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Prayers were louder than the tornado, says Kansas parish secretary By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News ServiceWASHINGTON (CNS) — When Helen Rule saw the remains of her home after it was torn apart by the May 4 tornado that whipped through Greensburg, Kan., she was more overwhelmed by the fact she had survived than by the actual devastation.“I don’t know how I lived through it,” she told Catholic News Service May 11 from her cell phone outside a Wal-Mart in a neighboring town.Other than two walls, nothing is standing in Rule’s house. Rafters fell into the middle of the living room, which now also contains a large barrel and some neighbors’ mailboxes.On the night of the tornado, the 70-year-old secretary at St. Joseph Parish in Greensburg could do nothing but huddle in the hallway. Rule, who uses an oxygen tank, was unable to get to her cellar space when she heard the all too familiar tornado alarm.
But she got the sense this warning might be a serious one when a television report showed the tornado’s path heading toward southwest Kansas. Rule put on her shoes, grabbed a flashlight and her cell phone and huddled next to her oxygen machine.
She has heard reports the tornado touched down for seven minutes, but at the time she said it “seemed like forever.” New reports said the twister was more than a mile wide with winds exceeding 200 mph. About 95 percent of the town was destroyed, including St. Joseph Church.
During the storm she crouched down and closed her eyes. She could hear things batting against the house and before long she could feel pieces of her home’s new insulation in her hair. Because of the wind she could hardly keep holding the blanket she had grabbed and she held on desperately to her oxygen tank, thinking that if she went, it was going with her.
“I didn’t know what was louder, the tornado or me praying,” she said, pointing out that she prayed whatever came to mind and certainly said a few Hail Marys “over and over” to make sure God heard her.
“He must have, because I’m here,” she was quick to add.
Without any hesitation, she said her faith was strengthened by the tornado because she is convinced she would not have survived without praying.
When the storm let up, she wondered why she was getting wet inside her house, but looked up and saw the roof was gone leaving her no shelter from the pounding rain.
Rule stood up but could not move initially because there was so much debris. She finally worked her way around the now unfamiliar territory of what had been her home for 14 years. She got outside and “hollered” for help, she said, knowing she better get some soon because, along with everything else, her oxygen tank was not working.
She was driven to what had been the town hospital and then to a nearby shelter. By the next morning, her son, who lives in Denver, retrieved her.
Meanwhile, her friend, Ellen Peters, also a St. Joseph parishioner in Greensburg, was searching everywhere for Rule. In the midst of her search, Peters, a registered nurse who lives on a farm a few miles outside Greensburg, realized the town’s shelters could use her help.
She spent the better part of the next two days calling in prescription orders for men and women who were displaced by the storm and without necessary paperwork or identification to get the medicines they needed.
Peters was not alone in dropping everything to pitch in. She told CNS the assistance was overwhelming. “I can’t say enough about people learning Gospel living when the chips are down,” she added.
One difficult aspect of volunteering, though, was hearing so many stories of loss.
“So many people lost everything,” she said, noting that after the tornado it rained for three days, further ruining people’s belongings. But even amid this loss, she heard countless stories of people picking through the rubble and finding items of personal value.
She also said the people she talked to showed amazing resiliency and faith. They frequently spoke of the storm as an “act of nature, not an act of God” and were convinced God would give them the strength they needed to move on.
“There was none of this, ‘Why did this happen to me?'” she said. Instead, the Greensburg residents seemed determined to “keep at it and dig in, knowing they will be back.”
Rule, the mother of four and grandmother of 12, counts herself among those who won’t give up. She returned to Greensburg as soon as she could, to salvage what she could of her belongings. For now, she is staying with her friend, filling out paperwork, washing clothes in a nearby Laundromat and shopping for essentials.
She does not seem overwhelmed by not knowing where she will live or work.
Instead, she simply said, “I have no plans, and I’m not making any yet.”