‘God shining down on them’ — the Rinnie miracle

In aftermath of tornado, family rebuilding with a hand from St. Alphonsus, Catholic Charities

Picking up the pieces St. Alphonsus parishioners Shannon Bice and Paul Vickers, pictured with daughters Aubrey, 4, Makayla, 6, and Taylor, 5, survived a tornado’s strike on Feb. 29, although their house was a total loss. With the help of the St. Alphonsus Catholic community and emergency response from Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, the family is making plans to rebuild.

Shannon Bice and husband Paul Vickers have lost almost everything—and they consider themselves blessed.

The Cumberland County couple continues to pick up the pieces after a tornado destroyed their house and belongings on Feb. 29. But as horrific as the storm was, and the aftermath that left Mr. Vickers jobless, Mrs. Bice is thanking God for her children’s safety and for the support of parishioners at St. Alphonsus Church and Catholic Charities of East Tennessee (CCET).

Mrs. Bice had just arrived at her Rinnie community home with her three daughters and an 18-month-old grandchild on the afternoon of Feb. 29 when disaster struck suddenly. She was aware that storms were in the area but had noticed that skies over her home were only overcast, with no rain or wind.

“Thank you, God, that my girls are alive. It happened so fast. Something told me to get my girls in the bathroom.”

Shortly after entering her home, however, she felt a sudden change in the atmosphere and quickly ushered the children into a bathroom. While huddled in that interior room, the tornado ripped their house apart.

In the few seconds that it lasted, Mrs Bice said the violent storm also destroyed the homes of two neighbors, killing two residents. She feels certain that God intervened to protect her children. Surrounded by menacing storm clouds after the tornado disappeared, Mrs. Bice looked up and where the roof had been moments earlier she saw a ray of sunshine beaming down.

“It was a little circle of sunlight shining on us and I said, ‘Thank you, God.’ I remember saying, ‘Thank you, God, that my girls are alive,’” Mrs. Bice said. “It happened so fast. Something told me to get the girls into the bathroom.”

Afterward, she was told the funnel cloud had winds of 130 mph and lasted 33 seconds. Mrs. Bice knows that the winds were strong enough to strip the clothes off her 4-year-old daughter .

“All I could think was thank you, God. I know that we could not have survived and I could not have held onto those children without God. God was holding me down and I was holding my girls down.”

Where could it be? Aubrey Vickers, 4, looks for a favorite cup amid the destruction at her family’s house near Crossville on May 18. Aubrey’s parents, Shannon Bice and Paul Vickers, had their property insured and plan to rebuild, but in a different location. Their four-bedroom, two-bath house was a total loss after the Feb. 29 tornado, which killed two of their neighbors.

Except for a minor cut, neither she nor her children—Makayla, 6, Taylor, 5, Aubrey, 4, or the 18-month-old grandchild—were injured. Mr. Vickers was trying to make his way home from work when the tornado hit.

When news broke on Feb. 29 that tornadoes again had touched down in communities across East Tennessee, Father Ragan Schriver braced for the worst. It didn’t take long for word to reach CCET that Crossville was one of the hardest hit areas and emergency help was needed.

The EF-2 tornado that left a path of destruction nearly seven miles long and two miles wide damaged or destroyed more than 50 residences and businesses.

Father Antony Punnackal at St. Alphonsus in Crossville contacted Father Schriver, CCET executive director, with details of the disaster and a plea to Catholic Charities for help.

So, Catholic Charities’ disaster response program kicked into gear.

Father Schriver recounted the harrowing scene of sunlight appearing down on Mrs. Bice and her children, illustrating the faith of a family in harm’s way and the Catholic community coming to their aid.

“She interpreted it as God shining down on them, and it gave her a sense of peace and to know everything would be OK,” Father Schriver said. “These are the intangibles. People need help and you can get them help.”

Catholic Charities, which is part of the Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster network, lent assistance as the St. Alphonsus staff quickly helped Mrs. Bice and Mr. Vickers reach extended family members in those crucial first hours after the twister. The family’s property was insured, but debris removal was not a covered cost, so Catholic Charities has assisted with cleanup.

Catholic Charities has been assisting several families affected by the storms. Father Schriver calls the organization a second line of defense during emergencies.

VOAD, a regional network of organizations that mobilize during disasters to aid in rescue and recovery, also includes the Red Cross, Salvation Army, church organizations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, rescue squads, and Second Harvest Food Bank.

Father Schriver explained that CCET was first drafted into emergency response in August 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina hit. The nonprofit organization was flooded with calls for housing as thousands of residents fled the Gulf Coast.

Now, that single hurricane disaster response has grown to be one of about 20 social programs CCET provides. And that list is expanding.

The longer Father Schriver serves as executive director of CCET, the more needs he sees arising.

“Needs just bubble up. And we have to find a way to respond to them,” Father Schriver said. “We have to shift priorities when the need arises.”

Another need that has “bubbled up” is assistance for low-income veterans.

Father Schriver said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has approached CCET about overseeing an outreach program for low-income veterans in the area. The nonprofit organization has responded to a federal request for proposal for the program that would assist veterans in getting housing, health care and mental health counseling.

Samaritan Place, a Catholic Charities facility that provides emergency shelter and transitional and long-term supportive housing for seniors, currently houses six veterans.

Three veterans at Samaritan Place expressed gratitude at having access to a facility that can assist them with basic necessities.

“I’m very grateful. It is giving me tips on jobs and housing and pointing me in the right direction,” said James McKeon, an Army veteran who served from 1980-1984.

Sherryl Buza, another Army veteran who served from 1986-1988, said she has been at Samaritan Place about a year. “It’s helped me quite a bit since I’ve been here. It’s very important to have a program for veterans. We need to have something to fall back on,” said Buza, who added that she is transitioning from Samaritan Place to permanent housing.

Navy veteran Charles Freels, who served from 1973-1977, echoed comments by Mr. McKeon and Ms. Buza.

Catholic Charities also is looking into doing professional counseling over the phone that would use an innovative approach to reach people who have no transportation or means to obtain mental health care.

Other programs Catholic Charities is more known for include Columbus Home Children’s Services, Children’s Emergency Shelter, Parent Place, Five Rivers and Horizon houses, and Crazy Quilt Friendship Center.

Catholic Charities’ annual budget comes from federal and state sources such as grants. But nearly 50 percent comes from local sources, including fundraising. In many cases, the organization must raise local dollars to match federal grant funding.

“It requires the support of our community,” Father Schriver said. “People are always going to have a tough time. The poor will always be with us, but we should always work to reduce the impact of poverty. With Jesus’ help, we can work toward this.”

In the meantime, Shannon Bice and Paul Vickers continue to piece together their family life. After the tornado, he was laid off from his job. Mrs. Bice lost her job late last year, but is planning to return to school once they rebuild.

Although a St. Alphonsus parishioner with her husband for some time now, she also plans to join her husband in the Catholic Church after going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—at Father Punnackal’s gentle urging.

Mrs. Bice and Mr. Vickers have been overwhelmed by the outreach from St. Alphonsus parishioners.

“It was amazing. They have been wonderful,” Mrs Bice said. “Everything that happened that day happened for a reason. It was God. I know we lost everything, but we are fortunate. Our neighbors lost their lives.” n

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