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Kansas town healing after tornado

BY SUSAN KIM | PARSONS, KS | June 19, 2000

PARSONS, KS (June 19, 2000) -- Exactly two months after a tornado struck on April 19, post-disaster trauma is hitting residents of this town hard.

"People just panic when it rains or when the wind blows too hard," said Cherri Baer, a Church World Service disaster resource consultant.

The twister was followed by stiff straight-line winds that caused even more damage. Some 800 families were affected in terms of residential damage -- but even more are suffering from emotional after-effects in a quiet town that has never experienced a disaster of that magnitude.

As people continue to repair or rebuild their homes, they're also working hard to heal emotionally, said the Rev. Kathleen Ketchell Ferris, pastor at the Faith United Methodist Church. "Driving through Parsons, and seeing that it's still torn up, and that familiar landmarks are gone is still very hard for people. Every step brings up new emotions. A lot of these people have given up, in 60 seconds, what they've worked for all their lives. And people who thought they were insured were not."

Many Parsons residents believe that a tornado would never strike their town because the bluffs surrounding it formed a natural protective barrier. "But a new highway went through that cut through one of the bluffs -- and many people believe that's why a tornado did hit," said Father Richard McCandless of St. John's Episcopal Church.

"The community has come together very well in terms of wanting to help each other," he added.

McCandless and other local clergy are members of the Tri-County Unmet Needs Committee, which is helping to coordinate recovery. At the same time the April tornado hit Parsons, twisters hit two surrounding counties as well, though Parsons was hit hardest.

Many people whose homes were leveled have discovered their homes are in

the flood plane, and must be elevated or rebuilt in another location. While

they weigh economic, family, and emotional decisions about rebuilding or

relocating, most are staying with family or friends, since rental property is

difficult to find in Parsons. "There will continue to be a need for advocacy

on behalf of these families," said Baer.

Many tornado survivors are still visiting the relief goods warehouse operated

by Adventist Community Services in coordination with the American Red

Cross. "The warehouse is full of wonderful donations," said Carol Walker,

Red Cross chapter manager. Survivors can get anything from personal

hygiene items, to children's toys, to home cleaning supplies.

Private vendors have also started to donate building supplies and appliances,

Walker added.

Local churches sustained damage as well. The Hamilton Chapel United

Methodist Church was destroyed and the 42-member congregation now meets in the Faith United Methodist Church. The congregation, which was established in 1998, has decided to rebuild, but not in the same place, since they would have to elevate the building six feet off the ground. "We met this month and made the decision not to rebuild on the same spot. So now, with help from the United Methodist Conference, we're trying to find land in a new location," said the Rev. Lewis Smith, pastor. "But meanwhile we're doing okay. Everybody's attitude is pretty good."

"There are some elderly members of our church who keep saying, 'this has

never, never happened.' But, hey, that's Mother Nature," he added. "You

have to have a positive attitude. God has blessed us. I do believe the

congregation will move and grow. The Lord didn't take us this far to have us

turn around."

Responding as churches and as a community to the tornado has been "an educational process, quite a learning experience for pastors," said Ferris, who said she invited Smith's congregation into her facility because "it seemed like a natural move to make."

For residents and disaster responders alike, decisions about recovery have become a combination of common sense and quick study. "It has basically

been a course in 'Disaster 101,' " said Baer.

The Unmet Needs Committee recently hired a volunteer coordinator and

volunteer work teams are planning to travel to Parsons this summer.

Parsons is also receiving support from its sister city of Parsons, WV. That

town -- and local churches within it -- received aid from Parsons, KS after a

flood destroyed much of the community 15 years ago. So far nearly $2,000

in funds have been donated to Parsons, KS. The Parsons, WV First United

Methodist Church alone collected more than $1,500 in donations for Parsons, KS and also plans to bring a volunteer work team to its sister city this summer.

The pace of recovery has frustrated some survivors -- but that's because

disaster recovery moves slowly, not because the community isn't organized,

said McCandless. "There is frustration about the slowness of recovery but a

real urgency in the minds of those who want to help," he said.

"Ten years from now, people who are angry that it's taking so long will be

grateful that it was done right," agreed Ferris. "But it will be a long time

before people heal emotionally."

Posted June 19, 2000

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