Lutherans help midwestern communities after late-winter tornadoes

A homeowner surveys his destroyed home March 4 in rural Perryville, Mo., after midweek tornadoes damaged or destroyed at least 100 homes there. (LCMS/Erik M. Lunsford)

By Pamela J. Nielsen and Paula Schlueter Ross

As daylight broke on Ash Wednesday (March 1), residents across three midwestern communities in southeast Missouri and central Illinois surveyed the damage from a late winter storm system that spawned numerous tornadoes across several states.

Rural Perryville in southeastern Missouri experienced a path of destruction from an EF4 tornado that was extensive, damaging or destroying at least 100 homes. The half-mile-wide tornado, with winds nearing 180 mph, traveled some 50 miles — breaking a 25-year record.

“I would have never guessed that when we came upstairs that we had no walls left in our house,” said Amy Huber, a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Perryville.

Huber’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Handrick — accompanied by Missouri District President Rev. Dr. R. Lee Hagan and LCMS Disaster Response leaders Rev. Ross Johnson and Rev. Michael Meyer — sought to provide pastoral care to families and friends sifting through the debris.

Huber told Handrick how her family took shelter as the tornado directly targeted their home. “I went into the unfinished part of our basement with our two children … [then] my husband came downstairs … [and] he put his arms around us and took us to the floor,” said Huber, who described how they crouched in the most secure corner of the basement.

Similar stories filled local news reports and social-media feeds.

The Hubers were one of seven Immanuel families whose homes were destroyed. “They’re gone, gone,” Handrick said between visits with members of each household.

One man was killed when his car was crushed as he traveled down nearby Interstate 55.

“The big thing I am seeing right now is shock,” said Handrick as he made the rounds to check on and care for his members. “What they need is Christ and our prayers for their comfort and healing.”

“That’s why we’re here,” said Hagan — “to offer encouragement to our hurting brothers and sisters in Perryville. In Perry County, there are so many family connections across the Synod [and] across the world, a great opportunity to us to come together to serve those in need, even outside our household of faith.”

Perry County is where Saxon Lutherans settled in the mid-1800s — many of whom were among founders of the Synod. Related historical sites in the county were untouched by the storm.

LERT teams on the scene

On Saturday, March 3, LERT (Lutheran Early Response Team) volunteers from New Beginnings Lutheran Church in Pacific, Mo., and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Arnold, Mo., spread out across the hard-hit Perryville community to assist in recovery efforts.

“We saw that Perryville had a tornado [and] we thought, ‘we’re equipped, we’ve been trained, we have the equipment, we’d like to respond,’ ” said Travis Torblaa of New Beginnings.

The volunteers were busy removing and disposing of debris, collecting scattered items from farm fields and treetops. Their tools included bulldozers, wheelbarrows, garbage bags and work gloves.

From left, Manager of LCMS Disaster Response Rev. Michael Meyer talks with Travis Torblaa, mission and ministry director at New Beginnings Lutheran Church, Pacific, Mo., outside a destroyed home in Perryville, Mo. Torblaa was there with a Lutheran Early Response Team from Pacific, where there was a devastating flood just a year earlier. (LCMS/Erik M. Lunsford)

The group from Arnold had completed their LERT training just a few weeks before the tornado.

“I just can’t believe something like this can happen,” said Ray Luebke, a new LERT volunteer from St. John’s who struggled to cope with the level of destruction he witnessed.

Both groups brought along their new Disaster Response trailers filled with equipment and supplies to aid their efforts. The trailers join a growing fleet across the Synod, with 26 of them provided by a grant from the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.

Nationwide, about 15,000 volunteers have taken the LCMS Disaster Response training course and are certified as LERT volunteers, who work in coordination with their district disaster coordinators and LCMS Disaster Response.

Mercy begets mercy

“It was about a year ago that we had flooding in Pacific, where our church is located,” said Torblaa. “We were able to respond in large part due to [LCMS] Disaster Response, [with] the equipment and training they were able to provide us.

“We’ve been … responding to the flood work in Pacific for about a year,” Torblaa continued. “Now this is the first chance that we’ve been able to go beyond our own community and respond to the greater community of Missouri and send a team here to Perryville.”

“You’re just seeing a foundation, there’s nothing left,” said a volunteer with his young daughter. “We’re just trying to help out where we can.”

Illinois tornadoes

Several tornadoes in the same storm system that leveled parts of Perryville also swept through central Illinois the evening of Feb. 28.

An EF3 tornado that damaged some 20 homes in Washburn, Ill. — including 8 that were destroyed — approaches the community on Tuesday, Feb. 28. (Mark Gruden)

Hard-hit were Ottawa, Ill. — located about halfway between Chicago and Peoria; Naplate, Ill. — some 2 miles west of Ottawa; and Washburn, Ill. — 46 miles southwest of Naplate.

The Rev. David Daniel, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Ottawa, had just picked up his daughter when the ominous storm came rolling in, so the two just kept driving south, staying ahead of the squall, until they reached a McDonalds under clear skies where they waited it out.

As he drove, Daniel joked to his daughter that she need not worry because he had enough gas to make it to St. Louis, if necessary.

The pastor’s church and home were spared, but his house lost some shingles and screens and the large trees surrounding his property were sheared off and uprooted. And at least three Zion member families reported serious damages, although none of them were among the dozen or so people injured.

Two people died in Ottawa as a result of the storm: Wayne Tuntland, 76, and his son-in-law, David Johnson, 31, were crushed by a fallen tree just a couple of blocks from Daniel’s home.

Some 30 worshipers attended Zion’s Ash Wednesday service March 1, which was “very appreciated and very personal,” with “lots of prayers” for local residents, according to the pastor.

‘Very grateful’ for help

Daniel said he’s “very grateful” to fellow pastors and others who have called to offer help with cleanup. He told Reporter he will continue to look for opportunities in the days ahead “where the love of Christ can be shared by members of our Christian community. That’s a great thing.”

Arriving in Ottawa at 7:30 the morning after the tornadoes were Tim Hetzner and Kathy O’Day of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), who met with Daniel and provided an initial emergency grant to help meet the needs of residents. Additional funds received by LCC for the tornado response also will be distributed, Hetzner said.

A Lutheran Early Response Team from the LCMS Central Illinois District helps with cleanup efforts March 4 in Washburn, Ill. (John Steinwedel)

LCC and Lutheran Early Response Teams, based at Zion’s fellowship hall, began chainsaw and cleanup work March 4, including “helping individuals and families recover what they can from their homes and … secure their property,” according to Hetzner. LCC’s comfort dogs and their handlers were on-site at all three Illinois locations hit by the tornadoes.

LCC is an LCMS Recognized Service Organization.

In Naplate, some 50 of the community’s 200 homes were damaged in the storm, according to news reports.

And in Washburn, about 20 will need repairs. Eight of those — including the residence of an LCMS family — were “totally destroyed,” according to the Rev. Mark Gruden, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Washburn. The St. John’s member family lost three outbuildings as well as their home, according to Gruden, a “storm spotter” since 2003 for the Woodford County/Metamora area.

Gruden, who has observed dozens of tornadoes, said this latest one, categorized at EF3, was “the largest, at 600 yards wide, that I have seen.”

LERT volunteers from the LCMS Central Illinois District brought more than 80 cleanup volunteers to Washburn March 4, and staff from Dinky Doughnuts in Chicago came to Washburn to provide complimentary sweet treats for volunteers.

Gruden told Reporter he coordinated cleanup efforts with Washburn authorities “to make sure that we had contacted all the families that received damage to make sure that if someone was in need of assistance on Saturday [March 4] that they would either get it from us or from the volunteers that had offered help to the village.”

To support LCMS Disaster Response efforts whenever and wherever disaster strikes, visit

Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen ( is associate executive director and Paula Schlueter Ross ( is senior staff writer — both with LCMS Communications.

Posted March 29, 2017

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One Response to Lutherans help midwestern communities after late-winter tornadoes

  1. Karen Finney March 29, 2017 at 12:53 pm #

    Thanks be to God for men like Pastor Gruden. His past experiences plus his commitment to God and the congregation of St. John’s (although considered a “part-time” paid position) is a blessing to the community of Washburn. He provides physical guidance and most of all he brings to all God’s Word and comfort when most needed. I am privileged and thankful to God that I am one of his flock.

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