HENRYVILLE, Ind. – Under a patched-up six-foot hole in the roof, people in the devastated town of Henryville gathered Sunday at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church to worship and catch up on news of their devastating tornado by word of mouth, not with cellphones or email.
At least 39 people were killed in the storm system that struck Friday night, and rescuers were still going door-to-door in rural areas to rule out more victims. Some of the worst damage stretched on either side of the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky.
The storms thrashed the conveniences of modern life, too: Cellphone signals were hard to find, Internet was out and electricity indefinitely interrupted.
People went back to basics or got creative to learn about their loved ones and begin rebuilding.
“It’s horrible. It’s things you take for granted that aren’t there anymore,” said Jack Cleveland, 50, a Census Bureau worker.
Randy Mattingly, a 24-year-old mechanic, said he and his neighbors passed on information by word-of-mouth to make sure people were OK: “It was like, ‘Hey, did you talk to this guy?’ ” He said state police quickly set up two gathering points for adults and children, at the church and at a nearby community center.
At Sunday’s mass, Father Steve Schaftlein turned the church into an information exchange, asking the 100 or so in attendance to stand up and share information. Immediately, volunteers stood to share tips about functioning in what is in many ways a tech-free zone.
Lisa Smith, who has been Henryville’s postmaster for six weeks, told people that they could pick up their mail in Scottsburg, about 10 miles north. She said she was most worried about people needing medication and she had been shaking boxes to see if they had pills inside with hopes of connecting them to their recipients.
A local insurance agent, Lyn Murphy-Carter, shared another story. The founder of her agency, 84-year-old Tom Murphy, had told her always to keep paper records. That proved valuable without access to computers. She collected about 1,000 claims Saturday alone, and was gathering handwritten claims from policyholders at church.
In West Liberty, Ky., about 85 miles east of Lexington, loss of technology led to a confusing and stressful aftermath for Doris Shuck, who was cleaning her house when the storm approached.
She grabbed her laptop, cellphone and iPod and put them in a tote bag to bring down to the basement. The storms took her home, leaving only the basement and front porch. Huge piles of debris and mattresses were strewn in the backyard.
“I could hear the glass and hear the wood breaking. I just thought the house is going to fall on top of me,” she said. She had scrapes and bruises.
After the storm passed, she received a text message from her mother, 70 miles away in Prestonsburg, but couldn’t reply.
“I was just trying to figure out what had happened and get my thoughts together and my phone beeped and I looked and it was from my mom. I couldn’t answer it,” Shuck said. She went to the hospital where she works, but there was no Internet access there, either.
She reunited with her husband and daughter at the hospital and left for Prestonsburg to let her mother know they were OK. But they didn’t know her parents were on their way to West Liberty at the same time.
“We had no way to communicate that to each other. We’re so used to our cellphones and instant messaging. We didn’t have any of that.”
Her parents asked a state fish and wildlife officer to go to their home. The officer eventually found Doris Shuck’s name on a list at the hospital for people who were accounted for.
While it could be days before power and cell service are fully restored to the damaged areas, crews were making progress Sunday. In Indiana, about 2,800 homes were without power, down from 8,000 in the hours after the storms. But in some hard-hit areas, like Henryville, a substation and transmission lines need to be rebuilt, and that could take up to a week.
Almost 19,000 customers were without power in Kentucky, according to the state’s Public Service Commission, and a few thousand more from municipal utilities and TVA, which the PSC does not track.
Cellphone companies were trying to help residents by setting up mobile charging and email stations so they could communicate while power and cell service was still difficult to find. They also brought in portable towers to boost signals, and service was improving Sunday.
Even with life upended in so many ways, one family got a reminder that even a deadly tornado can’t uproot everything.
The home that Shalonda Kerr shares with her husband and Jack Russell terrier outside of Chelsea, Ind., was obliterated: The front wall was ripped clean, leaving the home looking eerily like a shaken dollhouse. An upended couch and a tipped-over fish tank lay in the rubble.
The mailbox was untouched. Its front hatch was tipped open, revealing a white piece of paper.
“Inside was a $300 IRS bill,” Kerr said, laughing amid the ruins.