March 9, 2012

Archdiocesan Catholics prepare to give long-term aid to tornado victims

Volunteers sort donated relief items stored in the basement of St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 3. Since the church came through the March 2 tornado that ripped through the town relatively unscathed, it quickly became a center for the collection and distribution of food, clothing, blankets and other items to people affected by the storm. Within hours, the basement was filled with donations and some had to be stored in the church's worship space. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Volunteers sort donated relief items stored in the basement of St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 3. Since the church came through the March 2 tornado that ripped through the town relatively unscathed, it quickly became a center for the collection and distribution of food, clothing, blankets and other items to people affected by the storm. Within hours, the basement was filled with donations and some had to be stored in the church's worship space. (Photo by Sean Gallagher) Click for a larger version.

By Sean Gallagher

NEW ALBANY—Tammy Becht and her family sought shelter in the basement of their Floyd County home on March 2 when tornadoes ravaged small towns across southern Indiana.

About an hour later, she began seeing the devastation through live TV reports from the affected towns.

"I realized that we were dealing with a massive amount of destruction," said Becht, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, during a March 4 telephone interview with The Criterion. "And that meant that people were going to want to respond."

Becht soon sent a message through the Internet social networking website Facebook to her pastor, Father Eric Augenstein.

Becht was ready to help in large part because of her experience more than five years ago in leading four relief trips to the Gulf Coast during the months immediately after Hurricane Katrina ravaged that region.

"[Helping after Katrina] impacted me in so many ways," she said. "I realized how much power we have as a faith community to be able to reach out to other people. It doesn't matter if they're in our backyard or not. If we feel called to help in some way, then God is going to enable us to be able to do something with it if we're faithful to it."

Approximately 50 Catholics across the New Albany Deanery felt that call and attended a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish some 18 hours after the tornadoes to begin organizing relief efforts.

(Related: Members of Henryville parish spared by tornado are reaching out to help | Photo Gallery | Find out how you can help the victims)

"This is what a Catholic community is all about, the support for one another," said Father Augenstein after the meeting. "It is always heartwarming. But it's not surprising to see the support that we have from the community to reach out to those in the greatest need. I know that our people always band together."

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, echoed Father Augenstein's sentiments.

"The thoughts, prayers and helping hands of the people of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis go out to all the victims of Friday's tornadoes in southern Indiana, especially to the families of those killed in the storms," Bishop Coyne said in a statement. "Catholic Charities is ready to respond with immediate aid, and we will work with the local Catholic communities and other aid agencies to coordinate future efforts to repair and rebuild homes and businesses."

Jane Crady, coordinator of disaster preparedness and response for Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, has visited various places in southern Indiana that experienced tornado damage, and began the process of organizing relief efforts in the region.

So far, she has been impressed by the amount of people who have contacted her to show their willingness to help.

"It's been overwhelming already," Crady said. "I've received e-mails from hundreds of people saying, 'What can I do?,' 'Everybody has been in our prayers,' 'When do you need me? Let me know.' "

Over the past two years, Crady has helped train disaster response teams in a number of parishes across central and southern Indiana. Their response to the relief efforts in the wake of the tornadoes that struck the state on March 2 is the first chance to see them in action in a situation marked by significant and widespread need.

"It's their first big test," Crady said. "Hopefully, several of them will be up and running and respond to this. New Albany has really stepped forward."

Many of the Catholics from across that deanery who attended the meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish did so after learning about it on Facebook.

Father Augenstein was amazed by how effective the social networking website was in getting the relief effort off the ground.

"Social media can be used for so much great communication these days," he said. "It can be used well to mobilize people. If we, as a Church, can take advantage of that to be able to bring people together, that will really harness the power of social media."

That power wasn't available to Becht after Hurricane Katrina. But she is glad that it is there now.

"It's cut the response time as far as organizing people and getting the word out just enormously," she said. "We're able to organize people more quickly, get the word out faster.

"People all have access to the same information. Instead of it working by word of mouth, people can go and access the information for themselves."

Although the response to provide help to those people affected by the tornadoes has been significant, sustaining that outreach over the course of several months will be vital, according to Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville, a town severely affected by a tornado.

"Many people come in immediately, but the long haul is where the full rebirth will happen here," he said.

Crady is well aware of the need for long-term relief aid after having, like Becht, worked in relief efforts after Katrina.

Because of that experience, she is aware of the particular challenges that come with working with families affected by disasters.

"In the long term, families often get lost as these disasters start to progress," she said. "They find that they have an aunt or an uncle, say, in Indianapolis that they can go and live with. And then we lose track of them until the last minute when it's time to fix their houses. That's why it's important to stay in touch during all of this."

In addition to material aid, Crady is starting to arrange for mental health services provided by staff members of Catholic Charities in Bloomington, Indianapolis and New Albany for people affected by the tornadoes.

She also expects herself and other Catholic Charities volunteers to help families and businesses work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration in the months to come.

For the present, some families in the archdiocese are dealing with tragic and immediate needs.

Philip Kahn, president of Prince of Peace Schools in Madison, said the husband of a teacher at Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School died as a result of the storm. Two other teachers at the school lost their homes.

Joan Hurley, president of Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville, reported via e-mail that two families with children enrolled at the school lost their homes.

Sean Payne, coach of Our Lady of Providence's softball team, is leading his players in collecting items for the relief effort.

"It really hit me hard yesterday," said Payne after the March 3 meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. "My heart really hurt. I sat there, and was watching and thinking, 'These are the roads that I travel on.' "

A member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood also lost her home, according to Father Shaun Whittington, pastor of the Batesville Deanery faith community.

He also said that the parish is seeking to help return to Mexico the remains of a Mexican man who was visiting the area and was killed by a tornado in nearby Holton.

Catholics from across the archdiocese coming together to help those in need was a point of pride for Becht.

"I feel like our Catholic community is so blessed," she said. "We have an obligation to give back. We have so many resources within each parish. It's also a great opportunity to have the extended Catholic community come together and help." †

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