INDIANAPOLIS –– Tammy Becht and her family sought shelter in the basement of their Floyd County home March 2 when tornadoes ravaged small towns across southern Indiana.

About an hour later, she began seeing the devastation through live TV reports from the affected towns.

free-foodA sign is seen in Henryville, Ind., March 5 outside St. Francis Xavier Church, which has become the main center for tornado victims to get help after tornadoes moved through the small community. A chain of tornadoes cut a swath of destruction March 2 fro m the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, killing at least 39 people in five states. (CNS photo/John Sommers II, Reuters) (March 5, 2012)“I realized that we were dealing with a massive amount of destruction,” said Becht, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany during a March 4 telephone interview with The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese. “And that meant that people were going to want to respond.”

Becht soon sent a message through the Internet social networking website Facebook to her pastor, Father Eric Augenstein.

Becht was ready to help in large part because of her experience more than five years ago in leading four relief trips to the Gulf Coast in the months immediately after Hurricane Katrina ravaged that region.

“(Helping after Katrina) impacted me in so many ways,” she said. “I realized how much power we have as a faith community to be able to reach out to other people. It doesn’t matter if they’re in our backyard or not. If we feel called to help in some way, then God is going to enable us to be able to do something with it if we’re faithful to it.”

Approximately 50 Catholics across the New Albany Deanery felt that call and attended a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church about 18 hours after the tornadoes to begin organizing relief efforts.

“This is what a Catholic community is all about, the support for one another,” said Father Augenstein after the meeting. “It is always heartwarming. But it’s not surprising to see the support that we have from the community to reach out to those in the greatest need. I know that our people always band together.”

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, echoed Father Augenstein’s sentiments.

“The thought, prayers, and helping hands of the people of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis go out to all the victims of Friday’s tornadoes in southern Indiana, especially to the families of those killed in the storms,” Bishop Coyne said in a statement. “Catholic Charities is ready to respond with immediate aid, and we will work with the local Catholic communities and other aid agencies to coordinate future efforts to repair and rebuild homes and businesses.”

Jane Crady, coordinator of disaster preparedness and response for Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, has visited various places in southern Indiana that experienced tornado damage, and began organizing relief efforts in the region.

She was impressed by the amount of people who have contacted her to show their willingness to help.

“It’s been overwhelming already,” Crady said. “I’ve received e-mails from hundreds of people saying, ‘What can I do?’ ‘Everybody has been in our prayers,’ ‘When do you need me? Let me know.'”

Over the past two years, Crady has helped train disaster response teams in a number of parishes across central and southern Indiana. Their response to the relief efforts in the wake of the tornadoes that struck the state March 2 is the first chance to see them in action in a situation marked by significant and widespread need.

Many of the Catholics from across that deanery who attended the meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish did so after learning about it on Facebook.

Father Augenstein was amazed at how effective that website was in getting the relief effort off the ground.

“Social media can be used for so much great communication these days,” he said. “It can be used well to mobilize people. If we, as a church, can take advantage of that to be able to bring people together, that will really harness the power of social media.”

Although the response to provide help to those people affected by the tornadoes has been significant, sustaining that outreach over the course of several months will be vital, according to Father     Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville, a town severely affected by a tornado.

“Many people come in immediately, but the long haul is where the full rebirth will happen here,” he said.

Crady is well aware of the need for long-term relief aid after having, like Becht, worked in relief efforts after Katrina.

“In the long term, families often get lost as these disasters start to progress,” Crady said. “They find that they have an aunt or an uncle, say, in Indianapolis that they can go and live with. And then we lose track of them until the last minute when it’s time to fix their houses. That’s why it’s important to stay in touch during all of this.”

Crady also was starting to arrange for mental health services. And she expected she and other Catholic Charities volunteers would help families and businesses work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration in the months to come.

Catholics from across the archdiocese coming together to help those in need was a point of pride for Becht.

“I feel like our Catholic community is so blessed,” she said. “We have an obligation to give back. We have so many resources within each parish. It’s also a great opportunity to have the extended Catholic community come together and help.”