Responding to Needs, Parishes Respond to Kentucky Tornado Devastation

Group photo in St. Mary’s Gymnasium: Lugene Merkel (center, front row) and parishioners of St. Mary’s Catholic Church prepare to send a shipment of donated items to Bremen, Ky., just before Christmas last year. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Parish, Huntingburg.)

It’s been six months since Lugene Merkel added the title of volunteer disaster relief coordinator to her resume.

Watching the evening news after a day of house cleaning on Friday, December 10, 2021, Merkel found herself glued to her television as reports of the ongoing disaster poured in. A large storm front in northwest Tennessee spawned a 190 mph EF-4 tornado that stayed on the ground for a record 166 miles, carving a mile-wide swath of death and destruction across the county. from Obion, Tennessee to Breckinridge County, Kentucky. Directly in his path was the small town of Bremen, Kentucky, located just 75 miles south of Huntingburg.

The scale of the devastation was almost too great to consider.

“God,” she prayed, “someone has to do something.”

“Well, do something,” replied the response.

She debated to herself for the next hour, not really knowing what she could do or how she could do it.

The next day, she just started making phone calls.

“I called a random church there,” she said.

It was St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Sebree, Kentucky. Then she contacted the Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, which led her to Catholic Charities.

In the meantime, Merkel called St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntingburg, where she is a parishioner, to get the ball rolling here.

St. Mary’s Parish wasted no time in immediately organizing a relief effort, partnering with St. Joseph Parish in Central City, Kentucky (near Bremen), a parish in which more than half of the members have seriously damaged by the storm. On Sunday, December 19, the donated items brought to the activity center gymnasium were ready to be loaded into a semi-trailer donated by OFS to be transported to Bremen.

On Monday, December 20, with the tractor-trailer loaded, the parish sent a rescue team of more than 30 men with chainsaws to cut trees and debris along with at least 20 other people to help clean up, put tarps, sort donations, and cook and serve meals. Lugene estimates that 80 to 100 people came to help that first week. Since December, teams have returned to the area six or seven times to continue rebuilding homes, clearing debris, managing donations and more.

Cold weather on March 19 sent the Dubois County area work crew inside this 20,000 square foot warehouse to help sort donated items such as food, diapers, personal care, clothing and toys. (Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg County Tornado Relief.)

Local businesses helping since December include Uebelhor Development (petrol cards, cash); Steinkamp’s Home Center (providing building materials at wholesale prices); OFS (semi-truck to transport loads to Bremen in December); and corporate sponsors Sell 4 Free Real Estate, Remax and Grindstone Garage Auto Repair (Holland).

Other local churches joined forces with St. Mary’s as news of the relief effort spread, including Huntingburg United Methodist Church, Salem United Church of Christ (Huntingburg) and Catholic parishes of the Holy Family, Precious Blood and St. Joseph in Jasper.

Allen Miller, Muhlenberg County Disaster Recovery Coordinator, has had his hands more than busy since that fateful December night. Not only does he oversee the ongoing recovery operations for the county of 38,000 people, but he is also the mayor of Bremen, which translates into concern not only for Bremen’s 350 residents, but also for the 2,800 people located within Bremen’s sphere of influence.

Miller estimates the tornado affected 180 to 200 families in his town and surrounding areas. While most decided to stay and rebuild, a few chose to move.

For those who remain, however, the challenges are daunting.

In general, most homes in the area are underinsured due to policies that are not keeping pace with the rapid increase in home repair costs over the past year.

There is a desperate need for long-term financial assistance to rebuild and “get back to where they were”, he says. Immediate assistance provided by FEMA and the Red Cross is no longer available.

So far, Dubois County residents have donated over $18,000. Fundraisers since December include a catered dinner and t-shirt sales. No amount given is too small.

“Thank you for the money,” Merkel said. “If you gave, thank you! If not, consider doing so.

Those wishing to donate may send checks to Lugene Merkel, 10901 W. St. Rd. 64, Huntingburg, IN 47542; checks payable to Bremen Community Tornado Relief Fund. Merkel brings all the checks in person to Bremen about once a month, where Miller then deposits the funds through the Muhlenberg County Tornado Relief Office. She also sent them by registered mail.

“It’s overwhelming,” Miller said of the help provided by Merkel’s efforts. “Thank you to the parish and the community.

Miller keeps a dry erase board on a wall in his office to keep track of all the work shifts that come in each week. And there’s still a lot to do: cleaning and removing debris, building and repairing houses (roofing, plumbing, electrical, etc.), managing and monitoring donated items awaiting distribution from a warehouse. local are just some of the tasks to be performed. All it takes is one phone call to Miller to match the skills of the volunteers with the tasks at hand. He can be reached at 270-543-6576.

Gas cards are available to help volunteers with the cost of gas; please call Merkel at 812-309-3316, and she will get anyone who needs a card.

Although homes are gradually being rebuilt, Miller reports that people’s yards are a different story. Despite having a roof over their heads, residents still walk out the front door to what amounts to a landscape without trees, grass, shrubs or anything alive. As a result, landscapers are in high demand.

Bremen applied for a grant, including from the Red Cross and United Way, to repair the storm-damaged community center. Miller hopes to upgrade the rebuilt center with a community storm shelter with multiple doors but no windows.

Volunteers from Ferdinand, Huntingburg and Jasper gather outside the Muhlenberg County donation warehouse on March 19. (Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Parish, Huntingburg.)

Merkel did not realize six months ago that she would not so much clean houses as rebuild them and, in the process, rebuild people’s lives. She had no idea that she would be immersed overnight in the associative universe. She had to learn the ropes quickly, from graphic design to email distribution lists, from the legal aspects of nonprofit organizations to organizing work teams and organizing trucking.

It was quite a learning curve.

“I’m not at all equipped to do this, but he equipped me,” Merkel said. “I’m a cleaning lady.”

If you would like to donate: checks payable to Bremen Community Tornado Relief Fund; please send to Lugene Merkel, 10901 W. St. Rd. 64, Huntingburg, IN 47542.

If you would like to volunteer: Please call Allen Miller, Muhlenberg County Disaster Recovery Coordinator, 270-543-6576.

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