Perry County recovers from storms

Thursday, May 14, 2009
Members of Trinity Lutheran Church Aaron Hadler, left, Stan Hadler and Steve Hadler of Altenburg, Mo., discuss plans for dealing with the damage Wednesday from May 8 storms next to the 19th-century steeple that was blown over from wind and removed with a crane so the roof would not cave in. (Elizabeth Dodd)

PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- The line of storms that hammered Southeast Missouri on Friday left 70 people homeless in Perryville, ripped the steeple from the roof of a 19th-century church in Altenburg, Mo., and damaged numerous trees, power lines and buildings in Perry County, including the new East Perry County Senior Center.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, Citizens Electric, which serves Perry County, had about 640 members without power, according to Citizens spokeswoman Barbara Casper.

The storm peeled off a large portion of the roof of Hilltop Apartments in Perryville, exposing the building's electrical system to rain and creating what Perryville Mayor Debbie Gahan called "condemnable conditions," forcing the housing complex to close its doors.

"I was looking out the window, and the roof just started popping," said Charlotte Furman, a resident of Hilltop for about two years.

The section of the roof that was ripped away from the building blew into a cow pasture, said Kenneth Furman, also home at the time.

"It was like 'The Wizard of Oz.' We started seeing huge pieces of roof flying by," Furman said. "I expected to see a witch go by on a broom."

Darrel Sebastian, who has been staying at the shelter since Hilltop closed, said that without a car and having just paid rent, he doesn't know where he'll go.

"We're just trying to find a place to live," said Christina Rumph, who said everyone living at the apartment complex lost any groceries they had.

The American Red Cross established a shelter at the United Methodist Church, initially to house residents of Hilltop that needed a place to stay.

Seven people chose to stay at the shelter, and more ventured in from other areas for a warm meal when the storm left them without power, said Dottie Lashley, who is managing the shelter.

"If people keep coming to that shelter and needing a place to stay, it will remain open," said Red Cross spokeswoman Jenny Knoderer.

Knoderer said the shelter is open to people from areas outside Perry County in need of emergency housing.

The storm demolished the roof of the new East Perry County Senior Center, a few weeks after the new center, an expansion of the Perry County Senior Center, began serving meals to elderly residents in Altenburg, Frohna, Uniontown and eastern parts of the county.

The center, forced to close until repairs can be made, has only been open since April 20 but has served nearly 500 meals, said Susan Foster, director of Perry County Senior Center.

The day of the storm, several people showed up for their meal, unaware of the damaged building, Foster said.

A cleanup of the fairgrounds in Altenburg is planned for this Saturday starting at 8 a.m. for any resident "with work gloves and a chain saw," Foster said.

About 10 minutes before the storm hit Altenburg, Diane Miesner, a preschool teacher at Concordia Trinity Lutheran School, shepherded her students into the basement across the lane at the local museum.

Shortly after that, the buildings at Trinity Lutheran Church went dark as the power went out. Minutes later, the pastor came down to inform the class that the massive oak steeple that sat atop the church had been torn from the roof.

Removed by cranes

When the steeple first fell, it just lay across the roof, Miesner said. Two cranes had to remove the steeple and lay it on the grass near the church the day after the storm.

"I took the class over to stand by it, and we prayed, and I started to cry," Miesner said.

When the children asked her why she was crying, she answered, "Everyone's safe."

Now Miesner and her students keep a piece of the splintered steeple in their classroom as a reminder of the danger they were in that day.

Trinity Lutheran held services outside Sunday morning near the fallen steeple, Miesner said.

"We sang a song that we have called, 'My Church is Not a Steeple,'" Miesner said.

The lyrics emphasize that the heart of the church comes from its people and their faith, not from ornate architecture, she said.


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Pertinent addresses:

314 W. North St., Perryville, MO

Altenburg, MO

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