04 April 2024

Life after a tornado (Pam Ferguson, Winchester Friends Meeting)

When we heard about the March 14 tornado that ripped through Winchester, Indiana, we instantly recalled the last Randolph County tornado of equivalent destructive power—the March 10, 1986, tornado that, among other things, heavily damaged Peaceful Valley Friends' meetinghouse. On that day in 1986 we were at home in Richmond, Indiana, sitting in our basement until the tornado warnings were over.

Ron and Pam Ferguson
Pam and Ron Ferguson have just celebrated 25 years as pastors of Winchester Friends Meeting. When I saw Pam's report yesterday on the aftermath of the recent tornado, I asked whether I could post it here. Pam said "yes" and explained: "We have so many people who are asking about helping here and I told them I would keep them updated and thus the report."

Life after a tornado –

It has been almost 20 days since a tornado hit Winchester, Indiana and it is time for an update. We have been overwhelmed by the goodness, kindness, generosity, and care so many have heaped on this community. Disasters like this make good people visible and they’ve touched many lives and have made a difference for many. The best of “community” has been alive and well.

The first thing I noticed on the day after the tornado was how comforting it was for friends and family members to show up at the homes of their family members to sort through the rubble, to help patch roofs or cut down damaged trees. In those moments of shock – being surrounded by family and friends was essential and brought much comfort in the midst of loss. There were many strangers who entered our community to help with cleanup and that was a gift also, but that piece of the response quickly became overwhelming.

National organizations responded quickly: Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, Mercy Chefs, Salvation Army, and many church relief organizations. They left after about two weeks and we are now on our own as a community to organize and launch a long-term recovery response. The county has about 400 buildings damaged or destroyed by the tornado, 147 houses were damaged and I’ve heard the number of 22 homes totally destroyed. We know this recovery will be years and not weeks and months. The city is trying to not lose people from this community, but it will be a difficult thing in a place where housing was already scarce.

The tornado destroyed one of our two nursing homes and this week they announced they will not rebuild and have let all their employees go. The tornado badly damaged our assisted living center and about 26 condos around the main building. Thirty of the assisted living people are staying in a local hotel and it looks like they will be there for the next six months while their building is rebuilt. A handful of condos look like they are unoccupied and almost all have damage. Many of those people are in a local hotel also. We had three churches destroyed and two are now just concrete foundations. Several small businesses were destroyed: a hair salon, Japanese Restaurant, Verizon store, Goodwill, Taco Bell, and a feed store. Walmart, our only grocery store, had damage and was closed for about 3 days. They are up and running now, but without heat. Two cemeteries were badly damaged and thousands of trees throughout the county were uprooted or broken off.

Our faith community had 15 people directly impacted from the tornado with damage to homes. This includes two women in assisted living who are now residents of the hotel. Only one lost his home completely, but others have repairs needed that range from $5,000 to over $100,000. Three had cars totaled. Insurance is coming through for many, but some are discovering they were underinsured or they are having to push adjustors to really look at roofs they know are damaged. It is a long, slow process to work through the damage of a tornado.

Our meeting is prepared to help not only our members but others in the community as soon as we begin identifying who and what is slipping through the cracks. We are waiting on word for what FEMA and the Small Business Administration will be able to do. Many have already generously sent money to us or the meeting and we had money set aside for disasters such as this. In the past, we’ve given $1,000 to other churches who’ve had roof damage and had repairs or rebuilds and we will probably do the same for the rebuilding for each of the three churches lost in the tornado.

The community is literally buried in material aid. We were asked if the pantry could use some of the donated non-perishable food and we said yes. They wanted to bring 23 pallets (as in 5x6 foot pallets stacked high with food) to our already full pantry. We have room for maybe 2 pallets. They agreed to store what they have until we need it. The churches in Richmond and one at Liberty as well as the Richmond Food Pantry brought our pantry milk, eggs and fresh food when Walmart was closed and that helped greatly. Many of the neighbors who use the pantry do not have resources or are too elderly to travel out of town to get fresh food. For over ten years the pantry goes to Walmart three days each week to pick up food they donate to the pantry. We usually get about 300-500 pounds of meat each month among other items. Since the tornado and their reopening, either they’ve ordered too much or no one is shopping at the store and we’ve received over 2,500 pounds of frozen meat such as ground beef and chicken. If this keeps up, we may have to find other pantries to share some of the food as I can’t give it away fast enough.

To top this off, next Monday Winchester is in the path of the eclipse and is smack in the middle of totality. Hotels are booked and many families are traveling from across the US to be with their Winchester relatives for this eclipse experience. Most of us are completely overwhelmed at what has happened this past month and wonder how to survive another onslaught of visitors into our county. But we will and we pray for the gifts of grace, patience, and hospitality during the eclipse. And we pray for wisdom to know how best to participate in the long-term recovery of our community. We are thankful for this faith community who is active and responsive to the whole community as we learn to live life here after a tornado.

— Pam Ferguson, April 3, 2024

Before moving to Indiana, Pam and Ron spent nine years in South Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya with the Mennonite Central Committee doing development and peace work. Many thanks to Travis Etling of First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, who originally forwarded Pam's report to me.

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