August 25, 2014

Tornado Survivors Describe "Bittersweet" Experience of Loss, Recovery With CWS Help

On August 16, 2014, the Massac and Pope County Recovery Committee dedicated the first three new homes it built for survivors of a November 2013 tornado. Young tornado survivors Levi and Shelby Wetherington prepare to cut the ribbon at the dedication of their new home in Brookport, Ill. Behind them (left to right): Eddie Osburn, construction supervisor; their father Lee Wetherington; Jeff Bealmer, volunteer coordinator and pastor of Metropolis First United Methodist Church, and Joe Benberry, construction coordinator, secretary of MPCRC and pastor of Mt. Horeb Church in Metropolis. Photo: Lynn Lech

At first, it looked like the storm would go around Brookport, Ill.  But when the thunder and lightning came close and the wind picked up suddenly, Clark Blasdel took shelter in the laundry room of his mobile home.  “I lay down and put the recliner on top of me,” he recounted.  “The tornado hit within seconds.  It took the back half off my trailer.  Within 15 seconds, it was over."

Across town, Lee Wetherington stayed outside watching the storm until the rain started coming down in sheets.  “I rushed my 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to shelter in the bathroom while I fought to get the front door shut.  I heard glass shatter.  All of a sudden, it was done.”

Wetherington could see right away that the back half of his roof was gone.  Only later did he learn that “the tornado had shifted the house on its foundation and buckled the walls.”  His house was lost.

For their part, Marcina and Raymond Warfield, who live outside of Brookport, were at a daughter’s home in Paducah, Ky., for Sunday dinner when the tornado pushed their house off its foundation and sent a tree smashing through a bedroom window. 

It was mid-afternoon Sunday, November 17, 2013.  The tornado cut a 250-foot-wide path through this southern Illinois city of just under 1,000, killing four people and damaging or destroying between 80 and 90 homes, including about 50 mobile homes.  It was part of one of the largest tornado outbreaks in eight years, affecting seven Midwestern and Southern states.

Among the first responders following a disaster are the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency.  As they went about their work in Brookport, they proposed that the local community invite Church World Service to come share its expertise in disaster long-term recovery.

CWS Emergency Response Specialist Susanne Gilmore of Manhattan, Kansas, came in February to meet with newly formed long-term recovery groups in Brookport and nearby Gifford, also with about 1,000 residents and between 80 and 90 lost or damaged homes.

Then in March, Gilmore and other disaster recovery experts from CWS and several of its member denominations and organizations conducted “Long-Term Recovery Tools” workshops in the two cities.  The local recovery groups also got disaster case management training from the American Red Cross and United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“We took the training and ran with it,” said Lynn Lech, a disaster caseworker with the Massac and Pope County Recovery Committee who lives just across the Ohio River from Brookport, in Paducah, Ky.  “When Susanne came, we had no money at all, but we had faith we were going to get it.  Indeed, it seems that every time we need something it drops into our hands!”

November 2013 tornado survivors Raymond Warfield, grandson Marshawn Warfield and Marcina Warfield of Massac County, Ill., listen as the David LeNeave, chairman of the Massac and Pope County Recovery Committee, addresses the ceremony dedicating the family's new home. Theirs was one of three such homes dedicated August 16, 2014. Photo: Lynn Lech

The committee raised $240,000 from McCormick and $50,000 from the Illinois Great Rivers United Methodist Conference, among other grants and donations.  Committee members – six ministers along with assorted other community leaders – talked with tornado survivors about how they were feeling and what they needed.

The recovery committee opened 147 cases, resolving 50 of them early on. It plans to build at least 23 new homes – more if it raises enough money.  The Rev. Jeff Bealmer, pastor of the Metropolis (Ill.) First United Methodist Church, took on the task of volunteer coordination, and several area churches are hosting volunteers. 

Seven homes are in various stages of construction and three homes, complete but for a few finishing touches, were dedicated Saturday, August 16.  Their happy new owners include Clark Blasdel, 49, a truck driver by profession; Lee Wetherington, 39, who does environmental cleanup and remediation work, and the Warfields: Raymond is retired and Marcina works part time.  Of their offspring, a daughter and her 13-year-old son live with them. 

Wetherington said he was just about to purchase a mobile home with his FEMA money, when his mother told him about the recovery committee’s plan to build homes.  She attends Mt. Sterling Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Brookport, whose pastor is the Rev. David LaNeave, chairman of the recovery committee.

“It’s a godsend to have the house,” Wetherington said.  “I couldn’t have done it on my own.”

Marcina Warfield said that when the recovery committee first told her and her husband they would try to build them a new home, “we kind of ignored them!  We didn’t think it would be a nice house like it is.  But later we met with them and they told us all about it.

“It means the world,” she said.  “God has really blessed us.  Something that was terrible turned out to be a gift from God.  The volunteers are just wonderful, coming from everywhere to build our house.  The recovery committee members are such down-to-earth people.  We are so thankful for all the people who have helped us.  They didn’t have to do that!”

Blasdel said he was cleaning his mangled residence when the Rev. David Siere of the Brookport First Baptist Church and another Brookport pastor – both recovery committee members – walked up and asked whether he needed anything. 

He described the experience of the past 10 months as “bittersweet.  The home I lost was paid for and just the way I wanted it.  I lost everything, then got it all back and then some!  I am blessed living through the tornado for starters, and then these good people from the churches came and took things in their hands and carried me right through the tragedy and put me back together.”

CWS’s Susanne Gilmore told the recovery committee’s Lynn Lech that she was thrilled to get the news of three families’ homes completed through the Massac and Pope County Recovery Committee being dedicated. 

 “I had no doubt immediately after our training, said Gilmore, “that you would be able to support your community in such a great way.”

Editor's notes:

Link to WPSD-TV report.

Lynn Lech is a member of Lone Oaks United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky.  In addition to Pastors Bealmer, Siere and LaNeuve, clergy members of the recovery committee include the Rev. Joe Benberry, pastor of Mt. Horeb Church in Metropolis; the Rev. Larry Call, pastor of Brookport First Christian Church; the Rev. Ed Hoke, pastor of Goreville and Creal Springs, Ill., United Methodist Churches, and the Rev. Bob Craig, retired after serving Brookport First Baptist Church as pastor.  Hosting volunteers are the Brookport First Christian Church, Metropolis United Methodist Church, Mt. Sterling Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and Broadway United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky.