By Sharon Witty
Special to The Witness
MARSHALLTOWN — At 4:40 p.m. on July 19, an EF3 tornado tore through Marshalltown’s Main Street and northeast section, uprooting 200-year-old trees, damaging homes, businesses and peoples’ lives. The tornado minimally damaged to totally devastated some 800 homes and 30 businesses.
Beth Anson, a member of St. Mary Parish, as usual was singing at the 3 p.m. Thursday Iowa Veterans Home Mass. On this Thursday everyone was told to stay in the chapel after Mass. They did — for an hour and a half. Usually she drives five minutes home. Not this day. Trees blocking the street forced her to walk home.
“I saw such destruction and damage to so many homes, I wondered how I would find our home and didn’t know if my husband, Terry, was OK,” she said.
Ana Hernandez, coordinator of religious education for St. Mary/St. Henry Parishes, was working when the tornado struck. Her parents and five of her siblings were home.
“We have a home altar in the corner of our living room,” recalled Hernandez. “They had the Bible open and were praying. When my mother realized how bad it was, she put the Bible back, and she and my siblings went to the basement; Dad stood outside for a while. Through the small basement window, my mother could see objects flying through the air and thought, ‘My altar is blown away.’ But when they went upstairs, the altar was intact. The Bible was still in place, open to the same page. The crucifix was still hanging on the wall.”
When the tornado struck their home, Monica and Eric Boone and their four children, of St. Mary parish, were on family vacation to Disney World, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.
“We received the call from family,” said Monica, “and wanted a quiet room. Disney staff found a place for us, where we calmed the kids down. When the staff learned what had happened, they gave us a four-day pass to any Disney area whenever we want to return.”
When the tornado damaged St. Mary’s church, rectory and office building, Father Alan Dietzenbach had been in his position as St. Mary’s pastor five days.
KCRM radio has filled the air with Catholic programming for 15 years; in a few minutes it was silenced. The tornado caved in the building housing the studio; consequently, the sprinkler system soaked the equipment, the ceiling fell in and insulation coated the equipment.
The tornado reduced Action Auto Parts (AAP), owned by Ken and Sarah Hessmer of St. Mary Parish, from 26,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet.
“Total inventory damage is still unknown,” reported Sarah. “Ken, David [their son], and four employees were at the business during the tornado, but no one was harmed. God is good.”
Christ’s feet hit the ground
When Beth Anson got home, she found her home of 43 years “intact” and Terry “helping neighbors,” even though his home suffered electrical damage and roof damage; felled trees damaged fencing; windows shattered, spewing glass and debris inside. Six days after the tornado, their 120-year-old walnut tree had to be cut down, for it was pulled up from its root base and was leaning toward their house and the neighbor’s.
“Neighbors on each side,” said Beth, “helped us, and we helped them.”
Family and friends provided the Ansons with water and food and helped them clean up their yard.
The Hernandez home suffered major damage. All the windows except one were blown out, the roof is damaged and leaks, the siding is gone, as is the “red fence which distinguished our brick home from the other brick homes.
“We lived with my aunt for a couple of days and then a motel for a few days,” said Hernandez. “The kids wanted to be at home.”
The Hernandez family, too, received help from volunteers to clean up the debris and brush in the yard. Family members have moved back into their house, but the fiber from insulation causes breathing problems and rashes, so they will move into a house being loaned to them while their house is repaired.
The roof of the Boone home is damaged as are the gutters, deck, fencing and sun room. The double car garage is history as is the pickup parked inside.
Family members and friends arrived the next day with chainsaws, rakes and a generator, “to keep the refrigerator food safe and for the power tools,” said Monica Boone. “They didn’t want us to have to come home and worry about the damage.
“But, I feel fortunate. We can live in our home.”
“It took 20 to 30 people three days to clean up the garage and tree debris,” reported Father Alan Dietzenbach. The remaining repair to St. Mary buildings must be done professionally.
Plans are already underway “to stream KCRM radio on internet ASAP,” stated Bob Dick, president of Marshalltown Catholic Radio. “Although we may air only six to eight hours a day, this will give us on air presence. Insurance will pay for the equipment, but we need a tall building.”
Many volunteers helped AAP clean up, “so we could recover some inventory and open for business in a fractured way,” said Sarah Hesmer. An AAP competitor “offered warehouse space and any equipment he had.”
Christ’s hands, feet and body had come in all shapes and forms to aid hurting members of the body.
The Marshall County Emergency Food Box, well supported by Marshalltown Catholics in donations and volunteers, did away with required referrals. Whoever walked in the door received food — and support.
“I’ve witnessed the emotional effect on families who have had major damage to their home or lost their homes,” commented Anne Schulte, Food Box chair. “One day when I worked, three families came in who were homeless and living with whoever would take them in. Some families were living in unsafe homes because they couldn’t afford to leave.”
Eldon Schneider of St. Mary Parish, district deputy of the Knights of Columbus Council 26, gathered $11,400 from various KC councils to purchase supermarket gift cards to give to tornado victims.
Helene Edel, of St. Henry Parish, formed a committee to cook for 40 displaced residents of Embers retirement community. The Willows, newly built assisted living center, prepared rooms to provide temporary housing, but the kitchen was not yet operating.
Bethany Jablonski, St. Mary/St. Henry coordinator of youth ministry, began receiving texts from youth, asking, “What’s the schedule [for helping clean up]?”
“I didn’t know,” commented Jablonski. “I had no manual telling me what a youth ministry coordinator does after a tornado, but we had just finished service in Indiana at Catholic Heart Youth Camp, and they knew we are called to serve.”
So Jablonski and some 24 fifth- through 12th-graders gathered up rakes, brooms and a trailer and went out to clean up tree debris, stopping at any house that needed help. “We carried tree debris from backyards to terraces. Then we loaded up the trailer and took 20 loads to the compost pile.
“But it wasn’t just the youth who came, parents came with their children,” said Jablonski. “I was so glad to see parents setting an example. The kids kept wanting more. We were out for eight solid days. We got dirty. It’s one thing to do things in church, but it’s different in the real world. It’s messy and dirty; it’s nails and boards. We found visiting with the people was as important as cleaning up. But we’re called to be community. We are called to do God’s work.”
Youth from St. Mary & St. Henry Parishes clean up a backyard for a family near Lennox, a manufacturing company that was hard hit. (Photo by Bethany Jablonski)