By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
March 6 – 7 was a dark and stormy night, with thunderstorms, hail and tornados leaving paths of damage and destruction in Smithville, Oak Grove and surrounding communities. As the sirens’ wails subsided, residents ventured out to survey the damage wreaked on their homes, businesses and lives. Many were in shock. The National Weather Service categorized the Smithville tornado as an EF2 (wind speed 111-135 mph) and the one in Oak Grove as an EF3 (top wind speed was clocked at 152 mph). That same storm produced EF1 (86 – 110 mph) tornados that struck Carrollton and Lee’s Summit , as well as a Leawood, Kan., neighborhood.
It was almost as if the storms hopscotched across Smithville, touching one neighborhood lightly and doing serious damage to one mere yards away. The Church of the Good Shepherd on Hwy. 169 N was barely touched — an air conditioning unit was moved on its pad, with little or no damage to the church building itself. Barely 400-yards northwest of Good Shepherd, half of a barn’s roof was blown away, leaving that half of the barn at least, unusable. The steeple of a church down the road was sheared off and the sign on the lawn toppled into rubble. Several neighborhoods sustained varying degrees of roof and siding damage with several homes appearing to be total losses. The tornado’s path can still be followed by the broken and bent tree lines.
In Oak Grove, the tornado angled across the community, tugging off several loose roof shingles on one home, and tearing the roof off a house across the street. In a subdivision just blocks from St. Jude the Apostle Church, several homes were destroyed; some sustained moderate damage to siding, roofs and windows; still others appeared untouched. As elsewhere, the tornados path is still obvious in the lines of broken and bent trees.
Fortunately, no deaths or serious injuries were reported from the tornados in the six counties affected — Clay, Clinton, Ray, Carroll, Jackson and Lafayette. But more than 500 households in the area were affected by the storms. Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, along with the American Red Cross, were on the front lines, comforting, assessing immediate needs and aiding survivors.
Father Matthew Brumleve, pastor of St. Jude’s, said the first responders — fire departments, city, county and state police, and EMTs arrived very soon after, going house to house, asking after residents and did anyone need help? “The police blocked off the neighborhoods,” he recalled, “allowing only residents with IDs or visitors with resident approvals to enter. That way there was little or no looting. One person was caught looting and was removed from the area. The police said they wanted to keep tornado survivors from being victimized a second time.”
Christie Dade, Catholic Charities Volunteer Coordinator and Long-Term Recovery Team representative, said the first assistance given to survivors by the agency was in the form of Wal-Mart gift cards, enabling them to purchase necessities like clean socks, underwear and food. Affected residents found places to stay with friends, family or, with assistance from the Red Cross, lodging in hotels and motels.
Temporary housing was vitally important, she continued. “Life safety issues are the first considerations after a tornado, flood or other natural disaster during the first two weeks or so. Having a safe place to stay is a life safety issue,” she said, “and in Smithville, Oak Grove and surrounding communities, those criteria have been met —everyone has housing!”
Smithville and Oak Grove area churches — Church of the Good Shepherd; United Methodist, First Baptist, Landmark Baptist and First Christian churches; Community of Christ; Grace Community Church; all in Smithville; St. Jude the Apostle, Faith in Christ Fellowship; First Baptist, Grace Baptist, and New Liberty Baptist churches; Ministerial Alliance; Faith Community Church; New Life Church; Oak Grove Christian Church; Oak Grove Church of Christ and Oak Grove United Methodist Church are working together within their communities to help people back on their feet, and homes repaired, rebuilt or new housing found.
Several area Catholic parishes also reached out to help — St. Mary’s, Higginsville; St. Mary’s, Carrollton; Immaculate Heart of Mary, Princeton and St. Patrick’s, Holden, offered pastoral care; provided cleanup volunteers, water, food and coffee for volunteers as well as furniture, clothing and financial contributions to fill both immediate and longer-term survivor needs. St. Patrick’s, Holden and St. Mary’s, Higginsville also took second collections the weekend following the tornados and sent the contributions directly to St. Jude’s Parish to help with emergency needs.
Father Brumleve and Brenda Boss, the parish’s business manager, both praised public-school districts in surrounding communities, especially Odessa, a “huge sports rival of Oak Grove’s. On ‘Oak Grove Strong Day,’ high school students from Odessa and other nearby towns paid to wear orange, Oak Grove’s color, to school. All proceeds went to the tornado-affected community.”
Good Shepherd Church hosted Multi-Agency Resource Center meetings in Smithville, coordinated by Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the United Way. In Oak Grove, because more than 483 residents were affected by the tornado, the MARC was a two-day event held at a Baptist Church Youth Center near the downtown.
Dade praised Good Shepherd Church for hosting the Smithville MARC meetings. “That was huge,” she said. “Survivors spoke with personnel from collaborating agencies, got assistance in filing claims, registered with Disaster Case Management so they could meet with case managers and work out personalized recovery plans, and received emergency financial assistance, if needed. With pooled resources, and well-documented case-by-case management, long-term recovery can be accomplished.”
Affected Oak Grove area residents quickly regrouped and began collaborating, cooperating and working together to clean up and begin recovery. Christie Dade said that in many communities, recovery can take 6 – 8 weeks to begin, and sometimes longer, but the first signs of recovery were visible in Oak Grove within 8 days!
Aren Koenig, Disaster Resiliency Director for Catholic Charities of Missouri and Kansas, described MARC as “a one-stop shop for the tornado survivors in Smithville and Oak Grove. MARC walks survivors through the processes so they can begin recovering as soon as possible.” She designed and will direct a grant-funded disaster preparedness program for Catholic Charities in both states.
With the approval of Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., a second collection was taken last month in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for Catholic Charities’ tornado recovery efforts. Dade said that it was heartening to see people all over the diocese wanting to help. Funds contributed through the second collection are temporarily restricted for long-term recovery efforts, she said. Properly managed, survivors will be helped with both immediate and long-term needs, including utilities, mortgages and rents. All expenditures will be tracked to prevent duplication of benefits. “Recovery is not a warm-fuzzy,” she said. “Recovery is people getting back to where they were before the tornados.”
She explained that the second collection will go a long way to helping the underinsured in rural communities.
The contributions will help the six-county affected area. Several subdivisions lie on county lines — a Clinton County subdivision has Smithville (primarily Clay County) addresses, and children attend Smithville schools, but Clay County cannot help those families as the subdivision is in Clinton County. There’s a similar situation on the Jackson-Lafayette county line near Oak Grove. Catholic Charities is not bound by county lines, however, but by diocesan boundaries. “We can help survivors in all six counties. It’s going to go a long way to help the underinsured in rural areas,” she added.
Catholic Charities USA gave Catholic Charites of Kansas City-St. Joseph a $10,000 grant to help meet immediate emergency needs. The funds are being used to help with rent and deposits, mortgage payments for those who fell behind and utilities. As the grant is for immediate needs, all will be expended before long-term recovery kicks in.
As clean-up efforts began, so did the processes of filing insurance claims, searching for and salvaging personal treasures and furnishings, and waiting. Father Terry Finnell, pastor of Good Shepherd, said, “It was a shocker, a disorienting experience! ‘What do I do now? How can this parish help our community?’ It’s a learning process, full of on-going concerns, like insurance … what’s covered, what’s not. Smithville was lucky in one respect. About 90 percent of the residents here have homeowner’s insurance, but not necessarily replacement cost insurance. And that’s another headache. There are instances where homeowner’s insurance pays off the mortgage, so the damaged or destroyed house is paid for, but there’s little or nothing for replacement housing. Deductibles can also create financial challenges. There was a lot of hail with the thunderstorm that went through before the tornado. It was all part of the disaster. We have about seven parish families affected by the tornado. Things will unfold as time goes on; at face value, things are being taken care of, but sometimes homes sustain damage that shows up later, for example an insignificant-appearing move off the foundations, can cause big problems later on.”
Father Finnell, Dade and Steve Hilliard, Catholic Charities Foundation Director, all agreed that multi-agency collaboration and the willingness of neighbors to help neighbors, helps protect human dignity.
Neighborhood volunteers in both Smithville and Oak Grove dug out, dug up and removed broken tree branches, hauled off debris and generally cleaned up the mess left by the tornados; in Oak Grove, St. Jude the Apostle parishioners cooked meals on a camp stove for the responders and volunteers until power was restored. A church group from Louisburg, Kansas brought food for volunteers. Folks willingly went above and beyond to clean up, care for and care about their neighbors, helping keep affected residents upbeat and resilient.
Father Brumleve recalled speaking to affected people the day after the tornado. “The police response overwhelmed many of them, he said. You want to know that your home, your belongings, you are secure, but you can’t really know it until something like a tornado happens. Interiorly, our Catholic community is the same way. Bishop Johnston called me the very next day, asking about the people, the parish and the town. ‘We’re praying for you, glad you’re OK,’ he said.”
Father Brumleve continued, “We were all affected by the tornado, so we can be generous to those who have the most damage and are hurting. It’s the call to be compassionate. And you know, the whole thing was tragic, but a great community builder!”
Dade said, “I am continually amazed by the resiliency and positivity of Midwesterners.” She recounted meeting a 90-year old Oak Grove resident, whose home was all but destroyed. The woman was alone in the house when the tornado struck, so she hid in an interior bathroom until all was quiet. When she peeked out, she saw the front half of her home was gone.
“I asked if she was OK,” Dade said. “She insisted she was fine. Her son, who lives with her, is safe, and so all is well. I said, ‘Really?! Your home is half gone! You’ve lost so much.’ She smiled and said, ‘I’ve always wanted an open-floor plan!’”
Father Finnell reflected that he watched agency personnel, parishioners and area residents put things spoken about in Scripture into action as people become the hands and feet of Christ. “Until something like this happens, you don’t know how much good there is in folks. I’m realizing it now!”
Contributions to help long-term recovery efforts are still being accepted. To contribute, contact Catholic Charities (816) 221-4377 or online at catholiccharities-kcsj.org.