Catholic Herald staff
When the May 16 tornado hit the tiny Rusk County village of Weyerhaeuser, Deacon Tom Fuhrmann and his wife, Sharon, were the only locals to lose everything.
The Fuhrmanns are members of Ss. Peter and Paul, Weyerhaeuser, where Deacon Tom, ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2008, also serves among the clergy.
Sharon was in the house alone the afternoon of May 16. She heard strong winds and hailstones, but she said the tornado was completely unexpected – she never even made it to the basement.
“It took off the roof, and part of the ceiling came back down inside,” she added. “Basically, it knocked me off my feet and blew me about 3 or 4 feet.”
Deacon Tom, meanwhile, was driving their “old beater,” approaching the village, when the storm hit. He decided to take shelter at a local business.
“The sky was so green, I knew something was up,” he said. “It was raining so hard, you couldn’t see across the street. I waited until the storm was over before attempting to go home.”
When he finally got there, what he found was devastation.
“We got hit head-on, really head-on,” he said.
Only the walls of their ranch-style home were still standing; the roof had been ripped off, the windows blown out, and all of their possessions were damaged. The garage was gone, and their two new vehicles were beyond repair.
For Sharon, the loss of her cookbooks and, effectively, a piece of her heritage – all of her mother’s handwritten recipes were ruined – was hardest to bear. Of the many gifts their community would give them in the coming months, a collection of recipes from local women is among those dearest to her.
When the couple walked out of their home that day, they had nothing but the clothes on their backs – Sharon wasn’t even wearing shoes, and her clothes were soaking wet – and the vehicle Deacon Tom had been driving.
Initially the Fuhrmanns sought refuge with their neighbors a couple of doors down. Before long, the parish council invited them to move into the church’s fully furnished rectory.
“That was really a godsend to us,” Deacon Tom added.
The Fuhrmanns learned their situation was unique; although the record-breaking tornado had destroyed many houses and other buildings in its 83-mile path, they were the only residents of Weyerhaeuser whose home was a total loss.
This Christmas, the Fuhrmanns had much to celebrate. After seven months of living in borrowed quarters, they were finally able to move into their new home.
The builders, who’d prioritized the couple’s project to expedite its completion, demolished the existing structure before building a new house on the same foundation. They finished in mid-December.
All along, the deacon and his wife were gratified by the support of their community, and he cites the insurance company’s prompt settlement and the contractor’s kindness in quickly finishing the house as two such blessings.
Deacon Tom felt “the presence of God in my life, of making sure that Sharon wasn’t injured seriously, and that he had his hand on my shoulder, kind of telling me what to do, where to go.”
Throughout the recovery process, he saw “the beautifulness of people,” whether they were religious or not. The couple received cards and letters from as far away as Madison; a woman they’d never met – a relative of a parish council member – gave them a bag full of shampoo and other necessities for their little dog; and parishioners and clergy from the Rusk County Catholic Community, their six-parish cluster, offered help and support.
Losing everything has been a great test of faith for the Fuhrmanns.
“We found out what it was to be homeless,” the deacon said.
“Not only homeless, but just the clothes on your back,” his wife added. “That was pretty desperate.”
“It was difficult,” Deacon Tom commented, but they survived “with the help of God, and our neighbors … if we hadn’t had their support, we wouldn’t have gotten through it.”
When they look out their windows to the east and the west, they see a scarred landscape – plastic from their house still hanging in bent and twisted trees, trees felled in the storm that won’t be cleared any time soon, damage that will take many more months, even years, to reverse.
They hope 2018 will be a less eventful year.
While the deacon has seen God’s hand in protecting and guiding them through the trials of the last seven months, Sharon’s response to the experience is, she said, “a prayer that it never happens again.”