By Melanie Ave
If the Thomason family of Zion Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Mo., hadn’t listened to their 14-year-old daughter, they may not have sought shelter in the basement May 31 when the tornado sirens blared near their home.
Joe Thomason, according to his wife, Michelle, would have normally watched the approaching storm from the dining room window.
But the family did go down to their basement. Another siren blared. Five of the six Thomasons packed into a basement storage closet, clutching cushions and praying as they listened to the roar of destruction above their heads. (One son was out of town.)
They heard the tornado exploding through the top levels of the 3,200-square-foot home they built 11 years ago. It blew out windows, ripped off a quarter of the roof, knocked over walls and sent shards of glass everywhere. The ceiling of their daughter’s room later collapsed from the rain
The dining room window where Joe Thomason liked to storm watch was gone.
“It was like a glass bomb went off,” said Michelle Thomason, business manager at Zion. “It was an absolutely crazy, crazy night.”
The Thomasons were one of three LCMS families from Zion and Messiah Lutheran Church in Weldon Spring, Mo., whose homes were severely damaged by nine tornadoes that swept through the St. Louis area May 31. Six LCMS members from Trinity Lutheran Church in El Reno, Okla., also suffered severe damage to their homes when a record-setting tornado came through Oklahoma the same night. About 100 Trinity members had hail or wind damage to their homes or property, said Trinity Pastor Donald Hefta.
The roofs of Trinity and Hefta’s parsonage have to be replaced because of hail damage.
“One of the things that struck me was how scared people were,” Hefta said. “This tornado came after the Moore tornado. This really got people’s attention. I got the sense that people were calling on the Lord.”
No LCMS members were injured in the severe storms, but Yolanda Santos, a housekeeper at Concordia Life Care Community in Oklahoma City, Okla. — an LCMS Recognized Service Organization — and her three children, ages 5, 7 and 9, died as they tried to seek cover from the tornado, said the Rev. Ron Simpson, LCMS disaster-response coordinator in Oklahoma.
According to an announcement from the RSO, the Santos family and another family were swept away by floodwaters during the storm.
Simpson has been pointing people to Psalm 77, which says, “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord.”
“God is doing something here,” said Simpson, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Midwest City, Okla. “There is a battle of faith and certainly, natural events, disasters are faith-challenging. They also are opportunities for pastors and churches to get word of the saving faith out there.”
In the St. Louis region, the tornadoes injured two people and damaged hundreds of homes and buildings in Missouri and Illinois, including Lambert International Airport. Nearly 100,000 people were left without power for several days. Several LCMS families also had downed trees or had damage to the roofs and siding of their homes, said LCMS Missouri District Disaster Response Coordinator Jim Eckrich.
“We’ve been calling every congregation and calling every pastor,” Eckrich said. “Congregations quickly assisted the LCMS members whose homes were damaged. I don’t have anybody calling in need of desperate assistance.”
One family at Messiah Lutheran in Weldon Spring had significant damage to their home, said Laura Fleetwood, the church’s communications director.
“Their house is officially condemned,” she said. “Several walls were blown out. The roof looks like it came up and came back down on the house.”
The same storm system that rumbled through the St. Louis area also came through El Reno, Okla., May 31.
The Oklahoma tornado was classified as an EF5 tornado — the strongest — with winds that neared 295 mph. It killed 20 people, including three storm chasers. The National Weather Service reported the tornado as the widest ever recorded. It grew from one mile to 2.6 miles wide in 30 seconds.
During the tornado, Trinity Lutheran Church in El Reno, one of the city’s few designated storm shelters, opened its basement to more than 200 people and their pets, including a monkey, said Tim Hetzner, LCMS disaster-response coordinator for the LCMS Northern Illinois District and president of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) in Addison, Ill.
Church members also helped people with minor injuries who came to the church after being stranded on the highway during the tornado, Hefta said. About 25 of them spent the night at the church.
“Leading up to the city and south of the city, it looks like a buzz saw went through,” said Simpson, the Oklahoma disaster coordinator. “Fortunately, it didn’t hit major population centers.”
One day later, LCC Comfort Dogs were on hand at Trinity to provide relief to those suffering from the tornado’s destruction. The dogs visited with tornado victims in Oklahoma for three weeks.
Hefta has been visiting people in the damaged areas, praying with them and handing out LCC gift cards to help offset some of their expenses.
“He’s still taking inventory of the needs,” Simpson said. “He’s a little bit overwhelmed, trying to stay on top of the members’ needs and the community needs.”
Simpson said financial assistance is the most helpful at this time, so that the relief efforts “can be tailored to specific needs. The congregation is in the midst of figuring out where to focus their help in the community.”
In response to a May 19 tornado that killed one man and ravaged a mobile home park in Shawnee, Okla., Redeemer Lutheran Church members have adopted 20 members of the community for ongoing relief and recovery assistance, Simpson said.
“They are going to go case by case and meet the needs they have,” he said. “It’s very innovative and visionary. They’re taking personal charge of these 20 members of their community.”
Meanwhile, in the St. Louis area, about 30 volunteers with the “Helping Hands” team from Messiah Lutheran Church went out two days after the tornado and helped remove downed trees and clean up debris from the tornado that hit the area.
Fleetwood said the congregation is in regular touch with the one LCMS family affected and others dealing with significant cleanup due to downed trees.
“It’s been a blessing to see how people at Messiah responded,” she said. “Our whole congregation wanted to step in and help right away. It was just an amazing response.”
The Sunday after the storm, Messiah Lutheran Church, with help from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, collected $3,500 to assist the victims.
The May 31 tornadoes came after the an EF5 tornado hit Moore, Okla., May 20, killing 24 people, injuring hundreds and damaging thousands of homes and building. At least nine LCMS members lost their homes from the Moore tornado and a May 19 tornado that struck just east of Oklahoma City.
The LCMS approved an initial $100,000 emergency grant to the Synod’s Oklahoma District four days after the Moore tornado and earlier tornadoes that swept through the state May 19. The grant was intended to meet immediate tornado-relief needs of LCMS members and the community.
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Moore and Trinity Lutheran Church in Norman, Okla., are continuing to assist with the relief efforts. St. John’s has offered summer camp scholarships to families who lost their homes. The church also is acting as a distribution center for relief.
“LCMS Disaster Response continues to be in contact with congregational and district leadership in the affected areas, providing care and concern through prayer, consultation in developing plans for sustained relief, and financial resources made available by the generous outpouring of donors,” the Rev. John Fale, associate executive director of LCMS Mercy Operations, said after the May 31 tornadoes. “I encourage all of our congregations to keep these folks in regular prayer in the weeks and months to come, asking our Lord to bring comfort and healing through the promises of His Word, which never fail, and through the love and help of those who care about them.
“Our pastors, congregational members and Recognized Service Organizations have been providing strong and stable leadership at the local level,” Fale continued. “These timely and well-coordinated responses are the result of people who have taken disaster preparedness seriously, developed a good plan, then worked the plan when disasters strike. What a blessing they have been to their neighbors in need.”
For those interested in volunteering for tornado cleanup in Moore, Okla., St. John’s Lutheran Church, with the help of Lutheran Church Charities, is providing volunteer registration for individuals and groups. For registration forms on the congregation’s website, click here. All volunteers must complete an individual registration form. Call LCC at 866-455-6466 or send an email message to LCC@LutheranChurchCharities.org with any questions.
As for the Thomasons of Weldon Spring, Mo., they stayed in a hotel for a week and are now renting a home until repairs can be made to their tornado-ravaged home.
Thomason said Zion Lutheran members have “definitely proven we are family,” she said. “I feel the blessings we’ve received, and seeing how many people care for us has outweighed the bad part. It’s going to be a long process, I know. But my family is okay.
“All this other stuff can be fixed.”
To learn more about LCMS Disaster Response, visit lcms.org/disaster.
To support those in need through LCMS Disaster Response:
- Make an online gift at lcms.org/givenow/disaster.
- 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. CST, Monday through Friday).
Melanie Ave is a senior writer and social media coordinator for LCMS Communications.
(Updated June 12, 2013)