Tornado 25th Anniversary - Mayor Jill Cole remembers

Tornado Memorial - Copy
(pictured: The Memorial to honor the victims of the 1999 Tornado, located at Sycamore High School)

(April 5, 2024 - Blue Ash) 

On April 9, 1999, a devastating F4 tornado tore through Blue Ash and Montgomery killing four people and creating a 10-mile path of destruction.  
In the essay below, Blue Ash Mayor Jill Cole recounts the heartbreak and hope she experienced in the tornado's aftermath. 

It’s been 25 years since a tornado swept through Blue Ash, Montgomery, and surrounding communities on April 9, 1999. The early morning storms left a path of destruction tearing apart nearly everything in its path.

My family lived in Montgomery at the time with our five children: two in college and a 10, 7 and 4 year old. The day before had been a mild day, so we had our windows open and heard the community sirens. We got our three young kids and the dog down to the basement. Soon after we heard a noise – getting louder and louder by the second. We immediately knew what was happening: a tornado. We went to an interior workshop and held on to a sturdy work bench. Believe me, it truly does sound like a freight train…going right overhead! The children were screaming in fear and we did our best to reassure them.

I’m not sure how long it lasted, but we stayed where we were – partly out of shock and partly from not really knowing what might happen next. Was it all-clear, or could there be another storm behind it? We became aware of the sound of water dripping into the basement from the floor above. Not a good sign.

Eventually, my husband went upstairs to see what had happened. I’ll never forget when he came back down and whispered in my ear, “It’s all gone” …

Eventually, we rounded up shoes and clean clothes from the dryer and decided to leave. We had difficulty getting the doors open, until one of our neighbors helped us. The destruction in our house as well as outside is impossible to describe. Downed trees, gutters wrapped around trees, roof and building debris in the yard, clothing and personal items spread everywhere. It looked as though a bomb had gone off.

As we made our way to the street, emergency personnel were arriving police and fire, city officials, search and rescue teams, and more…not only from Montgomery but also from around the region. The street signs had all been blown away, so it was difficult for everyone to find their way around. The destruction was very disorienting.

Once we checked in with the search and rescue team, they directed us to walk to Sycamore High School. There we were, the five of us and our dog, with a video game controller fashioned into a leash, walking down Cornell Road with literally nothing but the clothes on our backs…no money, no credit cards…nothing. That’s when the amazing things started to happen.
What had been unimaginable to us had been thought through carefully by our community leaders and safety professionals. The high school staff had coffee and hot chocolate for us, and school buses to take us to the Red Cross shelter which was set up at Sycamore Junior High. By the time we arrived, food was ready, as well as clothing and personal supplies. Counselors were on hand to help the children begin to process what had happened.  I still have the drawings they made with the guidance of the counselors. What they might not have had the words to say was shown clearly in what they drew.

There were many volunteers standing by to help in any way. Before we knew it we had a car to use (ours were buried under debris in our garage), and a house to stay in. Ironically, the house was on Fairwind Dr.

Finally, we arrived at our temporary house after dark…probably still in shock. There was a knock on the door, and a few of the kids had stopped by to welcome us to their neighborhood. They had a note that read:
Dear The Cole’s,
We are very sorry about your house and what the tornado did to your house! Trevor probably knows Sarah and Patrick. We attached a map of Fairwind Dr. (with names of each household) so if your kids want to play they are welcome to come over and play! Hope you recover soon!
                  Sincerely, Amanda, Sarah and Katie
P.S. Ham, mashed potatoes, eggs, milk in fridge

I remember lying in bed that night, after a very long and traumatic day, unable to sleep, thinking, “what just happened?”

Two days later, on Sunday, we were finally allowed back into the neighborhood. It was closed to the public – many people were curious and wanted to see what had happened, but police and the National Guard kept the area secure.As we arrived at our home the extent of the damage was overwhelming. We had no idea even where to begin. Then, first a few people arrived with rakes and chainsaws wanting to help. Then more came, and more until there were 50-75 people working in our yard. When lunch came, I worried how we could feed them, until Red Cross volunteers came by with food and bottled water for all.  Volunteers helped for days, weeks and even months, trying to clean the yard of all the debris.

As we moved into summer, all the neighbors had found temporary housing, and most began plans to rebuild. We got into the habit of meeting on the street each evening to talk, to see what progress people were making, and mostly just to be together.

In July, despite the destruction, we began to see signs of new life. Sunflowers were sprouting everywhere… between sidewalk cracks…in the middle of yards. Turns out a bag of sunflower seeds from a neighbor’s garage had exploded during the tornado and the seeds were scattered by the wind, and began to grow. It brought a sense of hope to us – when it was badly needed.
Over the fall and winter, our new home was designed and built. We moved in at the beginning of March, and it was so good to be home. It was somewhat bittersweet…we wished that this had never happened, but we were grateful as well.

Twenty-five years later, children are grown, and we now live in the wonderful city of Blue Ash. You may wonder why it is important to recognize something that happened so long ago. I believe there are a few reasons. First, to remember the four individuals who lost their lives that day. Two of them were our neighbors, Lee and Jacque Cook.

Second, to remember to never underestimate the power of Mother Nature. She almost always wins. Please pay attention to storm warnings and take precautions. Technology and communication have advanced a lot since 1999, from the limited effectiveness of outdoor sirens to today, when each of us have a “weather radio” in our smartphones. To prepare takes only a little time but not to can have big consequences. Had we not gone to the basement that morning I know we would have been seriously injured or worse. You may think it could never happen to you…I thought the same thing.

Finally, to remember to never underestimate the power of the human spirit. Our local and regional officials plan for and practice responding to natural disasters, and they were instrumental then – and now – to the recovery process. And our first responders – they ran toward the dangers we run away from and served with professionalism and compassion.

Our faith communities also played a key role by providing both physical and spiritual assistance, as they do every day.

Sometimes we can all feel overwhelmed by the conflicts and despair in the world…but this showed me the fundamental goodness and kindness that is all around. For me it truly was the worst year – and the best year - all at the same time. Eventually, I felt called to public service, to give back to the community that gave so much to me.

If you are interested in more details about this event, the City of Montgomery created a four-part podcast called “Weathering the Storm". It’s a compelling, first-hand re-telling of the events of twenty-five years ago. Mayor Cole is featured in episodes 1, 2, and 4.