expected to come along and provide aid to help those struggling with the immense heat index that reached 107 F, many of those people having no electric or water.

Hall said the county commissioners are in assessment mode, and on Thursday, June 16, they sent a petition to Gov. Mike DeWine to present an emergency declaration. The hope is the request will be kicked up to President Joe Biden’s office, which in turn could bring in FEMA money to help restore parts of the county that suffered the most damage.

Both men said while devastating, these types of opportunities provide learning experience on how the county can perform even better when the next disaster arrives.

Hall said it also reminds people of how fortunate they are to live in such a caring community.

“I’ve been to disasters all over in a lot of different places around the nation, and this type of compassion and commitment doesn’t happen anywhere else,” Hall said. “We live in a very unique place. We have neighbors checking on one another and helping clean up. We have churches opening their doors to people in need. Our responders serve relentlessly, thinking of others before themselves. I’ve told our governor, and I’ve said this to President Trump: ‘We live in an amazing place where people are willing to help others without question.’ There’s always that helping hand, and that kind of compassion makes this place special.”