After the storms: incredible faith, rebuilding lives

Local congregations and dioceses reach out to disaster victims
June 8, 2011

Images of people "cut all to pieces" and cries of sheer terror and panic still haunt Cary Lee, but the special road district supervisor for Joplin, Missouri, said June 6 that despite the devastation his faith has deepened through the outpouring of love and support after the deadliest tornado in decades.

"Every night I go to bed, I hear the screams, the sirens in my head, and it's like I'm going to wake up out of a bad dream, but it never ends," said Lee, 43, who drove the 14-mile distance from his Carthage home toward the May 22 tornado to offer assistance.

"I could see the tornado in the distance. I knew it was going to be bad, because it was raining roof shingles and plywood and chunks of insulation in front of my house," recalled Lee, a member of Grace Episcopal Church. He helped clear debris from streets so emergency vehicles and first responders could aid the injured, encountering several bodies in the process. "One lady I recognized from the Baptist Church, where we got vacation bible school supplies," he said during a telephone interview.

The tornado, three-quarters of a mile wide, was on the ground for six miles and an estimated 22 minutes, Lee added. It killed 141 and injured nearly a thousand people, making it one of the deadliest tornadoes to strike the nation. An estimated 8,000 buildings were destroyed; city officials put rebuilding costs at nearly $3 billion.

Damage to local Episcopal churches and schools, however, was minimal; no Episcopalians were reported among the fatalities, although there were some injuries and about 17 families lost homes, according to Bishop Martin Field of West Missouri.

Rather, several churches quickly mobilized as distribution centers for food, clothing and other supplies, he said during a recent telephone interview. St. Philip's Church in Joplin also offered used of its building to local churches that lost their buildings, he said.

"The devastation is incredible but the faith of the people is even more incredible. Rebuilding is not an if, it's a when," he added. Field, a former U.S. Navy chaplain said viewing the rubble after the tornado triggered memories of his service during Desert Storm and Desert Shield.

"These people are going to have their lives back, through the good offices of our church and the other churches and, of course, the American people," he declared. "There's been a tremendous outpouring, of people pouring out their hearts, that will continue until everybody's got their life back."

Destructive spring storms, floods and tornadoes elsewhere have, in recent months, killed hundreds and injured thousands, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and prompted immediate, and longer-term recovery assistance from Episcopal Relief & Development, according to a June 3 statement from the Episcopal Church's disaster relief agency.

According to Katie Mears, program manager for Episcopal Relief & Development's U.S. disaster program, the agency has connected with communities from Massachusetts to Montana that have been impacted. Recovery is expected to be a long-term process, she added.

"Episcopal churches have great organizational capacity and are really good at caring and helping people," said Mears, "so we try to build on the resources and connections that congregations have in order to mitigate damage in case of a disaster and help the community recover afterward."

The Rev. Mary Gustafson of Holy Trinity Church in Southridge reported feeling "a bit shaken up" but otherwise safe after driving, she believes, near one of several tornadoes that ripped through western Massachusetts on June 1.

"A small tree fell on the car," she wrote in an e-mail. "My ears started popping and the front and side windows just shattered. It was all over in a flash."

The deadly tornadoes leveled buildings in downtown Springfield just two blocks from the offices of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts but "we never heard anything," said Cozette Haggerty, executive assistant to Bishop Gordon Scruton.

The tornadoes killed at least four people and injured dozens of others, flattened hundreds of buildings and destroyed property valued in the millions of dollars. But they didn't appear to injure any Episcopal parishioners or heavily damage churches, according to a statement posted on the diocesan website.

Stephen and Shannon Koziol, parishioners of Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield "huddled in their basement with their two-year-old and two-month-old as the tornado demolished their house overhead," according to a statement released by the Very Rev. James Munroe, dean.

But despite their losses, the couple's concern was for helping others, added Munroe, who said he is organizing a distribution site at the cathedral for clothing and household items during the initial response efforts.


After a series of tornadoes killed nearly 300 people on April 27 and left parts of Alabama "looking like an atomic bomb exploded," the Rev. Ray Waldon, priest-in-charge at St. Peter's Church in Talladega, got creative.

St. Peter's stocked a van, borrowed from Waldon's former church, Holy Cross Church in Pensacola, Florida, in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, with "50 pounds of nails, 20 pounds of screws, tarps, night lights and other building supplies "and got it ready to go" as a mobile emergency response unit or MERU.

As volunteer efforts shift toward long-term recovery and rebuilding, the plan is to deploy the van for up to three weeks at a time to local Episcopal churches, damaged by the tornadoes, he said during a telephone interview from his Talladega office. There's already a waiting list, he added.

"We deliver the van to those who need it. When they're done with it, they return it and we restock and repack it and deliver it to the next site."

St. Peter's is "a small church but we have lots of hands," that will ultimately rebuild not only property but help restore faith, he said.

"The damage in the Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Cullman areas is unreal; you stand in the midst of it and you cannot help but weep," he said. "People ask why did God allow this to happen -- that's the question I hear the most, but natural disaster has been part of life since the world began.

"Through God we are rebuilt, repaired and redeemed," he added. "When people see Episcopalians using their hands working alongside them, they will realize the Episcopal Church stands for love and charity and godliness."

The Rev. Bill King, diocesan coordinator for disaster relief, said that while some clergy and others lost homes, "no Episcopalians have died that we know of." The diocese, in partnership with Episcopal Relief & Development, is recruiting 500 volunteers to help repair and rebuild. "We have teams on the ground in 16 communities and 13 counties. There's millions of tons of debris to clean up."

Flooding along the Mississippi
The Rev. Scott Lenoir, a coordinator for the Diocese of Mississippi's disaster relief efforts, said recently that water levels have not changed much in the month since he led a caravan of trucks to help evacuate Episcopalians in flood danger.

About 4,000 people were evacuated when massive rainstorms caused flooding along the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana. "We're moving into recovery rather than relief and starting a building program," said Lenoir, who edits the diocesan publication the Mississippi Episcopalian.

But he added that, "the water's still up. It's crested but it's going to be around until at least the end of the month, more than likely." In some cases, property was submerged in 15 feet of water, which may leave many homes damaged or even unsalvageable when the waters recede.