Catholic Charities coordinates relief for victims of summer storms

Volunteer crews from Catholic United Financial and International Orthodox Christian Charities clean up the front yard of Tootz Tschumperlin July 14 in Watkins following a tornado three days earlier. A parishioner of St. Anthony who lives a block and a half from the church, Tschumperlin lost her house in the storm.                 (Photo by Dan Rossini)

Volunteer crews from Catholic United Financial and International Orthodox Christian Charities clean up the front yard of Tootz Tschumperlin July 14 in Watkins following a tornado three days earlier. A parishioner of St. Anthony who lives a block and a half from the church, Tschumperlin lost her house in the storm.                 (Photo by Dan Rossini)

by Kevin Johnson
Prairie Catholic Correspondent

WATKINS (The Prairie Catholic/Oct. 2016) -  When the first siren sounded late in the afternoon on Monday, July 11, Tootz Tschumperlin didn’t waste any time. The Watkins resident grabbed her flashlight, her cordless phone, and her laptop. Then she went down into the basement of her home to wait out the storm.

When the second siren sounded, the lights went out and her phone stopped working. Moments after the third, she heard a tremendous roar and her roof being torn off. She thought to herself, “My house is gone.”

She was right. When it got quiet, she opened the basement door to the garage, there was no roof and some walls were missing. Insulation two to three feet high blanketed the ground. Her home was a total loss.

“All I could think of was, ‘I’m not hurt. This can all be replaced,’” she recalled about the first moments when she surveyed the damage from the tornado. “I guess I haven’t really cried. I’m just happy that I’m okay. I’ve got my family, and that’s more important than anything.”

The tornadoes that ripped through Watkins and Litchfield that day caused considerable destruction. Meeker County Chief Deputy Dan Miller told the St. Cloud Times on July 13 that 31 homes lost shingles, 21 had major structural damage, nine had heavy damage such as missing roofs, and 10 houses were completely destroyed in Watkins, where the damage was the worst.

But the tornadoes weren’t the only havoc unleashed by the skies over the Diocese of New Ulm this summer. On Aug. 10-11, torrential rains in the Willmar and Olivia areas washed out roads, flooded neighborhoods, and backed up storm sewers. About 10 inches of rain fell in Willmar; the Olivia area received nine to 12.

For both tornadoes and floods, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of New Ulm provided quick financial relief for victims. Within days of each disaster, $10,000 grants from Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) were made available for distribution by local parishes to help those affected. Second collections at parish Masses throughout the diocese were then conducted to provide additional financial assistance.

As a member of Minnesota’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), Catholic Charities also lobbied for volunteer crews to travel to Watkins to help tornado victims remove fallen trees and clean up debris from their yards following the storm.

Tschumperlin appreciated the additional help. Two days after the tornado, workers had already taken down the remaining walls of her house and placed a protective cover over the foundation. On day three, crews from Catholic United Financial and International Orthodox Christian Charities – both members of Minnesota’s VOAD – raked and leveled the lawn, and threw remaining debris into a large dumpster on the street.

“People are there to help, I mean, they’re great,” Tschumperlin said about the volunteers who helped prepare her lot for rebuilding. She hopes to have a new home on her old foundation by winter.

Relief for tornado victims

As director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of New Ulm, Tom Keaveny has to be prepared for the unexpected. When news of the storms came, he knew exactly what to do. He cited the tornado response as “a good example of what can happen if we follow our emergency response protocols.”

“When a natural disaster occurs, Catholic Charities’ national organization (CCUSA) allows any diocese or any Catholic Charities to immediately apply for $10,000 for humanitarian assistance,” he related.

“So the day of the tornado, … when I saw it on TV I said, ‘Tomorrow morning we’re going to be busy,’ and by noon we had the approval (from Bishop John M. LeVoir) to submit the CCUSA application. By the following Monday the money was wired here.”

A state disaster declaration by Gov. Mark Dayton helped to ensure the success of the application. Within a week of the storm, Keaveny delivered checks for $8,000 to St. Anthony in Watkins and $2,000 to St. Philip in Litchfield.

The funds were to be made available to any storm victim, whether Catholic or not, to reimburse for out-of-pocket expenses, unmet deductibles, and damages not covered by insurance.

Local distribution

At St. Anthony, Keaveny met with parochial administrator Fr. Aaron Nett and suggested that the parish serve as the focal point for distributing funds donated by CCUSA and a forthcoming diocesan special collection approved by Bishop LeVoir.

Fr. Nett, parish secretary Jessica Teicher, and two parish trustees, Don Neisen and Cindy Kuechle, formed a committee to review applications and allocate funds. They put ads for the grants on the parish Web site, in the parish bulletin, at the church and at Watkins City Hall.

The application form assured confidentiality and asked questions to determine legitimate need. It asked people to specify non-reimbursable expenses, along with income. The review team especially wanted the money to help those struggling to pay out-of-pocket expenses.

“There was some pretty significant loss with some of the people in town,” Teicher said. “There’s still some houses with tarps on their roofs waiting for their turn with contractors” nearly two months after the tornado.

Teicher said Neisen, a retired Watkins banker, was really helpful on the committee. “He would know the people, so if there were any questions he could just call them up and ask. Sometimes he would even help them figure out some of the insurance stuff.”

Many contributors

The second collection that Catholic Charities coordinated in the diocese raised over $11,000, which included a number of donations made through the diocese’s Web site.

Approximately $5,000 was raised by a second collection at St. Anthony. Neighboring parishes also took up their own second collections and forwarded the monies to St. Anthony.

Fr. Don Wagner, pastor for three parishes in the St. Cloud diocese and a friend of Fr. Nett, had experienced a tornado while serving in Wadena five years ago. His parishioners gave $4,000 in second collections.

The Southwest Initiative Foundation based in Hutchinson gave $16,835, directing that $5,200 go to Litchfield.  The city of Watkins contributed more than $37,000.

To avoid payments to individuals for the same expense by different organizations, St. Anthony became the distribution point for all funds available to Watkins residents. Teicher said they were grateful to support the community in this way, since the church hardly incurred any damage and they had lots of volunteer help.

All told, the contributions for Watkins came to over $80,000. Teicher reported giving 34 grants totaling $73,562 to date. The average was $3,000, with the smallest being $500 and $5,000 the largest.

Additionally, Fr. Joe Steinbeisser at St Philip wrote checks totaling $2,000 to three individuals.  Another $1,500 went for Econofoods and Walmart gift certificates for immediate needs to people forced out of their homes.

After the tornadoes, rain

Keaveny was to report on tornado recovery in Watkins and Litchfield during a VOAD conference call Aug. 12. The call, which can occur daily during times of disaster, is how Catholic Charities and other aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Lutheran Social Services, coordinate their disaster relief efforts.

Instead, Keaveny and other participants discussed the Willmar and Olivia flooding the previous two days. He was already preparing another CCUSA application. Once again, Catholic Charities was able to provide emergency assistance with a $10,000 CCUSA grant within a week of the storm.

Fr. Steve Verhelst, pastor of the parishes in the Jesus Our Living Water Area Faith Community in the Willmar area, said the $10,000 was evenly split between his AFC and the Heart of Jesus AFC, which includes St. Aloysius in Olivia. Fr. Dennis Labat and Fr. George Schmit and a trustee from St. Aloysius and St. Mary in Bird Island reviewed Olivia’s applications.

Fr. Verhelst announced from the pulpit and in the bulletin that relief funds were available. “Word of that spread quickly as you might guess,” he said. “I think we’ve received 10 applications to date and were able to help all of them.”

At St. Mary in Willmar, Fr. Verhelst and the parish tithing committee reviewed applications. Both St. Mary and Our Lady of the Lake in Spicer tithe on their parish income. “So we used some tithing money as well,” he said.

“Primarily, what people needed were appliances like washers, dryers, and water heaters. These aren’t typically covered by flood insurance,” he said.

“Several of the families were single mothers with three or four children. They barely have enough money to make ends meet to begin with,” he said. “We didn’t set a maximum grant amount.”

The diocesan special collection for flood relief raised almost $9,800, which was also evenly split between Willmar and Olivia.

Grateful for relief grants

According to Keaveny, CCUSA doesn’t restrict the number of applications a diocese can submit, except that only one can be requested for each weather-related event.

Since 2007, Catholic Charities has received three disaster assistance grants: one for straight-line wind damage in Swift County (Benson and Clontarf), and now for the tornadoes in Meeker County and flooding in Kandiyohi and Renville Counties.

The CCUSA grants have been extremely helpful, especially when combined with the diocesan special collections and other donations. “We’ve gotten thank-you cards back from people we gave money to saying they were just very appreciative,” Teicher said.

For additional information about Catholic Charities of the Diocese of New Ulm, visit https://www.dnu.org/catholiccharities/

Editor’s note: Dan Rossini contributed to this story.