Giving thanks: tornado victims count blessings as they rebuild their lives

The Schoenherr Family; Photo Credit: Denver Catholic Register
The Schoenherr Family; Photo Credit: Denver Catholic Register


On May 22, a mile-wide tornado tore through the community of Windsor, 80 miles north of Denver, killing one person and devastating the lives of hundreds of others. However, six months later, this community of 19,000 continues to rebuild as those who were displaced count their blessings and get their lives back on track.


With 150 mph winds, the storm destroyed 80 homes and more than 700 others were damaged. The Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated the financial impact on Windsor was in excess of $5 million and, by the end of the summer, according to figures released by the Department of Regulatory Agencies for Colorado, more than $147.6 million dollars in insurance payouts for auto and home damage.


As of last week, of the 418 houses that suffered structural damage by the tornado all but five have been issued building permits to begin reconstruction.


Father James Spahn, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish, said that in the weeks immediately following the tornado came an outpouring of generosity he had never seen before. The help came from parishes, organizations and individuals.


“Some … donated gift certificates so victims could purchase food and necessities, others just showed up and offered to help,” he said.


Even now, months later, people continue to help their neighbors in any way they can, according to Our Lady of the Valley Business Manager Darcy Cangilla.


“To date we’ve received about $150,000 in donations,” she said. “It came from all walks: individuals, parishes from in-state and out-of-state as well as from Catholic Charities. The money is being used for everything from buying food to helping with shelter and reconstruction costs.”


Although the church itself wasn’t in the path of the tornado, the building did sustain some hail and roof damage. Parishioners saw to it that the church was repaired, but also concentrated their efforts on those who got hit a lot harder.


“The people of the parish have pulled together from the day of the disaster,” Cangilla said. “Even now, as people are moving back into their houses we have volunteers who help them move their belongings back in.”


One of the families who have moved back into their house is that of Hugo and Patricia Flores. The family wasn’t home when the tornado came through, and compared to the devastation suffered by some of their neighbors, they were fortunate, said Patricia Flores.

“We sustained damage but our home was structurally sound,” she said. “The storm blew out all of our windows and doors and we did have to get rid of our furniture, but our repair was confined to some holes in the roof and one wall that had to be reinforced. We were lucky.”


While their home was being repaired, the Flores, along with teenage son Mario, lived in a nearby townhome. Grateful to be back in their home, the family has invited their pastor to bless it. They plan to invite many of the parishioners who helped them during their ordeal to the ceremony.


“This community has been a blessing,” Patricia Flores said. “It makes one rethink what’s important. Things can always be replaced. Friends and family are what makes life important.”


Windsor residents Tom and Callie Schoenherr say had it not been for a long-distance phone call, their experience could have been a lot worse.


“We were upstairs watching the hailstorm outside when my mother called from South Dakota,” Callie Schoenherr said. “She’d heard on the news that tornados were sighted outside of Winsor and perhaps we should go to the basement.”


Seconds after the family—including 2-year-old Tori and 1-year old Tyson—got to the basement, the tornado hit their home.


“The garage collapsed and blew away and one of the vehicles was a total loss,” Callie Schoenherr said. “Debris was everywhere—glass, insulation, shingles—every window was blown out upstairs. It was a mess.”


Damage to the home was extensive. The foundation, most of the basement and walls on the first floor were still intact, but everything else was gutted down to the frame before the family could rebuild. Callie Schoenherr credits her parish with helping the family cope with the tragedy.


“Some gracious parishioners from church put us up for several nights; another family lent us the use of their home for a short time while they were out of town,” she said. “We eventually found a place to rent until our house was rebuilt; last week we were able to move back in. We’re so thankful to be home.”


Some families remain displaced and face the prospect of more months passing before they can move back. Such is the case for Kathy and Michael Zrubek who have run into some challenges in trying to get their house rebuilt.


The Zrubek home was a total loss and had to be torn down to the foundation. They have settled with their insurance company and are approved for low interest loans, but getting the construction going has been tough.


“First we had to get some quotes on building,” Kathy Zrubek said. “We spoke with several committees … and then we were told by the city that because we tore down the house to the foundation we’d be classified as a ‘new construction project,’ which meant added cost. It’s been quite an ordeal.”


Eventually, the building committee managed to locate the original builder who contacted the Zrubeks and agreed to rebuild their house for them. According to Kathy Zrubek, construction can begin as soon as they receive their permit.


“Hopefully, we’ll be in by April,” she said.


For the time being the Zrubeks, along with their four children, are staying in a rental nearby. Kathy Zrubek said that while the children have looked at the process as an adventure, they’re anxious to get back into their home. They maintain their outlook with cheer, a laugh or two and help from their friends.


“We take it one day at a time,” Kathy Zrubek said. “Faith has a lot to do with it. It shores me up when nothing else will. We get so much moral support from the church and the people—it’s the one thing in our life that has been consistent and keeps us grounded.”


Printed with permission from the Denver Catholic Register.


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