By Mary Woodward & Maureen Smith
TUPELO – Rebuilding and recovery efforts are well underway in several Mississippi communities after 23 tornadoes ripped across the state on Monday, April 28. Catholic Charities has set up several ways to give, including a link on its website, a gift registry at Walmart and a special collection at the parishes.
One of the hardest hit communities was Tupelo, where Father Lincoln Dall had a tree for an office mate at St. James Parish, where he serves as pastor. St. James Church along with its parish life center sits on a hill overlooking North Gloster Street where a tornado travelled devastating homes, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and just about anything in its path. The church and center sustained roof damage. All parish facilities were without power for several days.
Elquin González, who helps with Hispanic ministry at St. James lost his business and rode out the storm in his car. He described it as “the most terrible experience of my life.” González was on his way to his business, a gas station and store, when the storm struck. He was trying to get to his wife and three children who were inside.
“I was in my car and the wind pushed me off the road. I was trying to get to my store because my family was still there. I was 300, maybe 500 feet from the store.
“The wind pushed my car off the road into the hotel parking lot. I put my head down on the passenger seat and pulled the back of the seat down over my head,” he said.
“I remember hearing something like many voices – when many people are angry – like the devil’s voice. Maybe it was many things. All the metal coming down. I saw many things flying, but you could not see more than 5-10 feet and everything was a white color, not really clear,” he said. When the tornado was gone, González said he stood outside his car in the rain for a minute or two in shock before he ran to the store. He could not find his family, who had taken shelter inside the cooler in the store, and thought for a few terrible minutes that everyone had died. When interviewed later in the week of the storm he said his children still don’t want to be far from their parents, but everyone was physically fine.
Although he did not suffer any visible injuries, González said he did not sleep for days after the storm. “Every time I close my eyes it’s like a video (of the storm) plays in my head,” he explained. He also had to be treated for back pain in the days following the storm. Despite his losses, González is thankful. He and his family plan to rebuild, but know it will take time. “The most important thing is your prayers, keep us in your prayers,” he said.
González worried for the Hispanic members of his community so he called the Mexican consulate and the agency sent a representative to Tupelo to help.
“We were set to host a deanery confirmation celebration this Saturday [May 3], but we are postponing that until the end of the month or early June,” said Father Dall.
“Many of our families have lost homes and property and they need to get their lives back together,” Father Dall continued. He remarked that Oxford St. John volunteered to host the confirmation for those in other parts of the deanery who would have come to St. James. About 40 young men and women were confirmed in Oxford.
Fourteen people died in Winston County, mostly in and around Louisville, home to Sacred Heart Parish. Lay Ecclesial Minister Barbara Sturbaum said the church structure is fine, but several parish members lost their homes or suffered major damage. “I was here in the church. I got into a closet and I heard the tornado go by. When it got quiet I got out, but I heard it again so I got back in.” she said. She spent the day following the storm, checking on parishioners and surveying the damage.
Aid agencies reported within hours, including the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Knights of Columbus and Catholic Charities were there too. As so-called “second responders,” they support and continue the mission of first-responder agencies. Colby Mitchell, a student at Mississippi State in Starkville and a Louisville native, drove home Tuesday to check on family and friends and to volunteer with fellow knights at a volunteer response center, where they interviewed and screened volunteers to help place them in the best spot for their skills.
“I came in from the north and there was already damage, power lines down and debris. It was hard for me to get into town. Then I got to the south side of town and nothing was there anymore,” he described. “I went to find a friend of mine who lost his home to see if I could help and I could not even recognize a street I have passed almost every day.”
Mitchell said he and the knights expect to be on-site for about a month and while he is still stunned at the destruction, he did find hope on one ruined street. “One thing that made me happy was seeing the faith of the community of Louisville. When I went to try and find my friend even though I could not recognize the street, I found a whole group of people together, laughing and literally praising God among the rubble-filled streets,” said Mitchell. The Knights are working with a veteran-led organization called Team Rubicon which allows vets to use their military skills to assist in disaster recovery and cleanup efforts.
Catholic Charities will be operating in Warren, Lee, Issaquena and Rankin Counties for even longer. Monique Davis, director of parish based ministries for Catholic Charities, led one of several teams that went out to survey damage and assess the needs of the community. She said Catholic Charities leaves the immediate need fulfillment to national and federal agencies. Catholic Charities is there for the longer recovery. “We want to make them as whole as they were before the storm,” she explained. The agency has set up a wish list on www.walmart.com or the Catholic Charities facebook page where people can order supplies which will be delivered to a Catholic Charities distribution point. Use “help” as the first name and “ms tornado” as the second name. Catholic Charities Jackson is also accepting donations online at www.catholiccharitiesjackson.org or at its Jackson headquarters at 200 North Congress Street, Jackson, Miss, 39201. Finally, Bishop Joseph Kopacz has authorized a second collection to be taken up any time a parish can include it to benefit the Catholic Charities’ effort.
(Editor’s note: The Tupelo confirmation celebration is now set for June 1, 3 p.m.)