United Methodist Committee on Relief

"The Nightmares are Just Beginning"

Spiritual and emotional care are needed long after a disaster is past.
Care Teams help disaster survivors pick up their shattered lives.
Susan Kim

By Susan Kim*

November 7, 2012—Seven months after a tornado struck Harrisburg, IL, people are just now starting to have storm-related nightmares. Why now?

Because they've kept their emotional reactions buried for a long time, said the Rev. Karen Blank-Ewell, director of pastoral care and counseling in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

There are traumatic memories from the tornado outbreak that rolled through the Ohio Valley on February 28 – 29. One of the most destructive twisters hit Harrisburg, killing 8 people in one neighborhood and injuring 110 others. More than 200 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged. Scientists found that the twister was 200 yards wide with winds of up to 170 mph.

Blank-Ewell worked with UMCOR Care Teams to offer a listening presence to tornado survivors in the wake of the storm. She wants to spread the news that there is still a great need for emotional and spiritual care in Harrisburg even today. 

“We tend to people's immediate spiritual needs but it's more difficult to tend to these more distant post-traumatic needs.”

But Blank-Ewell is determined to do just that. She has been meeting with pastors and lay people in the Harrisburg area to determine how best to continue long-term response in the emotional and spiritual care arena.

She lifted up pastors not only as caregivers but as tornado survivors themselves. “Pastors are put in difficult situations,” she said. “They are looked upon as influential and capable. In a lot of ways, people just expect them to get on with business as usual. But the impact of the storm affects the pastor whose church is directing the caregiving.”

Barb Powell, pastor at the Bunker Hill UMC in Illinois, is also a member of the Care Team, and said she was grateful her conference had started the team because she clearly saw the need. “With an intense trauma, you're busy trying to stay together. Because of that, down the road, all of a sudden, that's when it hits you,” she said, “and suddenly you don't have all the answers that people want and need.”

Both Blank-Ewell and Powell particularly remember one moment—among many—that the team was truly a listening presence that journeyed with a tornado survivor whose home had been nearly completely destroyed.

A bulldozer was called in to level the home, and the homeowner was left sitting in a lawn chair, watching and weeping.

“The Care Team went out to be with that person, to pray. We stood there and we prayed for the blessings, joy, peace, comfort, and hope that God provided,” recalled Blank-Ewell. “I thought that was so important.”

Help people nationwide in their spiritual and emotional recovery from disaster. Please donate to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.


*Susan Kim is a journalist and regular contributor to

Help people nationwide in their spiritual and emotional recovery from disaster. Please donate to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.