Many stunned residents across the South are thankful to be alive after the terrible force of one of the deadliest tornado clusters in U.S. history ripped through the region in late April; others are mourning their dead and overwhelmed with the massive cleanup and rebuilding tasks ahead. More than 340 deaths in seven states have already been attributed to the tornado outbreak; many more people are injured or missing.
In Alabama, where at least 250 people died, Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker visited some of the devastated areas, including Tuscaloosa, perhaps hardest hit of all.
On his tour, Bishop Baker heard heartbreaking stories from Catholics who lost their homes, businesses and loved ones. One family he spoke with survived by huddling in their bathroom, reciting Hail Marys, but had family members next door who were killed.
Bishop Baker said he wants to send the message out to his flock that “we’re here for you.” He has directed all Catholic social service agencies and parishes in the area to serve as assistance centers, offering ice, water, hygiene products, non-perishable food and other necessities to people who lost their homes.
Bringing light to darkness
Diocesan officials in Birmingham are aware of at least several Catholic families who lost loved ones, and are still trying to get a handle on exactly how many parishioners were directly impacted by the tornadoes.
Bishop Baker is confident that Alabama residents “will pick up and move on.” While some areas remained without electricity, Bishop Baker called on the people of the Diocese of Birmingham to be the light of Christ at this time. “The Church will bring light to the people,” he said.
Diocesan institutions, miraculously, were spared from serious damage. Even St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Ala., which was almost directly in the path of a tornado, escaped unscathed when a funnel cloud passed between the abbey and nearby Sacred Heart Monastery. Some large trees were downed, power and cell phone service was out for days, but it could have been much worse. “We were so fortunate to be a stone’s throw from disaster,” said Bishop Baker.
The tornadoes have not shaken the faith of those in the heavily damaged areas, but rather, the disaster has brought together people of all faiths. “People are coming together, praying for each other, doing whatever they can to help,” said Sally Crockett, managing editor of One Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Birmingham.
Churches that were destroyed by the tornado held Sunday services outside under tents and are continuing to use their sites as donation drop-off points.
“People are grateful to be alive, because there were so many deaths,” said Crockett, who, like many of her fellow Alabama residents, expected the death toll to continue rising.
Spirit of assistance
Those who escaped the storm unharmed wasted no time getting to work, trying to restore some semblance of order. While there were some reports of looting, overall, the response was “amazing,” White said. “People appeared out of nowhere to help,” cleaning up debris and handing out food and water, even offering generators to those without power.
Tuscaloosa, best known as the home to the University of Alabama and its legendary football team, is slowly picking up the pieces, thanks to an incredible spirit of volunteerism encircling the town of 85,000.
Will Rotert, a senior at the University of Alabama and a member of the campus’ St. Francis of Assisi Catholic community, was one those students. Rotert and some friends drove around with their chainsaw to some of the hardest-hit areas, offering to help. “We just did whatever people needed,” he said.
The campus, including the crown jewel of the University of Alabama, the Crimson Tide’s Bryant-Denny football stadium, was spared major damage. In fact, the storms destroyed the city’s emergency management center, so the stadium was turned into a makeshift one.
Volunteers from states near and far have been in the area, and Bishop Baker said he appreciated the prayers and offers of assistance from neighboring bishops and dioceses. Even Pope Benedict XVI sent a message of condolence and solidarity, which was “a source of great consolation,” Bishop Baker said.
Catholic Charities USA and its agencies are providing disaster relief in the affected states of Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.
“Quite tragically, the severity of this spring tornado and storm season has taken lives and created destruction in unheard of proportions,” said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.
Passionist Father Alex Steinmiller, president of Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham, was amazed that his campus, home of the Holy Family Tornadoes athletic teams, was spared major damage. The funnel clouds swerved around Holy Family, leaving only debris strewn about the property, but no structural damage.
Teachers and students did have homes badly damaged in the storm, and school administrators quickly responded by taking up clothing and monetary donations. “These youngsters are used to adversity,” Father Steinmiller said. “They’ve lived through many issues in their families, and I think they’re going to be all right.”
Holy Family, like other schools in the nationwide Cristo Rey network, serves impoverished inner-city youth. The 166 students at Holy Family attend high school classes four days a week and work at jobs around town one day a week to pay for their tuition.
Most businesses and schools in Birmingham and the surrounding areas were closed for several days after the storm, but Holy Family reopened as soon as possible. The students “are glad to get back in the rhythm,” Father Steinmiller said. “It helps with the recovery, and helps them feel safe and secure.”
The day that students returned to campus, school administrators planned a special ceremony to offer prayers for students directly affected by the storms. Those who suffered damage to their homes stood in the middle of a large circle of fellow students who “asked for God’s protection where there is bewilderment and disillusionment,” Father Steinmiller said.
“God doesn’t control the environment,” Father Steinmiller tells his students, he doesn’t cause tornadoes like these, but he is part of the healing process. “The response starts within them — that’s where God is.”
Theresa Laurence writes from Tennessee.
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