Disaster News.net March 22, 2004
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Emotional clouds hang in KS

FRANKLIN, Kansas (March 22, 2004) —
Many homes have been repaired but clearing the emotional damage in Kansas – where it's tornado season once again – could take longer. Ten months after twisters ripped through the town of Franklin and other nearby communities, "the intensity in emotion is just phenomenal," described Kip Kennedy, disaster recovery coordinator for Tornado Interagency Recovery for Southeast Kansas (TIRSK)

TIRSK, a coalition of faith-based and secular organizations helping people recover from the May 2003 tornadoes, has been funded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Church World Service, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and a local group called the Pittsburg Area Community Foundation.

It's not just a few people feeling emotional stress, Kennedy said. "Entire communities are affected. There are people at every stage of personal recovery. It's a long process."

For months now, when a severe storm passes, Kennedy has been calling people who live alone to check on them. "The other day we had a good round of thunderstorms, and there was one person I usually call who I didn't call," he said. "She called me and asked why I hadn't called. She was really shaken up."

It's that simple outreach – checking on your neighbor – that's vital right now, Kennedy said. "That has very much been the role of the churches here," he said. "I often hear clients tell me 'my church has been very supportive.'

"And spiritual healing is part of the process, part of the long-term closure," he said.

The Rev. Steve Cole, pastor at the Girard United Methodist Church, just west of Franklin, said he, too, has noticed people are still anxious. "We're coming back into the time of year when we start having tornadoes again," he said. "People are more tense, and there's more stress on them when any storm starts to come."

To add to the angst, he said, some people are still battling their insurance companies.

"For some people it's been slow working through their insurance," agreed the Rev. Ted Wynn, pastor at the New Life Baptist Church in Franklin. "A lot of houses haven't been rebuilt."

And as parents have coped with the stress of recovery, children have been vulnerable to their own ongoing emotional trauma, added Sue Wynn, his wife. "I've been with some children when storms come, and they're really scared," she said. "We were with children at camp this summer, and the deputies came by and told us there was a tornado watch. We had a shelter to go to, but some of the children were just crying their eyes out."

The Franklin Community Council – all volunteers themselves in this a town of about 400 people – is also advocating for long-term recovery with a fundraising campaign. The most critical need is $14,800 is for a storm siren, said council spokesperson Phyllis Bitner.

Plans for a community park are also underway, and the council hopes to raise 405,000.

"We're an unincorporated community," Bitner said. "It was a lovely little community. We've worked so hard. We need a storm siren in the worst way."

Franklin also needs housing for seniors, Craig Stokes, president of the council, reported, but that can't happen until a sewer system is installed. "Many of the homeowners that lost everything in the tornado had lived in Franklin for 40, 50 and 60 years," he reported. "They have a desire to return but for many of them rebuilding is not an option. They have been forced to find living quarters elsewhere. How truly sad it would be if they could not spend the remainder of their lives in their hometown.

"Developers have discussed building senior housing," according to Stokes, "but until sewers are in place this is but another project on our wish list."

As volunteers in the town continue to advocate for these projects – some of which they were fighting for before the tornadoes even struck – it can be tiring, said Bitner. "We're starting to feel like when you go to war and you're completely worn out and frazzled."

It's the work of TIRSK and of the Franklin Community Council – and the volunteers those groups have attracted – that has brightened people's lives, said Cole and other local pastors. "There have been so many donations of people's time and materials. And volunteers are still coming in."

The council, working with area clergy, will hold a service titled "Remembering the Past – Looking to the Future" on May 4, 2004, the year anniversary of the tornadoes.

The tornado disaster, in its own way, has been a time of spiritual renewal for people, said Rev. Wynn. "It's been a spiritual boost," he said. "We've seen people in church who weren't regularly attending before but are now. It spurred a spiritual renewal in a lot of people's lives."

TIRSK now has closed 75% of its caseload, said Kennedy, and in another two months will be able to disband. But residents may still have a regional disaster response coalition in place, since their state may soon have a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) in addition to its statewide Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

"The COAD would fill the role that TIRSK has had," explained Kennedy.

Meanwhile, many people in Kansas are still anxious every time they see a storm cloud. "We have our fingers crossed," said Kennedy. "It's that time of year."

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