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Nebraska looks at long haul

Faith-based groups have pledged to be there for the long haul in Nebraska, where tornado damage stretches through 10 counties.

BY SUSAN KIM | HALLAM, Neb. | May 27, 2004


"I think the need for long-term spiritual care is very real."

—Rev. Bob Loffer


Faith-based groups have pledged to be there for the long haul in Nebraska, where tornado damage stretches through 10 counties.

Working with Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska - a 40-year-old statewide ecumenical group - national disaster response organizations, members of the state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster coalition, Church World Service and local clergy have been ironing out what will likely be the biggest long-term recovery needs.

Recovery training will be held in July as what the Rev. Bob Loffer describes as "a first step." Loffer, associate conference minister with the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ, said UCC pastors will be participating in the ecumenical training.

Denominations have been working well together since shortly after the disaster hit, he added. "I can't say enough about The Salvation Army as well as the Seventh-Day Adventists," said Loffer.

Hallam - the Nebraska town that made national news coverage when much of it was leveled by a tornado - did sustain the worst of the damage but there is damage in many other counties as well, said Loffer.

President Bush has declared four Nebraska counties disaster areas.

The American Red Cross reported that 160 homes across 10 counties have been destroyed, while 90 sustained major damage. Another 143 had minor damage.

Loffer and others are wrestling with ways to draw attention to needs outside of Hallam as well. Some 600 volunteers descended on the small town this week. "Someone from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) said that was just unmanageable," he said.

But one potential outlet for eager volunteers is picking up debris from fields. "The faith community is trying to coordinate field clearing, and trying to send some volunteers in that direction."

Alfalfa crops are ready to be mowed in about five to 10 days, said Loffer, but lingering debris in fields can ruin mowers.

There is also the challenge of helping people cope with their feelings of loss. "The need for long-term spiritual care is very real," said Loffer. "In Hallam, many people have lived there for most of their lives, and now their homes are gone. There's hardly anything left."

Loffer said he was concerned about tornado survivors who are busy with cleanup now but will begin to have emotional problems weeks or months from now. "You get through the first three to four weeks, maybe even the first three to four months, and all of a sudden that stops. What you used to have - you no longer have."

Damage to the school system will hit the community hard, he added. The area's school - which is some 14 miles from Hallam - took a direct hit. "The roof was ripped off the auditorium, and the school sustained other severe damage. The tornado also destroyed four or five school buses."

Damage is so bad that there is some question about whether school will be ready to start in the fall, said Loffer. "Kids are already bused quite a distance to school around here," he said, "and what if they have to bus them even further?"

Infrastructure damage has also mounted, he added. Officials are estimating that, so far, they have assessed some $8.5 million in damages to public property - bridges, roads, power lines. That can directly affect families, Loffer pointed out. "When you're used to climbing on that road and going for a 10- to 15-minute drive, and it becomes a 45-minute drive, that can alter your family life."

Although the Hallam Congregational United Church of Christ was destroyed, the congregation is alive and well, reported its pastor, the Rev. Daniel J. Davis, Sr. "One of the funnels came into town at and through the northwest corner of the church building, sending debris out in a swirl to the southwest," he noted. "The sheer massive size of the brick building caused the storm to lift for a moment, before setting down again. That brief dissipation of the storm saved four homes, including the home of lifelong members Emil and Barbara Vokoun - literally the only home in a community of 300 to escape damage.

The Hallam United Methodist Church was also leveled. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is in touch with disaster response representatives from the Nebraska United Methodist Conference who are assessing damages in Hallam and in surrounding areas. UMCOR is providing an emergency grant that will help meet people's immediate needs.

"For all practical purposes, Hallam is no more," concluded Davis. "Every tree in town is stripped, many more than a century old. Crews with chainsaws cut them down...only a handful of homes - from an inventory of a hundred - have survived. Laura Luckhardt's house - where she has lived for more than sixty years - is condemned after 110 years on the corner. Dave and Kyla Jensby bought, renovated, and expanded a home in town, but now they wait for the structural engineer to declare it a total loss. Ruth Luhrs sat in a recliner in what used to be her front yard, watching the emergency vehicles pass, and hoping to walk through the town to see what was left. Kelly Daugherty came home today, two days after the storm and a month after his business trip began - only to see, sit, and weep."


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