At the invitation of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, we visited the area affected by the March 2, 2012 tornados, rated EF-4 (second most destructive). This storm left a swath of death and destruction approximately 49 miles long and up to a half a mile wide. Eleven people were killed and dozens more were injured. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged.
We were immediately struck by the scale of the devastation. Whole communities were destroyed. While cleanup efforts have been ongoing, debris and evidence of what were once homes, buildings, and vehicles were everywhere. Yet a robust recovery effort is already underway. Under the auspices of a long-term recovery group formed within days – March2Recovery – eight new homes are already under construction and many more are being repaired.
Using the Henryville Community Church as a base, groups of volunteers are arriving from all over the country to assist in the recovery. The diversity and interfaith spirit struck us as remarkable. There are Jewish and Muslim communities from Louisville, Kentucky, who come up every weekend to work together side by side with Christians of every persuasion. Clearly there is a need for volunteers in rebuilding, donations of money, and prayers. The Episcopal Relief & Development website is a starting place for those wanting to join the effort .
Accompanied by Kathy Copas, Coordinator for Communication and Evangelism of the Diocese of Indianapolis, we made contact with community leaders and survivors. Pastor Rich Cheek of Henryville Community Church has been a central figure right from the first moments after the event. He told us of a vision to not only replace what the people of the five affected counties had lost, but also to improve the quality of life there. Prior to the tornado, the local food bank had been serving 2,000 people a month. As in many disasters, the poor took the brunt of the damage. An estimated 40% of the people affected were uninsured and ineligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Small Business Agency (SBA) assistance.
During our visit, we met with the clergy and lay leaders of the three closest Episcopal congregations – Christ Episcopal Church in Madison, St. Paul’s Church in Jeffersonville, and St. Paul’s Church in New Albany. They immediately began efforts for relief and were quickly joined by the other 43 congregations in the Diocese of Indianapolis as well as parishes throughout the Episcopal Church.
As the recovery effort gains pace, the need for staff housing has emerged. In conjunction with Episcopal Relief & Development, the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis has applied for a grant to address this need. Initially, housing will be rented while the diocese builds a permanent structure, working with the Henryville Community Church. After the recovery effort is concluded, the permanent structure will serve the larger community as emergency housing for people needing refuge from personal calamities – fires, domestic violence, and incarceration of family members. The grant request is envisioned as a way to care for the caregivers, serve the most vulnerable, and transform the community after the recovery is achieved.
The Very Rev. Canon Michael A. Bamberger is rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre, California, and Diocesan Disaster Coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. The Ven. Russ Oechsel is Archdeacon and Diocesan Disaster Co-Coordinator of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. They serve as members of the Episcopal Relief & Development Partners in Response program.