MARYSVVILLE — Piles of splintered wood line the winding roads where homes once stood in this southern Indiana town. The rolling green hills are scarred by stripped trees that stand like gaunt fingers.
And although students bounded into a rebuilt school on their first day of classes Tuesday, many residents in the tornado-torn countryside are still waiting for a fresh start.
Five months after a deadly tornado ripped through the area, many rural residents whose homes were leveled are still living in modular homes bought with federal disaster aid. Others are living in rental properties paid for by relief organizations. And some have no homes at all.
"We've identified way more need than we have money to help," said Carolyn King, executive director of the relief group March2Recovery, which with the help of a $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment stepped in to help those still in need after insurance and other forms of assistance run out.
The group operates out of a small revamped house behind the Roman Catholic church in Henryville, which suffered the brunt of the damage when the storm barreled through on March 2. King estimates that about 60 people remain without shelter in the three-county area served by her group. About 300 more need other forms of assistance such as home repairs or furnishings, but those without homes come first.
"They're at a frustrated stage," King said. "Everybody sees winter coming, and that scares people."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved nearly $1.7 million to fund expenses not covered by insurance or other programs, such as temporary rental assistance or replacing essential household items. FEMA has received 1,526 applications for help, and with nearly 700 inspections completed so far, only 281 of those applications have been approved, according to the agency.
But some people said it hasn't been nearly enough. Locals still trying to restore or replace what's left of their property don't understand why the government, in particular FEMA, didn't offer more help.
"I've been a taxpayer all my life, and FEMA is supposed to help people in a disaster," said 67-year-old Richard Crace, who said he received about $3,000 from FEMA even though his house suffered $47,000 in damage after a tree fell on the roof and tornadic winds knocked out every window.
"I appreciate the $3,000, but that was nothing," he said. "That was just the shingles."
Crace had no insurance, and he got a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration to make up the difference. Still, he believes he's better off than many others, nothing that "a lot of people got nothing."
Officials said some people don't understand how federal disaster aid works, especially that FEMA aid was never intended to pay all damage costs. Small Business Administration spokeswoman Kathy Cook said FEMA handles short-term relief for expenses that aren't otherwise covered, while SBA provides low-interest loans to cover uninsured losses and up to $200,000 to pay for rebuilding to aid long-term recovery.
"It's not unusual that people sometimes feel like they ought to get grants to pay for all of their damage," Cook said.
Indiana Homeland Security spokeswoman Emily Norcross said the state distributed $26 million in individual assistance and $58 million in public assistance, such as to local governments. She said that at this stage in the recovery, residents are being referred to the federal agencies.
But where the government effort falls short, volunteers are trying to pick up the slack. Many come from out-of-state churches and faith-based groups to clean up debris, cut twisted trees and repair roofs damaged by wind.
On Tuesday, volunteers were staffing a food tent to serve meals to storm victims along the road to Marysville, where many homes are either leveled or boarded up with blue tarps covering gaping holes in the roofs. With most residents now living in rental properties elsewhere, the village's blue water tower looms as a lonely landmark.
In tiny Daisy Hill, volunteers were working to replace homes lost to the storm. About a dozen members of the Napierville Christian Church in suburban Chicago labored in the hot sunshine Tuesday, salvaging bricks from a leveled home to sell and help the owner raise money for a new home.
"That's the remnants of her house," volunteer Mary Beth Risden said, gesturing toward a pile of rubble.
A few hundred yards down the road, Dave Hardman and a handful of members of the Middleburg United Methodist Church north of Columbus, Ohio, were building a ramp for the disabled son of an elderly woman at the modular home that replaced the house that the storm destroyed.
"That's where her house was. That mound of dirt over there," he said.
Back in Henryville, students were all smiles as they swarmed off buses to begin their first day back at their old school. The building took a direct hit from the tornado, but crews repaired it and made improvements, such as installing a solar-powered water heater.
"It feels just like home," Allison Vanover, who lives in nearby Memphis, said as she dropped off her 9-year-old son to start fourth grade. "It doesn't feel any different. It just has some new paint and some new things."