IN finds hope after twister

South Indiana towns are rebuilding their churches - and their sense of hope.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEWBURGH, Ind. | January 9, 2006

"Having a new project to look forward to has given the congregation a lot of excitement."

—Jerusha Franz

South Indiana towns are rebuilding their churches - and their sense of hope - after a tornado ripped through in early November.

Members of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Newburgh were only a few weeks away from moving into their new building when a tornado tore through the area in early November. The twister killed several people, destroyed more than 100 homes and severely damaged FCC. "We had $6 million in damages, it blew out both ends of the building," said the Rev. Mike Claypool, senior minister of FCC.

Fortunately, he added, the damage was covered by insurance, but the new rebuild will take months to complete. The added challenge is that the congregation - some 1,200 members - had just sold the old building, leaving them with no place to worship. Yet the new owners of FCC's old space made an exception. "Obviously they want to be able to use (FCC's old building) as soon as possible, but they were gracious enough to let us stay here until the end of June," said Claypool.

In the meantime, church administrators are providing the congregation with video updates of the rebuild, something that Claypool knows provides a glimmer of hope during some bleak times. "It's been tough for everyone, so it's important to see that things are happening - that walls are being rebuilt."

Meanwhile, in a cornfield in nearby Boonville, there's an empty space where Baker's Chapel United Methodist Church (BCUMC) used to stand. The same tornado that severely damaged FCC leveled the small country church. The destruction weighed heavily on the congregation. "Some had come here since they were babies, so it's a little harder for them," said the Rev. Jerusha Franz, pastor of BCUMC.

But now the BCUMC congregation has a new project on which to focus: reconstruction. "We just bought a few more acres for some extra property, and we will rebuild in a new place," said Franz. "Having a new project to look forward to has given the congregation a lot of excitement."

Overall, both Franz and Claypool agreed that their congregations are staying fairly positive despite the destruction around them and the challenges ahead. Families in both congregations suffered severe damage to their own homes as well. Both pastors compared the emotions to the grief process and say there have been some rough spots.

"Sometimes you'll think everybody is fine, but then you have a conversation and see some sadness," explained Franz. "But grief is a process. They're ready to move on; they don't want to dwell in sadness. They're making steps toward recovery."

Claypool said his families have rebounded well so far, adding that he has worked hard to let everyone know that God can make good come out of situations. Many of the affected members of his church plan on staying in town and rebuilding their homes in the same place.

For the many other families whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged, the Long-Term Recovery Committee of Southwest Indiana (LTRCSI) is offering assistance. According to Teresa Julian, secretary of LTRCSI, 85% of the affected families had some sort of insurance. "But not all of them were fully covered, obviously," she said.

And so the LTRCSI is focusing on helping those underinsured and uninsured families. The committee recently opened an office at Epworth United Methodist Church in Newburgh, hired an office manager and trained 30 caseworkers. Julian said more than 100 families have met with the caseworkers so far.

"We've been involved in a number of cases so far," said the Rev. Randy Anderson, chair of LTRCSI. "With some cases we were able to meet their needs right away, but others will take time."

Anderson said he's been busy raising funds for the recovery and attracting new members to join the LTRCSI. The committee already has more than 30 member agencies. "It's great having so many agencies involved," said Julian. "What we want to say though is that we need everyone at the table for our meetings - even if it's a small church. To provide the help we do we need to make sure everyone's there."

Calls to help are still pouring in as well, said Julian. There are some lingering debris cleanup needs, but the rebuilding phase will move much more slowly. Because of work with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Julian said the process for homeowners is very involved and sometimes complicated.

To assist with that, LTRCSI is helping to sponsor a meeting with representatives from the Indiana state insurance commissioner's office on Tuesday. "Families can come to one of two scheduled meetings that day - it's a public meeting," explained Julian. "The state representatives will make a presentation and then meet with survivors encountering any problems with their insurance companies."

LTRSCI is also connecting survivors with mental health counselors during the recovery phase. Anderson said the damage from disaster such as this is not always visible. "The damage goes beyond structural with the houses," he said. "People are still going through the gamut. I think a lot are still numb. Some are just starting to now come out of this with a sense of direction. The cleanup went fairly quickly, but the rebuild will be slower. I think because of that people will need even more assistance."

The community spirit remains strong, however, said Franz. In fact, she said, it might be even stronger now. Neighbors helped neighbors clean up and everyone checked in on each other, she said. "I think this made everyone realize what's important - and that's the people. It causes you to treasure them more. It sparks human compassion."

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