March 29, 2013

The 'blessing of disaster'

Year following southern Indiana storms reveals growth for communities and continued need

Members of the Catholic Charities Disaster Response Team ride a float during a March 2 parade in Henryville commemorating the one-year anniversary of southern Indiana’s tornadoes. Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville and St. Michael Parish in Charlestown, sits on the far right of the float. (Submitted photo)

Members of the Catholic Charities Disaster Response Team ride a float during a March 2 parade in Henryville commemorating the one-year anniversary of southern Indiana’s tornadoes. Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville and St. Michael Parish in Charlestown, sits on the far right of the float. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

HENRYVILLE—One year ago, Stephanie Hayen and her family were left homeless when their house—and hundreds more—was destroyed by two tornadoes that tore through southern Indiana on March 2, 2012, taking the lives of 14 Hoosiers.

“There was absolutely nothing left [of the house]. The tornadoes even sucked up part of the foundation,” she recalls.

Now, she and her family are settled in—and thrilled with—the new home that archdiocesan Catholic Charities and others helped make possible.

The Hayens are just one of hundreds of families who have recovered—or are still recovering—from the devastation. The year has been a journey of meeting basic needs, rebuilding, healing emotionally, and discovering the increased unity in the affected communities that often comes as a “blessing of disaster.”

But the journey continues. Needs that include fixing and rebuilding homes still exist. (Related: Catholic Charities still seeking help, offers disaster preparedness training)

Catholic Charities has been—and continues to be—a powerful presence through the journey.

Meeting physical needs

The tornadoes left an 85-mile trail of devastation in southern Indiana. Since that time, Catholic Charities, in conjunction with several long-term recovery groups, has helped more than 825 families in that area. The assistance has ranged from personal hygiene products to household goods, cars to construction material, furniture to fencing, skilled labor to spiritual and emotional counseling, and more.

Much of the help Hayen received came through Catholic Charities and Henryville’s long-term recovery group, March 2 Recovery (M2R). The group is a coalition of organizations that coordinates and distributes resources and funds to those in need of disaster recovery assistance in Clark, Jefferson and Washington counties. Catholic Charities has been a part of M2R since its inception.

“They helped with costs. They helped with volunteers. They helped with materials and contractors,” Hayen says with gratitude.

“With lots of help, it all came together, and we moved in the Friday before Christmas. We still need to have the house blessed. When we do, I want Sandy and Jane there.”

For Hayen, Sandy and Jane are the faces of Catholic Charities and M2R. Sandy Lafabrve volunteered as a case manager and counselor through Catholic Charities during the first several months after the disaster. Jane Crady is coordinator of Catholic Charities Disaster Preparedness and Response for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“They’re both very good friends now—almost family,” Hayen notes. “If it hadn’t been for them and March 2 Recovery, we wouldn’t be in a house now.”

Holton Long Term Recovery Group is a similar coalition in Holton, another town destroyed by the tornadoes. Catholic Charities also has played—and continues to play—a pivotal role in that recovery coalition, according to Father Shaun Whittington, pastor of the nearby parishes of St. John the Baptist in Osgood and St. Mary Magdalen in New Marion, who is also a member of the Holton Long Term Recovery Group.

“Catholic Charities is here for the long term,” Father Whittington says. “It makes me proud to see at the meetings here a year later that Catholic Charities is pretty much the main national group still helping while other agencies have been long gone.”

Healing the hurting

Buildings and houses are not the only things shattered by disasters. People need fixing, too.

Hayen and her husband, Matt, have three children. Soon after the disaster, their son showed signs of stress.

“My son, who was 5 at the time this all happened, had nightmares every night,” Hayen recalls. “He would sleep with his sister [age 6 at the time] or with us every night. Thank God, they [Catholic Charities] offered counseling.”

Enter Lafabrve, the volunteer case manager and counselor for Catholic Charities.

“She was so good with [them],” Hayen says.” She helped them adjust and now my son sleeps on his own all night. His room is in the basement of the new house, and he doesn’t go to sleep with his sister. He sleeps all by himself in the basement!”

Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville and St. Michael Parish in Charlestown, is on the steering committee of M2R. He has observed how healing is an ongoing process after a disaster.

“Everyone has a different emotional clock,” Father Schaftlein says. “Some were able to start moving forward immediately. Some aren’t able to emotionally deal with things until a year or more later.”

The ‘blessing of disaster—the healing of a community’

Amid the fixing, rebuilding and healing, both Holton and Henryville are experiencing what Crady calls the “blessing of disaster—the healing of a community.”

Father Schaftlein has witnessed this blessing in Henryville.

“As a whole, the community is more united,” he says. “People who used to not know each other, know each other now. And people who were acquaintances are now friends. There’s been a lot of growing together.

“We’ve also seen religious barriers disappear. This is not a heavy Catholic area, but people got past stereotypes. Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics—they all began to know each other and work together. Everyone has grown.”

Father Whittington agrees. “I’ve seen a lot of people come together to work as a team, especially in the Holton Long Term Recovery [Group].”

Residents also attest to this long-term “blessing of disaster.”

“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” says Hayen, “but in a way I’m glad it happened because it woke people up. People look out for each other now. It restored my faith in humanity and gave me a different perspective on life and people.”

That closeness of the community was celebrated exactly one year after the storms. On March 2, 2013, Henryville hosted a parade to celebrate their unity and the positive changes that have come out of the tragedy.

Despite the cold, the town turned out with “whatever they [could] pull together,” to enter the parade, says Father Schaftlein.

For Catholic Charities, it was a truck pulling a wagon with volunteers waving exuberantly upon bales of hay. For others, it was riding horses. Some simply walked. The parade lineup stretched from Henryville to Memphis—another town hit by the tornadoes—nearly five miles away. People lined up alongside the parade route to cheer.

It was also a day to remember and honor. In the newly built Henryville Jr./Sr. High School and Elementary School, participants observed a moment of silence at 3:10 p.m., the time the first tornado struck the town a year ago.

A more somber commemoration of the anniversary was held in Holton where a man who was seriously injured during the storms passed away only weeks ago. His death was the third from the tornadoes in the small community.

Efforts continue

The long-term recovery groups remain active, and will be through 2013 or the spring of 2014, Crady estimates.

“It’s so important to remember that a disaster is more than that day or the week or so immediately after,” Father Whittington notes. “We’re grateful for all of the past generosity, but things still need to be done.”

Father Schaftlein observes that “it takes months to pull a plan together. You don’t just start rebuilding. Some families are still living with relatives or friends. Some houses are just now being torn down. And some people just haven’t been emotionally ready to deal with things. [At the end of February,] we had five people who came to us for help for the first time.”

He estimates there are about 100 homes in the Henryville area in need of repair or replacement. And with Henryville being a rural community, the priest points out that “there are still a large number of barns and other agricultural issues that need to be addressed.”

Part of the holdup is simply a lack of volunteers with professional labor skills.

“Our volunteers have all been wonderful,” Crady says. “But we’re at the point where you can’t have just the average volunteer doing the work. They need to be done professionally by skilled volunteers. These are people’s permanent homes, so you want to make sure that certain things are done professionally, like hanging drywall, electrical wiring, plumbing and things like that.”

Lessons learned

Even as the work continues, Father Whittington cautions against complacency.

“With this anniversary being the beginning of the storm season, remember this can happen to any of us, and there are things we can do to prepare ourselves, our families, our parishes to be prepared,” he says.

“People immediately come to churches for help in sort of an old-world way. We need to be prepared and ready to respond to that. Pastors and lay leaders should look seriously at how they are going to handle it if a tornado hits or a flood—how will they function helping neighbors in need and still function as a spiritual community?”

Crady points out that one of the reasons St. Francis Xavier Parish was able to organize so quickly after the tornadoes struck is that the New Albany Deanery—the deanery in which Henryville is located—had recently received disaster preparedness and recovery training offered by Catholic Charities.

“They called me back for other trainings,” Crady says. “They put a booklet together. They took an active interest. So they knew what to expect when they got there.”

Such preparedness was not just essential to helping the communities recover—it has had the residual effect of being a silent form of evangelization.

“Both [Father Schaftlein and Father Whittington] have managed to open the eyes of the community to what Catholics do by example,” Crady says. “They have shone such a light on the goodness of the Catholic Church, that they [Catholics] help without question.”

Hayen, a non-Catholic, is proof.

“I think Father Steve is just wonderful,” she says.

She hopes he can be part of the house blessing ceremony she plans to arrange soon. She is also grateful for all the help her family has received from Catholic Charities and M2R.

“I don’t know what we would have done without them.” †

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