HENRYVILLE — Friday, March 2, 2012, was no different than most days during Lent at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Henryville. Tom Nolot and a handful of other volunteers were preparing for the weekly fish fry in the basement of the church at about 3 p.m.
But in a matter of seconds, March 2 would become like no other in the history of the small Clark County town. Mother Nature saw to that.
As Nolot went outside after weather warnings were issued, he noticed a dark wall of clouds heading toward the town. He ran back inside and along with the other volunteers, “hunkered” down behind a wall until the storm passed. In a matter of seconds, the tornado and large hail that followed changed hundreds of lives and the landscape of Henryville forever.
But despite leveling structures and crippling others like the nearby school, St. Francis was left standing, though the church suffered major damage. The roof’s trusses were snapped and nearly caved through the ceiling. In total, the church received about $250,000 in damages, which have since been repaired.
“It sounded like an explosion,” Nolot said of the tornado which passed through. “We heard a boom in the kitchen and the door was blown off. A large deep-freezer near the door was moved across the kitchen floor.”
Once the tornado left and the hail stopped falling, cars parked in the church lot sat demolished and the scene outside resembled a war zone — or worse.
“My wife looked out the kitchen door toward the school and said ‘everything is gone,’” Nolot said. “There was so much destruction.”
RECEIVING THE CALL
St. Francis Rev. Steve Schaftlein, who is also the priest at St. Michael’s in Charlestown, was in Charlestown preparing for a Friday fish fry there when the storm hit. He had heard the reports about the possibility of severe weather that day, but wasn’t too concerned.
“I was busy getting the bulletin ready ... I never pay too much attention to those types of things. I know that is wrong, but when you grow up here you hear hundreds of those,” he said. “When we heard a tornado had went through Henryville and hit the high school, the secretary and I drove there.”
When they arrived, words could not describe what they saw.
“We didn’t say too much,” he said. “We saw the cross on the steeple so we knew the church was still standing but we didn’t know at the time how badly it was damaged.”
The house next door was leveled, and the nearby school was in disrepair. There was destruction everywhere.
But the damage and chaos brought out human character and perseverance. Despite having emergency workers and others staged in his church lot, Schaftlein conducted Mass two days after the storm. Even with large braces anchored on the floor and rising to the church’s ceiling while the trusses were being replaced, and despite having donations of food and clothing cluttered throughout the church, St. Francis never canceled a Mass.
“I think from the very beginning the residents of the town decided they were not going to be victims of this storm,” Schaftlein said. “The whole community responded that day. Everyone pitched in.”
He said within hours, the Clark County Sheriff’s Department was grilling hot dogs in the church lot to feed the hundreds of volunteers and those displaced by the storm.
But the tornado left so many more challenges.
“Some of the veterans said it was worse than anything they had seen in Iraq,” Nolot said.
In the weeks following the storm, emergency crews and the many volunteers used the St. Francis parking lot as a gathering place. Nolot and others helped cook thousands of meals every day to help those who were helping get the town back on its feet.
“We were serving 5,000 to 10,000 meals a day on this corner,” Nolot said. “Another thing that amazes me is the [Duke] substation across the street was ruined and most of the town was without power. They had it back up and running in less than a week and I have been told that kind of job would take three months normally.”
A March2Recovery office opened in a remodeled home next to St. Francis to assist residents. The office is still open, but the demand for help has diminished. Following the storm, there were 2,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed in and around Henryville.
ENDURING FAITH AND REBUILDING THE TOWN
There were no such thing as Catholics, Methodists, Protestants or Baptists in Henryville following the tornado, Schaftlein said. The invisible walls some put up in front of them were ripped away by the storm. The entire community came together and worked as one.
“Most people plowed right on through it together,” Schaftlein said. “It brought the whole community together. I think when something like this happens, you put everything aside and grow closer together.”
He added that what helped inspire townspeople was watching the work being done at the school, which was basically rebuilt in five months. He said every day since has been different, as work continues to rebuild the town. But there is still a lot that needs to be done, and there are still signs of how fresh the wounds are scattered throughout the town with damaged structures and trees that were toppled.
“This has been an amazing experience ... the response of so many and the goodness of people that was evident,” Schaftlein said. “But we have to remember we are halfway through this. There are still 100 to 200 families out there who are displaced or need help. We have to stay the course through the end.”