Catholic community responds to loss of life, extensive damage following tornado in Perryville

"We had a tough night," Doug Dunker said in assessing a devastating tornado that left several homes and some businesses in his community in rubble and others with extensive damage Feb. 28.

Dunker, a volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Perryville, spent the next morning visiting families from the parish affected by the disaster. He had started the day at the society's thrift store, which had opened to donate items to anyone affected by the twister.

Staff at the parish compiled names of affected parishioners so pastor Father Milton Ryan, CM, could check on them later. He prayed for them March 1 at several Ash Wednesday Masses.

Father Ryan, a Vincentian priest, spent about three hours with the family of Travis Koenig, who died from injuries sustained from the tornado. Koenig, 24, was ejected from his car, which was on I-55 at the time of the storm.

Koenig, a former football player at St. Vincent de Paul High School, was described by Father Ryan as "having light coming out of him." His family told the priest it's been hard to be empathetic toward those who have lost material things.

"Maybe Travis' ministry to us is to take assessment of what's important," Father Ryan said.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson released a statement, noting that he has been praying for those affected by the storm, and especially those grieving the loss of life.

"The livelihood of many people will be dramatically impacted for the foreseeable future," he stated. "The people of Perry County and the surrounding area need our help and support. Catholic Charities of St. Louis and our parishes in the area are currently assessing damage and coordinating a disaster relief assistance effort. We will work closely with all agencies and authorities in the coming days, weeks and months to help restore lives and livelihoods." The Archbishop's Charity Fund also has designated $10,000 to St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

Mary and Jerry Fulton hosted some visitors in their home the evening of the tornado. When the severe storm appeared imminent, the visitors left. About 15 minutes later, Jerry saw a flash of ominous-looking green light and then saw a funnel cloud.

"My God, we have to get in the basement," he recalled telling Mary. She quickly prayed an "Our Father" and was halfway through a "Hail Mary" when the tornado was over.

Standing on his driveway the day after, Jerry Fulton talked with fellow parishioner Dunker while awaiting an insurance adjuster. "I heard it coming. It was just roaring like a freight train," Jerry said. "Thank God the wife and I are safe."

Not so good news about his business and house, however. Fulton Windows and Siding operates out of a metal building about 40 yards from their home. It is no longer a building. Trucks and equipment were destroyed, as well as materials that were scattered along a wide expanse of land on the property and even further. One piece of equipment that was tossed was 7,000 pounds.

"There's a ladder," Jerry Fulton said. "It's everywhere."

The Fultons' home is behind Moore Drive, part of a subdivision outside Perryville that took the brunt of the force of the tornado. The Fultons had friends and family stop by to offer help, and Dunker suggested they come to the thrift store for anything they might need. Part of the roof was askew after having been lifted by the wind. Windows were shattered, glass was everywhere and some walls were torn up, among other damage. A crucifix remained in place over the bed in the master bedroom and a statue of Mary outside was tilted a bit but in one piece.

Representatives of two businesses had stopped by to drop off tarps and water. Jerry Fulton said he's in the right place because "you're not going to find a better community than Perryville." Standing in the kitchen where among other damage the light and fan over the table was bent in a L shape, Mary Fulton said she was concerned because they are unable to help others affected by the disaster. "Right now, we can't help ourselves," she said.

Across the road, the Schroeder family's shed was flattened and the roof was missing from their home. Paul Schroeder, a volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, stood among about a dozen people helping salvage items and discard debris. He and his wife, Diane, had just started down the steps to the basement when the tornado hit. It was over before they reached the basement floor.

Both were shell-shocked. Paul Schroeder made light of the situation, joking that he needed to rid himself of items he'd been storing.

For many victims, long-term needs may include new housing and replacing items lost.

Once those needs are more understood, Catholic Charities of St. Louis "will provide emergency financial assistance for basic needs, personal and household items and clean-up supplies." said Tyrone Ford, Director of Service Integration for Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities also may assist with relocation assistance, utility deposits, moving and storage costs and occupancy fees.

Catholic Charities of Missouri mobilized an assessment team to assist with evaluating those needs, but cautioned against people travelling to Perry County help, as uncoordinated surges of volunteers can complicate recovery efforts.

"The public's help will be needed and when a structure is in place we will get the word out, said Aren Koenig, Community Preparedness and Resiliency Project Manager with Catholic Charities of Missouri.

The Catholic families were pleased to hear that the parish and the archdiocese were concerned with families such as theirs and were offering help. Father Milton, in a sentiment echoed by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteers, said, "We'll do a lot of checking on people." 

How to help

Donations may be sent to Catholic Charities of St. Louis by mailing a check to P.O. Box 952393 St. Louis, Mo., 63195; indicate ‘February 28 Tornado Relief’ in the memo line

Donations also can be made online at www.ccstl.org. Select “February 28 Tornado Relief” from the “donate” link at the top of the website.

St. Vincent de Paul Parish is collecting donation to assist their school families affetced by the tornado. See www.svdepaul.org.

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