A strong and violent wind heralded a year of favor from the Lord.
It began with the Eldon and Jefferson City tornado of May 22, 2019, continued with a summer of flooding throughout central and northeastern Missouri, and spilled over into an unprecedented disruption from a viral pandemic.
Through people’s skillful and loving, coordinated and sustained response to all of this, God has continued to make Himself known.
“We’re here, in the shadow of loss and in the thick of recovery, presenting unfailing hope on behalf of God and His Church,” said Dan Lester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).
The powerful tornado destroyed homes, schools and businesses, forever altering the lives of thousands of residents, including some of the Capital City’s least affluent neighborhoods.
Long after the havoc and destruction faded from national headlines, the charitable arm of the Diocese of Jefferson City continued working behind the scenes, entering strategic partnerships and making holy work of the ongoing recovery.
That work continues.
“A year has gone by and people think everyone has recovered from the tornado, but that isn’t the case,” said CCCNMO Director of Community Services Alissa Marlow.
“And now you have the fallout from COVID-19 that is affecting many of the people who were barely scraping by before the tornado,” she said.
Although it’s often said that disasters don’t discriminate, they do tend to have lasting effects on the people who are most vulnerable.
“The people who are barely living paycheck-to-paycheck — they don’t have the means or the resources to recover,” said Mrs. Marlow. “That’s why the work we do with them is so important.”
A symphony of caring
Catholic Charities joined other agencies in providing immediate and intermediate disaster response to the tornado and concurrent flooding.
CCCNMO personnel joined secular and faith-based agencies and organizations in connecting with survivors, providing immediate financial assistance and determining long-term needs.
“We were instrumental in helping to develop and implement both short- and long-term recovery committees, to ensure that the long process of recovery was organized and efficient,” stated Cristal Backer, CCCNMO’s new director of development and outreach.
“We took on the challenge of managing the donated goods warehouse and continue to deliver items to survivors in need,” she said.
Five hundred fifty-nine households made up of more than 1,600 individuals have received disaster services from Catholic Charities in the past year.
The agency has provided more than $61,000 in direct aid to disaster survivors.
Catholic Charities staff members have devoted over 5,700 hours of direct service time to disaster response and recovery.
“We certainly have not done this alone,” Mr. Lester pointed out. “We are grateful to Catholic Charities USA, the United Way of Central Missouri, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and all of our individual donors who make this work possible.”
Catholic Charities stepped up to the role in which it specializes: long-term case management for people who are struggling to recover from the disasters.
More than 100 families have received long-term disaster case management services, with more than 40 active cases still enrolled at the one-year mark.
Many of the clients are people “whose needs extend beyond just a damaged home or a lost job, and include homelessness, mental illness, substance-use and extreme poverty,” said Mrs. Backer.
“They might come because they’ve been impacted by a disaster and their home has been destroyed,” said Mrs. Marlow. “But maybe they also need food or were already behind on their bills before the disaster. Maybe they lost their job. We want to help with that.”
Road to recovery
People affected by the tornado are still signing up for long-term case management.
“We are providing financial assistance, help with other needs, referring to other sources of assistance, and drawing upon other community resources to help,” said Mrs. Marlow.
Clients meet with a case manager to assess their immediate needs and develop a long-term recovery plan.
“We do our best to help,” said Mrs. Marlow. “I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to solve all of their problems, but we will be able to help.”
Catholic Charities is committed to providing a “step up,” rather just a handout.
“Maybe you’ve lost your home and all of your household furniture,” she said. “Maybe you need help finding a job to pay rent or put down a deposit.
“Maybe you have past debt that you need help reducing, or you need help with budgeting from our housing and financial counselor,” she stated. “Maybe you qualify for other assistance such as food stamps or help from a local food pantry.
“Maybe you’re feeling some post-traumatic stress,” she said. “We can get you connected for counseling. And maybe we can help you be more prepared for another disaster.”
The goal is to help individuals, regardless of their faith or religious affiliation, become self-sustainable in their post-disaster reality.
Mrs. Marlow emphasized that providing the best service in the most effective manner takes time.
“Sometimes, when you start digging in, you find that there are several needs, not just what you see on the surface,” she noted. “We don’t want to put on a ‘Band-Aid’ and be done. We want to find out what’s causing the wound.”
She pointed out that Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri closed its last case regarding the devastating 2011 Joplin tornado in 2019.
“It’s long-term,” she said. “It doesn’t all get fixed in a year.”
As one of the agencies working in partnership with the United Way of Central Missouri throughout the crises, Catholic Charities participated in the Restoring Hope Care-A-Van on May 22 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Eldon-Jefferson City tornado.
Organizers included the Cole and Miller County Long-Term Recovery Committee and various community leaders and organizations.
Participants included “health and human service agencies, law enforcement, government leadership and faith-based groups immersed in disaster recovery and rebuilding and COVID response and relief efforts.”
The low-key event’s purpose was to commemorate tornado response and recovery efforts as well as COVID relief efforts.
The caravan traveled through parts of Jefferson City that were devastated by the tornado, as well as locations where first responders, relief organizations and businesses have played a key role in the response, recovery and rebuilding.
People standing at a proper distance to help avoid the spread of COVID-19 greeted the first responders and other personnel as they passed by.
The Care-A-Van concluded at one of four sites where Habitat for Humanity is building a new home in place of one that was devastated by the tornado.
It was a celebration of hope, gratitude and renewed dedication.
“We are so proud of the caring community we live in,” stated Ann Bax, president and CPO of United Way of Central Missouri. “But there is still work to be done, and we understand that disaster survivors are still healing.”
Faith, hope and charity
Mrs. Marlow said God continues to make Himself known through the people affected by the trifecta of disasters and through the help they have been able to receive.
“I pray each day and night for the patience and the wisdom to help the people who are most in need,” she stated.
She said people can help with the ongoing recovery by donating money and time to Catholic Charities and other local service agencies, as well as advocating for long-term needs such as affordable housing and public transit.
“The work of Restoring Hope is far from over,” Mrs. Backer noted, “but we have made tremendous strides in the past year. Catholic Charities is here for our community for the long haul, and we are grateful for the opportunity to serve our neighbors in need.”
To support the disaster relief efforts of Catholic Charities, checks may be mailed to P.O. Box 104626, Jefferson City, MO 65110, or donate online at cccnmo.diojeffcity.org/give/.