Churches providing tornado relief ‘in it for the long haul'
Written by Carol Pavlik
July - August 2001

Meeting by candlelight in the church basement wasn't on the agenda for the trustees of First Congregregational UCC in Brainerd, Minn., but when the emergency siren went off on the hot and humid evening of June 13, the Rev. Deborah Celley and the trustees grabbed some candles and headed for their shelter, where they concluded orders of business. Above them, a tornado twisted through the south part of the town, taking out a main power line and leaving the community without power for 26 hours.

With no radio or TV to assess the damage to the town, Celley got in her car and drove around to make sure everyone was okay. The National Guard had set up tents at the local fairgrounds, along with the Salvation Army food wagon. To everyone's relief, there had been no fatalities or serious injuries; most damage was to outbuildings rather than homes.

Just two days earlier, several tornadoes ripped through the town of Benson, Minn., 140 miles away from Brainerd. The Rev. Thomas Lewis Lammers of Pilgrim Congregational UCC, also relieved that there were no fatalities and few injuries, went to visit members of his church affected by the storm.

In both communities, church members helped clear debris from driveways. Lammers and Celley listened to amazing stories. One man watched two funnel clouds twist and turn just south of his property before realizing that a third funnel was coming right up his driveway. Another family rushed to the basement, forgetting to extinguish a candle they had burning in the living room. The storm claimed their roof, but the candle's flame continued to burn, undisturbed. Celley saw a couch setting in its original place, even though the house around it had been destroyed.

"The community has come together," says Celley. Initially, she laughs, "We were falling all over each other, trying to help!" For now, Celley and an interfaith disaster response team are getting the word out for victims of damage to report to the Federal Emergency Management System as well as their insurance companies.

The Rev. G. Forrest Hoppe, association minister for the Minnesota Conference, has visited both Benson and Brainerd to help set up interfaith disaster relief groups. Hoppe, a trained disaster response consultant for Church World Service, emphasized to both churches the importance of being involved after the piles of insurance claims have cleared.

"We tend to be in it for the long haul," says Hoppe, who says that often the wider church can be part of the long-term recovery efforts, meeting the needs that sometimes surface after the initial response has been completed.

"People's attitude is that we're okay and thankful to be alive," says Celley, who senses that the community is still in shock over what happened. "But it will be really traumatic to remember this again, next time we have a big storm."

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