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WI town draws together

BY RACHEL CLARK | LADYSMITH, Wisc. | September 4, 2002

"It was just so destructive and sudden and it was gone."

—Elaine Smith

It was 4:10 Monday afternoon when the power went out in Elaine Smith's Ladysmith, Wisc. home.

"I went outside to see what was going on, and just then a torrential rain and a humongous wind started," she said.

The heavy freezer sitting in front of her garage began to sway and she headed inside to tell her husband that a bad storm was coming.

The town's sirens sang an alarm to warn the community.

"I heard the sound of a freight train, so I stepped back into the house and said, 'Honey, it's a tornado.' "

By the time her husband reached the top of the stairs inside the house, the noise was gone.

"It was done and over that quick," Smith said. "It was just so destructive and sudden and it was gone."

But while it spent only minutes in Ladysmith, the short-lived tornado ploughed a path of destruction through the small, rural community.

"It looks like a bomb scene from some of the war movies I've seen," said the Rev. John Anderson of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. "The damage is only a few blocks wide, but it definitely goes a few miles long. The buildings in its wake were completely or heavily damaged."

Of the 4,000-resident community, about 60 lost their homes and 43 people were taken to the hospital, said the Rev. Brent Berkesch of St. John's Lutheran Church.

"Some cars are overturned, pieces of metal and wood are shoved through windshields, metal is wrapped around posts...it's pretty serious," he said. "But no one has died as a result of this. In talking to some of our members in the hospital, people have broken bones and bruises."

Susan Frederick, owner of Grandpa's Pizza and Grill, said that downtown Ladysmith suffered a lot of damage.

"The city itself is devastated," she said. "We've had three big storms come through last year. We had wind storms that took hundreds and hundreds of trees and power lines down all over the city, so I guess people are used to it. The devastation is much more with the buildings and the property damage this time, but we're used to getting hit with a storm and having to dig in and clean up."

Once the storm had passed the Smith's house, they headed to the command post at the local police station to see how they could help. Both are law-enforcement chaplains, and they worked until midnight that night helping direct volunteers.

"People would come -- dozens of them -- saying something like, 'I have a chainsaw, how can I help?'"

According to Smith, in less than an hour, the community had provided a first aid center, American Red Cross help and food relief.

"It was wonderful to see the way people were working together," she said.

In the midst of helping others, Smith's husband, who pastors the Ladysmith Baptist Church, took a break to see how well the church fared.

"He saw that it was totally gone," she said. "You could stand in the corner and look into his office basement. The floor is even gone. We haven't found a pew, hymnal, pulpit organ...we don't know where they are. They could be in another county."

The day before the tornado, the church had finished building another building.

"The wonderful part about it is that God had given us an annex building that we actually got the day before the tornado ," Smith said. "It's just across the alley from our church. I think it's big enough that we might be able to have services there."

By Tuesday morning community members were pitching in to help rebuild the town.

"Everybody's just pulling together as a team," said Frederick. "I went home today -- and I live in an area that had a lot of damage - and we have volunteers cutting trees and picking up lumber and debris; it was amazing the support we have."

In addition to local Ladysmith church and volunteer groups, The Salvation Army's emergency disaster vehicles have been driving through the affected area offering meals and counseling to residents and relief workers.

"There's a lot of devastation and people without houses," said the Rev. Darnell Curran of the Abundant Life Assembly of God in Ladysmith. "But The Salvation Army and Red Cross and people are just pulling together."

Anderson said the area is experienced at dealing with these types of disasters, but that the cleanup will take time.

"It's amazing the cleanup that's already happened," he said. "Obviously this will take time, but it's amazing the number of people who are pitching in."

Tuesday night, local clergy held an informal prayer service for members of all congregations.

"It's an informal prayer and praise time," Curran said. "As far as knowing how to fix things, for people it's hard. We know a lot of people lost their houses, but it's really drawn them close to the Lord and their faith."

Local reverends also felt that dealing with this disaster has strengthened relationships.

"It drew them together to work with each other to through denominational boundaries, to just help each other and be Christian to each other, to draw them to the church," Anderson said.

And in spite of the loss of homes and buildings, the closeness of this community is what residents feel make them survivors.

"God is good," Smith said. "The church is in wonderful shape. The building is gone, but the church is in wonderful shape."

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