Some Pennsylvania Tornado Victims Struggle With Uninhabitable Homes

By MIKE TONY, The (Uniontown) Herald-Standard | March 29, 2018

God put Brian Cross’s home in a bubble.

That’s his explanation for why the tornado that blasted through Uniontown and North Union Township in Pennsylvania last month didn’t inflict as much damage on his Millview Street home in the city as others nearby.

The tornado broke two windows and lifted off a 3-foot-by-3-foot part of his roof but left the rest intact.

Cross’s home, though, is one of more than two dozen on Millview Street posted as uninhabitable by K2 Engineering, the city’s engineering firm.

Cross said that while the residents of most of those houses along Millview Street stayed in their homes for several weeks following the Feb. 15 tornado, several have moved out in the past week and a half.

City solicitor J.W. Eddy has said those living in homes that were posted as uninhabitable were committing criminal trespass, which police Chief Jason Cox called a police issue.

Cross is staying, flummoxed as to why K2 Engineering did not enter his house in determining it uninhabitable. He thinks his house is safe enough for his girlfriend and daughter to be there, but is wary of city officials saying he could be criminally charged.

“How did I go from the victim to the suspect?” Cross asked.

Uniontown and North Union Township Engineer John Over said about 70 houses were declared uninhabitable in each the city and township, using exterior visual inspections to make the determination, a process he said was typical following significant weather events.

Over said his team has a hard time getting into homes to conduct inspections. He reported at a Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) meeting last month that landlords were telling tenants of homes posted as uninhabitable to stay, and said the tornado has exacerbated the problem of landlords not repairing homes in need of structural upgrades, especially in the city.

Owners of properties posted as uninhabitable may contact K2 Engineering to set up a follow-up inspection if they want that posting reviewed and removed, Over said, adding that five such postings were removed after K2 was contacted accordingly.

Compromised stairways, blown out windows and disconnected electrical wiring are some of the problems engineers looked for in sizing up homes’ livability, Over said. The city has referred residents with nowhere else to go to Fayette County Community Action Agency (FCCAA), which is keeping a list of landlords and available rental units.

FCCAA’s housing department has not had any recent requests for available housing, so the agency has not updated its list of landlords, FCCAA Director of Customer Service Rita Masi said.


Elmer “Buzz” Hall, pastor of Solid Rock Ministry on Millview Street, said he and the church have been helping displaced residents with security deposits and finding more stable housing.

Hall said the church has been working to connect affected residents with items such as microwaves, refrigerators, stoves, washers, dryers and coffee tables.

“We’re just trying to meet their basic needs,” Hall said.

Over reported that several property owners are still waiting on insurance claims to be reviewed before they can start repairs.

The Gallatin School Living Centre, City Mission-Living Stones, Inc.’s 30-unit housing and service complex on North Gallatin Avenue in Uniontown was slammed by the tornado, resulting in one family having to be relocated to another apartment because of the damage, said City Mission Executive Director Irmi Gaut.

The tornado blew much of the roof off a Bailey Avenue property owned by Laurel House Inc., a Uniontown-centered residential and home-based service provider to intellectually disabled adults, resulting in four of its clients having to stay in a hotel for a week.

“They held up strong,” Laurel House CEO Joe Sora said.

The agency hopes to have them back in their old home in May following about $85,000 in renovations, he said. In the meantime, they’ve been living across the avenue in a house the agency had recently vacated.

As the VOAD fiduciary, FCCAA is continuing to accept financial donations for tornado victims. Masi said that the agency had received $32,585 in donations as of Friday, along with $16,560 in food donations from Area Agency on Aging and anonymous donors.


Rusty Mechling, a property owner and landlord in the Uniontown area, said he owns 10 to 12 properties on Millview Street and had about 20 properties affected.

Mechling said he got a call from tenants reporting damages every minute for half an hour the evening of the tornado, starting at 6:45 p.m., two minutes after the tornado touched down near the intersection of Phillipi Avenue and Pittsburgh Street.

Since then, Mechling has overseen tarping and boarding up of his properties, he said, crediting the city for sending dumpsters soon after the disaster to facilitate debris cleanup.

Mechling said last week that he had not received a firm quote from his insurance company about damage settlements. He said he could only insure the properties for their basic assessed value to avoid high premiums, which he said would be economically prohibitive given that he owns several dozen properties.

Mechling said he understood why houses deemed uninhabitable by K2 Engineering were posted as such. He said he recommended tenants living in badly damaged homes move out.

The tornado likely won’t result in a turnaround of blighted properties in and around Millview Street, Mechling said, guessing a U.S. Small Business Administration disaster declaration wouldn’t free up enough assistance to rejuvenate the area like a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster declaration might have.

“In the broad scope, it just wasn’t big enough (for that),” Mechling said.

Cross guesses that less economically challenged neighborhoods than his would have recovered much quicker from the tornado. He feared his house might be looted after the storm, and thinks there might be something to his girlfriend’s suggestion that God sent the tornado through Lemon and Millview streets to punish that part of the neighborhood for being crime-prone and dilapidated from neglect, according to him.

Still, it’s Cross’s abode, one that he said he’s put a lot of housing upkeep into. He intends to stay.

“I don’t have no place to go,” Cross said. “This is my family’s home.”

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