After losses, Alabama town plans shelter


photo from

An UMCOR News Story
By Susan Kim*

When a tornado struck the Alabama town of Harvest in April 2011, it missed the new building of CrossWinds United Methodist Church by just a quarter mile. The congregation immediately reached out to its neighbors, opening their doors to offer food, supplies and comfort to tornado survivors.

As the response continued, Suzanne Katschke, co-senior pastor at CrossWinds, heard about an opportunity to apply for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a community disaster shelter. She began researching in order to write the grant application, and she found a statistic that made her profoundly sad: over the past several decades, the town of Harvest—population 5,500—has lost 57 people to tornadoes.

In 1974, severe storms struck the area, resulting in two tornadoes within 30 minutes that killed dozens of people and injured hundreds of others. Another severe tornado occurred in 1995. Then the 2011 tornadoes killed seven people in Harvest. Many people had nowhere to turn for safety and chose to ride out the storm in their interior closets. Now when storms arise, fear grips this community—fear coupled with a vivid memory of repeated tragic losses. 

Stemming the tide of loss

When Katschke talks about it, she tears up. “This has gone on way too long—57 deaths, four tornadoes, some neighborhoods hit multiple times. These people are precious. We can't go on losing them,” she said.

CrossWinds Church applied for the grant in partnership with the Harvest Volunteer Fire Department. FEMA awarded them $750,000, which will go toward building a shelter that will hold 475 people.

“I can't tell you how excited I am over this shelter, and how much we need this,” said Tim Westwick, fire chief. “Suzanne Katschke is terrific and the church is amazing.”

As for Westwick, Katschke calls him, “an incredible servant to our community.”

The two are still raising funds, since the FEMA grant requires a matching contribution from other sources.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is supporting the project with a $100,000 grant, and also is planning an additional grant that will make it possible to install showers in the shelter. “This means, in a post-tornado situation, volunteers can stay in the shelter, and residents can have a place to shower as well,” said Katschke.

She also has applied for $119,000 from the Governor's Emergency Relief Fund.

Katschke encouraged small towns everywhere to work together to build disaster shelters. “If Harvest can bring a sense of safety to people here, other towns can do this, too. It's time to stop losing people to tornadoes.”

Your gift to UMCOR U.S. Disaster Response, Advance #901670, helps communities like Harvest prepare for and respond to disasters.

*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to

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