Onalaska Tornado Leaves Major Destruction in its Wake
By Lindsay Peyton
Onalaska is still reeling from a tornado that traveled through the town and left major destruction in its wake. A long process of cleaning and rebuilding is underway. Onalaska FUMC, which was spared by the cyclone, is using its kitchen to provide sack lunches to residents as they work on their homes and readying for more opportunities to serve. Each weekday, Senior Pastor Jim Calvert at Onalaska FUMC leads a prayer on Facebook at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. to offer his congregation connection and solace during the coronavirus pandemic. He was in the middle of the late afternoon prayer on April 23, when his phone started ringing with tornado warnings.
“I was telling my prayer folks to seek shelter, when all of the sudden, I lost power,” Calvert recalled. “My family and I went out to look. There were dark clouds and rain. Just as quickly as it came, it was gone.”
He was not yet aware that on the other side of HWY 190, a massive tornado had touched down, with winds reaching 140 m.p.h. tearing through Onalaska. At least 306 homes were damaged, and 173 of those were completely destroyed. So far, three deaths and 33 injuries were reported.
Calvert said that after about 30 minutes passed, sirens from police cars, ambulances and fire engines sounded throughout the town. Life flight helicopters were overhead.
The parsonage lost power for 24 hours, but even without watching the local news on TV, he knew that Onalaska was devastated. “Crews worked all night to rescue people from the rubble and clear pathways,” he said.
Calvert toured the city. “Some neighborhoods were worse than others,” he said. “Some of the houses on stilts were completely gone, only the piers were left. Mobile homes were on top of other homes. RVs were tossed around like toy cars.”
Residents were in shock, while they started clearing debris. Crews cleared fallen trees from the streets. “I immediately started checking on my parishioners,” Calvert said.
Pastor Amanda Davis from Woodville UMC brought two truckloads of tarps to the church, and Calvert posted on social media that they had free tarps available. “Almost, immediately they were gone,” he said.
Roofs needed to be patched, he explained. Some were completely gone. Electricity is still coming back to residents. “Most of the debris has been cleared, but there are huge swaths of pine trees gone too,” he said. “It looks like after a fire, except instead of being burned, they are twisted off and broken.”
Most people are salvaging what they can of their homes, preparing for inevitable renovations. They still will have to meet with insurance investors.
Calvert asked his congregation to stay in touch with each other – and to check on their neighbors. Already, they created a spreadsheet to manage calls.
“The people I have checked on just want someone to listen,” he said. “They want a hug. You just stay as safe as you can, but you have to do what you can for pastoral care.”
Congregants have asked Calvert for advice getting through this double disaster – a tornado in the middle of a pandemic.
“I don’t think God is orchestrating all of this chaos,” he said. “But I do believe God is with us. God suffers with us and weeps with us. We need to take comfort in that. At the same time, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We need to love our community, bring them the same comfort and home.”
Rev. Judy Tefteller, who recently retired as pastor at Kingwood UMC to live in Onalaska,is leading an effort to offer lunches to the city’s residents as they work on their homes. “I’m so thankful for her vision,” Calvert said.
Tefteller has led countless missions and is adept at finding a solution for a need. She also has been part of hurricane recovery in the past. “I went into mission pastor mode,” she said.
Tefteller said that she remembers when others brought sack lunches during recovery efforts. “It just means so much, when you’re in the midst of work, not to have to go out,” she said.
By delivering lunches to people’s home, Tefteller also wants to also bring them hope. “I just want you to know you’re special and that this is hard. We’re praying for you,” she tells them.
She can also listen to their stories. “People want to tell what happened to someone,” she said. “You just need to be a calm presence.”
Tefteller asked Kingwood UMC to join the mission, and her former congregation agreed to sponsor supplies for two weeks. She invites other churches to join the effort.
“Something as simple as that can make the most difference,” she said. “It can change everything. It says, I see you and you’re going to make it.”
Tefteller and volunteers line up the sacks and prepare lunches at Onalaska FUMC. “We make the sandwiches, put them in bags, divide those into boxes and deliver them in four different trucks,” she said. “It’s something small and simple, but it’s a reminder that you can always do something to make a difference.”
Mike Fortney, disaster response coordinator for Center of Hope Polk County, is managing recovery efforts in Onalaksa. He started a Go Fund Me page for donations.
The Center of Hope partners with area churches to help families in crisis. In addition to disaster relief, the organization offers support to cancer patients, a food pantry and a bus ministry.
Fortney is also posting needs every day on the group’s Facebook page facebook.com/Centerofhopelivingston to for individuals who want to make donations of items in need. He explained that several trailer loads go out each day to those in need.
“We still have hundreds of people in hotels,” Fortney said. “We can’t put them in shelters, because of COVID-19.”
Some will return to their homes, but others have lost everything, he explained. “This is going to take a long time,” he said. “We’re right in the beginning right now.”
Already, a few minor repairs are in the works, Fortney said. Volunteers are boarding up windows, fixing parts of roof, raising power poles, whatever they can do to make homes safer.
By donating to the Go Fund Me page, individuals can help directly meet individual needs of Onalaska residents. Later, more renovations will start and volunteers will be needed. Fortney will keep social media updated to let volunteers know when those with construction skills are needed.
“We’ll have opportunities for service in the future,” Dr. Richard P. White, District Superintendent of the East District, said.
Photo courtesy National Weather Service
He toured Onalaska a couple of days after the tornado with Rev. Calvert. “It was very, very sad,” he said. “Driving around the subdivisions, there was one house with damage, one next to that with nothing, and the house next to that completely destroyed.”
Cleaning and rebuilding will be a lengthy process, White explained. He hopes other churches will sponsor Tefteller’s lunches to help her delivery continue.
“When you’re working around your house, you don’t want to stop,” he said. “To have her driving around and dropping off food is a great ministry.”
Onalaska City Administrator Angela Stutts told him that Onalaska needs trained counselors to help with residents who are struggling with PTSD from the tornado.
Dr. White recommends making donations to Onalaska FUMC or the Center of Hope to help the recovery effort. “In the long run, there’s going to be a need to rebuild,” he said.
The best way to help is to be in it for the long-haul, he added.
Calvert agreed. “This is going to be a long-term effort, just like with Harvey,” the pastor said.
Onalaska FUMC has started a disaster relief fund.
Checks can be mailed to:
P.O. Box 596
Onalaska, TX 77360.