LCMS reaches out after ‘devastating’ tornadoes

By Melanie Ave

The week of June 16 was devastating for two LCMS churches and more than two dozen LCMS members in Nebraska and South Dakota after deadly tornadoes tore through their communities and their lives.

The Rev. Michael Meyer, manager of LCMS Disaster Response, and the Rev. James Carretto, talk with volunteers June 18, 2014, in front of what's left of the parsonage at St. John Lutheran Church in Pilger, Neb. Deadly twin tornadoes ripped through the small community on June 16, damaged about 75 percent of the town. (LCMS Communications/Al Dowbnia)

The Rev. Michael Meyer (center), manager of LCMS Disaster Response, and the Rev. James Carretto, talk with volunteers June 18, 2014, in front of what’s left of the parsonage at St. John Lutheran Church in Pilger, Neb. Deadly twin tornadoes ripped through the small community on June 16, damaging about 75 percent of the town. (LCMS Communications/Al Dowbnia)

LCMS Disaster Response has committed initial grants of $100,000 to the LCMS Nebraska District and $30,000 to the LCMS South Dakota District to help pastors, congregations and their communities meet emergency needs.

LCMS Director of Disaster Response Rev. Ross Johnson said the greatest needs currently are prayers and financial donations. Volunteers also are needed in Nebraska to remove debris.

“We’re not only responding to LCMS members, but we are helping the communities,” he said. “Financial gifts allow us to be able to help members rebuild their lives and help the communities rebuild their lives.”

Nebraska tornadoes

On the afternoon of June 16, rare EF-4 twin twisters — with winds between 166 and 200 mph — obliterated about 75 percent of the small farming town of Pilger, Neb., and damaged parts of nearby towns — Wakefield, Laurel and Stanton. The storms killed two people, including a 5-year-old girl who was inside a mobile home, and injured another 19 people.

The houses of 22 St. John members were destroyed or heavily damaged. Members of Christ Lutheran Church and Our Savior Lutheran Church in Norfork; St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wisner; Faith Lutheran Church in Stanton; and Immanuel Lutheran Church in Laurel also were affected — with damage reported to their homes, livestock, sheds, outbuildings and farmland.

“I’ve been in quite a number of storm zones in my years,” said Rev. Dr. Russell Sommerfeld, president of the LCMS Nebraska District. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen. Buildings you would normally see withstand a tornado were taken apart.”

All that’s left of St. John Lutheran Church in Pilger is a concrete slab and a bricked bell tower.

When St. John Pastor Rev. Terry Makelin returned home following the twisters that nearly wiped Pilger off the map, he found “pretty much nothing.”

“The church building is not there,” he told “Issues, Etc.,” a program of Lutheran Public Radio, based in Collinsville, Ill. (Hear the interview here.) “It was built on a slab. It blew it completely out into the field next door. The only thing standing was the bell tower. [In] the parsonage itself there were two closets that stood, otherwise all the walls came down.”

A car rested on its hood in what remained of Makelin’s hallway. A St. John church bulletin was found 60 miles northeast of the town in Sioux City, Iowa, a woman reported on Facebook.

“It was a pretty monster tornado,” said Makelin, who was in Branson, Mo., with his church’s youth group at the time of the storm. His wife was about 60 miles away in Clearwater, Neb.

“It pretty much wiped clean from one corner of the town catty-cornered to the other part of the town,” he said. “What it didn’t wipe away, it broke out windows and tore off roofs. The entire town is damaged in some way.”

LCMS publisher Concordia Publishing House has offered to replace Makelin’s library and St. John’s hymnals.

The LCMS grant funds will be used to help care for the pastor and members of St. John, as well as to help the LCMS Nebraska District and area congregations respond to the needs of the community in the short- and long-term.

A team from LCMS Disaster Response surveyed the damage June 18-19 and was amazed by the destruction in Pilger and throughout the surrounding farmlands. They also were impressed with how quickly the community pulled together and began clearing debris.

On the first day when volunteers were allowed into the damaged area to help, more than 1,800 people showed up.

There is an immediate need for volunteers to help remove debris from area farmlands before the crops grow too high, Sommerfeld said. The district is referring interested volunteers to area incident-management centers. (See hotline numbers listed below.)

A June 18, 2014, tornado uprooted a tree and damaged Zion Lutheran Church in Wessington Springs, S.D. The storm also severely damaged the church’s unoccupied parsonage and the homes of two Zion members. (LCMS Communications/Al Dowbnia)

A June 18, 2014, tornado uprooted a tree and damaged Zion Lutheran Church in Wessington Springs, S.D. The storm also severely damaged the church’s unoccupied parsonage and the homes of two Zion members. (LCMS Communications/Al Dowbnia)

The LCMS disaster team focused on helping the Nebraska church leaders develop a response plan. They met with area pastors, Sommerfeld and representatives of Orphan Grain Train, Lutheran Church Charities and Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska.

Eventually, the congregation would like to create a temporary mercy-outreach center on-site that will serve as a hub of resources for the community as the church rebuilds, Johnson said.

Johnson also said that many of the people who lost homes were renters who do not have the money to replace what they lost. Others were underinsured.

The Rev. Rod Armon, Nebraska District Disaster Response coordinator, said the shock is beginning to wear off and people are starting to realize the magnitude of their losses.

Armon said that St. John will hold Sunday services June 22 from a tent on land where the church once stood.

“Pastor Makelin said, ‘I’m doing church on Sunday,’” Armon said. “He said, ‘This is not for me. This is for everybody. We need church.’

“To me, that’s a big deal.”

The Rev. John Fale, associate executive director of LCMS Mercy Operations, said the hearts of LCMS members everywhere go out to the St. John congregation as it works through the storm’s aftermath.

“The church is gone but the congregation is not,” said Fale, who served as a vacancy pastor twice at St. John. “This is an opportunity for us as a church body to care for each other, but it is also a chance to care for our neighbors and their neighbors within those communities.”

South Dakota damages

On June 18, two days after the Nebraska storm, another tornado — rated an EF2 by the National Weather Service with winds between 111 and 135 mph — tore through the small town of Wessington Springs, S.D.

It damaged Zion Lutheran Church there, the church’s unoccupied parsonage and the homes of two elderly members, in addition to dozens of other homes and businesses.

All the windows of the church were broken and a 12-foot-long piece of wood punctured Zion’s roof. The day after the tornado, pieces of white siding hung from the church’s exterior. Broken tree limbs, insulation and twisted wood littered its property.

“We’re just real blessed here,” said Zion vacancy pastor Rev. L. Scott Spiehs, who also serves as the LCMS South Dakota District Disaster Response coordinator. “The sirens went off 20 minutes before the tornado hit. Everybody took shelter. Only one person had minor injuries.

“We are totally giving glory to God because everybody’s safe.”

To watch a video interview with Spiehs, visit http://video.lcms.org/archives/2766.

LCMS South Dakota District President Rev. Dr. Dale L. Sattgast said the area where the tornado hit looks like a “war zone.”

“The people in South Dakota are resilient,” he said. Despite the damage to their property and other possessions “they all realize what a miracle it was that no lives were taken. I think they will use this to give witness to the Gospel.”

The home of Lenora and Lyle Pawlowski of Zion Lutheran Church in Wessington Springs, S.D., was severely damaged by a June 18, 2014 tornado. (LCMS Communications/Al Dowbnia)

The home of Lenora and Lyle Pawlowski of Zion Lutheran Church in Wessington Springs, S.D., was severely damaged by a June 18, 2014 tornado. (LCMS Communications/Al Dowbnia)

Zion members Lyle Pawlowski, 79, and his wife, Lenora, 78, were at a state park when the storm hit. When they returned to their ranch-style house, they discovered most of the home’s windows broken and about one-third of the roof damaged.

“There are holes in the ceiling where stuff went through it,” said Lenora Pawlowski, before tears overwhelmed her. “There is glass everywhere. We have swept and swept glass. We don’t really know what to do.”

An engineer said the home is unsafe for the couple to stay in overnight but they have been allowed inside during the day to clean. A tarp covers the roof.

“We thank the good Lord for what we’ve got,” Lyle Pawlowski said. “There’s a piece of wood that came in through the window in the shape of a cross. It’s stuck in the door with a leaf on it. We know the good Lord is here.”

The couple is staying with their son about 30 miles away.

When asked how the LCMS church family could help, Lyle Pawlowski replied, “Prayer. Prayer will do it. That’s all the help we need.”

Zion members Norman Tapken, 80, and his wife, Wanda, 68, took shelter at the local courthouse during the storm. When they returned to their house, it appeared as if someone sawed the entire roof off. They were told not to go inside because it was unsafe.

The Tapkens are staying in a local motel until they figure out what to do next.

“It’s God’s will,” said Wanda Tapken, “but it’s hell on earth. It’s amazing that nobody was killed.”

To see an album of photos from Nebraska and South Dakota, click here.

To learn more about LCMS Disaster Response, visit lcms.org/disaster.

To volunteer with the cleanup effort in Nebraska, contact the community hotline for the Wisner and Pilger areas at 402-529-3249 or the Wakefield area at 402-287-2574.

Find district-disaster information for Nebraska at ndlcms.org/ and for South Dakota at sddlcms.org/.

To make a gift to support the Synod’s relief and recovery efforts:

  • mail checks payable to “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (with a memo line or note designating “LCMS Disaster Relief”) to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
  • call toll-free 888-930-4438 (8:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday).

Melanie Ave is a staff writer with LCMS Communications.

Posted June 20, 2014

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