Tornadoes scatter belongings, bond communities
by Jessica Langdon
CORNING — As winds roared, trees toppled, grain bins crashed, hail pounded and walls ripped apart overhead, seven members of the Becker family added their own voices to the storm.
Huddled in a shower stall in their basement near Corning the afternoon of May 28 with a comforter over their heads, they prayed the rosary.
When the first weather alerts for the community in northern Kansas sounded, the threat was far enough away that Monica Becker took pictures of the first rope she saw coming down from the clouds.
She sent an image to WIBW-TV in Topeka, not yet even imagining that her family’s home stood in the direct path of a forming tornado.
This was the second day in a row severe weather struck northern Kansas communities.
On May 27, an EF2 tornado decimated two businesses and damaged many properties near Marysville.
Then the storms that struck near Corning on May 28, producing EF3 and EF1 tornadoes, affected five families — all parishioners of St. Patrick Parish.
Father John Reynolds, their pastor, visited the families and found that each had a different story to tell.
Even with a background in meteorology and seeing images of tornado damage on TV, he had to see it with his own eyes to fully grasp the power the storms unleashed.
“The first thing people said was, ‘Everybody survived,’” Father Reynolds said. “Which — when you see this — is really kind of amazing.”
Also amazing, but not at all surprising to him, was the way the community came together.
Though they lost property, they were saying prayers of thanksgiving, he said.
Waiting and praying
When the warnings went out for Centralia and Corning, Monica called her husband Royce, a farmer.
He headed in from his shop.
They sent their kids — 12-year-old Ethan, 11-year-old Corbin, seven-year-old Maveryk, five-year-old Gradey and four-year-old Malayna — to the basement, making sure everybody had shoes.
When a tornado came too close for comfort, Monica abandoned the photography and joined her family downstairs, where they waited for at least 45 minutes.
The noise grew so intense, she thought the worst had to have passed and called a friend. Only then did she learn that the big, slow-moving tornado had not yet even arrived.
“And so we just waited, and prayed and prayed and prayed,” said Monica.
When it hit, the tornado lingered overhead for what felt like two or three minutes.
As their home splintered apart above their heads and grain bins hurtled through the air, the family prayed that the basement ceiling and kitchen floor above them would hold.
When the storm passed and they came out from under the blanket, they could see daylight reflecting in the screen of the basement TV.
And they knew the walls were gone.
But none of that mattered, said Monica, and quickly reassured her children.
“It’s things. It’s material. It’s replaceable,” she said. “We just hugged. We knew we were going to be fine.”
The storm was scary, admitted Corbin.
He walked with his mom through the house the day after the tornado, looking into his bedroom, which survived more of the storm than much of the house because it was in the basement, right across from Ethan’s.
A quote by Winston Churchill was still visible above the stairs leading to the family’s basement, and the Beckers seemed to have taken the words to heart.
“Attitude,” read the red-stenciled letters, “is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
Royce, a member of the parish council at St. Patrick, embodied that philosophy as he and many volunteers plunged into the cleanup.
“We’re all right,” said Royce. “We’re in good shape. It could be worse. There’s a lot of good people here helping.”
Rush to help
Neighbors from Corning and surrounding communities gathered at the hardest-hit homes before the threat of severe weather even faded.
At the Becker house, volunteers cleared out what they could salvage before impending rain caused further destruction.
Most of the families affected were on the west side of town. Roger and Judy Adams live just down from the Beckers and had significant property damage, but were able to stay in their home.
Charles and Sandra Stallbaumer had damage, and their son Jason and his wife Ann also saw destruction at their property. Ann coordinates religious education at St. Patrick.
Tim and Janet Hiltibrand lost a barn that would have been 100 years old this year on the land that was once the homestead of Tim’s grandparents.
On the other side of Corning, a tornado touched down the same evening, bearing down on the home of the McNally family.
Robert and Trish McNally had taken their kids — 18-year-old Emily, 17-year-old Erin, 15-year-old twins Kaci and Kori, and nine-year-old Ethan — to Gulf Shores, Ala., for a family vacation.
They had time to relax for only a few hours when they started hearing of the storms back home.
The tornado stripped the brick off one side of their house and lifted the roof.
“I had so many people from the community up on that roof putting a temporary roof on,” said Trish, who received updates via cellphone.
“They had to leave my house and take cover again because there was a warning going through,” she said.
After seeing a picture of the volunteers on her roof, she said to her mother Mary Holthaus, “Aren’t we lucky to live in a neighborhood where people care?”
The family cut their vacation short and finally saw the damage in person two days after the tornado.
They were still waiting to learn whether they would be able to return home or if it would be deemed unsafe; until the determination was made, they couldn’t go in.
The American Red Cross provided clothes and shoes to the family to replace theirs, which the insulation had ruined. Family and neighbors contributed more.
‘God will bring you through it’
It wasn’t just their helping hands that friends and neighbors offered the families hit. They opened their homes, hearts and wallets as well.
Laurie Kramer, Trish’s sister, went to the grocery store, where the store took care of the bill — even as people in line volunteered their debit cards.
Marsha Grossnickle, president of the Altar Society at St. Patrick, said people weren’t asked to help — they just did.
The Altar Society and city of Corning joined forces to provide a one-stop drop-off for donations at the community center.
Volunteers there prepared hundreds of meals to deliver to the work sites, and the community gathered inside for hot meals at the end of the day.
A family in nearby Wetmore had food left over from a funeral dinner and sent it on to Corning for the families and volunteers.
It’s been heartwarming — but difficult — for the families to be on the receiving end.
“There’s several of us . . . we’d really like to be the ones giving,” said Trish McNally.
Earlier on the day of the tornado, Monica Becker had been collecting clothes for a friend who lives in Moore, Okla., a community devastated by a deadly tornado earlier in May.
Now she had to keep contributed clothing for her own family. It was hard, she said; they were meant for others.
“It’s very emotional,” said Monica, but added, “If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it.”
God in action
In the devastation, people found signs of God’s presence.
Hiltibrand left work at the bank in Corning as the alerts sounded. She picked up her granddaughters from their sitter and hummed to them in the basement of her daughter’s house.
“When I was holding my granddaughters, trying to keep them calm, I think that’s what God did for our community,” she said. “He has his arms around all of us, holding us close to him.”
It’s possible to replace things, but not family, she said.
She was touched to find a statue of Mary standing unharmed right next to a window that had blown out.
“In my twins’ bedroom, there was one crucifix that stayed on the wall,” said Trish McNally. “There was nothing above it. You could see the sky.”
As soon as he heard about the tornadoes, Father Reynolds began praying.
As pastor of St. Patrick in Corning, St. Bede Church in Kelly and St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Onaga, he was home in Onaga when the storms hit.
He waited until he knew it was safe to start calling to check on his parishioners.
He drove to Corning the next morning and helped with the cleanup, wanting to be with his people.
“You’re witnessing what people do here in the country,” he said. “They just kind of chip in and get it done.”
Grossnickle sees God at work in the response.
“It’s amazing that, in these terrible, difficult times, people are giving in loving ways — and are happy to give it,” she said. “They’re selfless at that time, and that’s got to be what God’s like.”
How to help in Corning
An account has been set up to help families affected by the Corning tornado.
Those who would like to contribute may make checks out to “Corning Relief Fund,” and send them to:
First National Bank of Corning
6501 Main St.
Corning, KS 66417
Help for other tornado victims
Tornado season has taken a toll on many areas this spring.
It’s not too late to help victims of the May 20 tornado in Oklahoma.
Our archdiocese took up a collection to help Oklahoma communities affected by the deadly storms. Those who would still like to contribute may send checks — marked for Oklahoma Tornado Relief — to their parishes. Or visit the website at: www.catholiccharitiesok.org and click on the “Donate Now” link.
Community comes together after Marysville tornado
MARYSVILLE — Hands have been hard at work near Marysville, picking up debris scattered by a tornado — and folded in prayer for the people affected.
“Neighbors have been coming together to help people across the county,” said Father Jim Shaughnessy, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Marysville and St. Malachy Parish in Beattie.
A tornado struck rural Marshall County the night of May 27.
The EF2 tornado dealt blows to two businesses — a major John Deere dealership and a truss company — and about two dozen homes sustained damage, said Bill Schwindamann, emergency management director for Marshall County.
The tornado took off a couple of roofs, blew out windows and damaged a couple dozen outbuildings.
Two horses and two cows were lost.
“We had no injuries and no fatalities, so we were pretty luck on that,” said Schwindamann, a parishioner at St. Gregory. “We got a huge amount of tree damage.”
Father Shaughnessy had heard that both businesses plan to rebuild, and John Deere had a place set up to sell equipment parts to keep farmers supplied with what they need.
There was significant cleanup left to do in some areas, but with the ground still muddy from the storm, the community decided to wait until it dried so as not to damage residents’ yards and fields in the process.
Members of the Knights of Columbus in Axtell converged on the truss company to help with cleanup there, however, joining many other volunteers in the efforts across the community.
“A lot of these guys worked 16 hours a day,” said Schwindamann.
Father Shaughnessy saw many of his parishioners sharing their heavy equipment — and time — to haul away damaged property.
And he heard many words of thanks.
“In rural areas, they really come to help out each other. They come together immediately,” he said.