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Storm victim in the process of going back home

Volunteers work on a house at 22nd Avenue in Naplate owned by Kim Zimmerman. The Mennonite Disaster Services are expected to work through June on Zimmerman's home, as well as three to four others identified as needing outside assistance.
Volunteers work on a house at 22nd Avenue in Naplate owned by Kim Zimmerman. The Mennonite Disaster Services are expected to work through June on Zimmerman's home, as well as three to four others identified as needing outside assistance.

When the Naplate/Ottawa tornado touched down on Feb. 28, 2017, Kim Zimmerman was living in Marseilles and preparing to move back to the family homestead in Naplate.

The structure on 22nd Avenue had been in the family for decades.

"I got a call that night. My cousin called and said 'your house got hit by a tornado,' " Zimmerman said. "He said 'you better come down.' I said 'Oh, Jimmy, I don't know if I want to come.' I went that night. We went down there. There's these big trees alongside the driveway. They were Boy Scout saplings when they were planted and were full grown. They went right through the middle of the house."

Zimmerman's house was condemned within a week, said Alexis Ferracuti, chairwoman of the Ottawa-Naplate Long Term Recovery Committee.

"The village requires them to do something about it," Ferracuti said. "Originally we applied for a Community Development Block Grant (federal assistance), then it came back to me so we tried to figure out what we were going to do with it."

The committee raised $301,000 in donations, and all of the 336 people who requested aid have received some kind of help. Those who qualified had to have structural damage or damage in general to their home or an attached garage.

But when Zimmerman's case came along, with funds mostly depleted on other projects, Ferracuti wasn't sure what the committee was going to do.

Then the Mennonite Disaster Services team arrived. MDS has been in conversation with the recovery group since October and November and working on the ground in Naplate since February. They are expected to be here through June working on Zimmerman's home and three to four others identified as needing outside assistance.

The service is a volunteer network of Anabaptist Churches in U.S. and Canada. Members follow disasters and make it their main focus to clean up and rebuild homes but also to work with members of the community to help them move forward.

The group donates all its labor; the long-term recovery group pays for materials and throughout the disaster has secured much of its materials from Golden Rule Lumber.

Zimmerman met with MDS project coordinator Ronn Frantz at the Hi-Way restaurant to see what could be done. Initially, it was thought the home would have to be torn down, but a structural engineer determined it was sound.

"I think she was most relieved when they walked back and said they don't have to gut the house," Ferracuti said.

So far, MDS has put a base roof on and has drained the basement. MDS plumbers, electricians and roofers soon will take over.

"It's been exciting," Frantz said. "It's been exciting to meet the individuals. We're impressed with how much they've done so far. It's very common that we come in late in the recovery process. We're impressed with how much the LTR group has done already ... We don't always have the opportunity to work as closely with local community members as we do on this one. so that that's a special treat for us."

Zimmerman's ties to Naplate are deep and wide. Her cousin was Jim Rick, the long-time mayor who died earlier this month at age 59. The pair's fathers were brothers.

"People say why would you want to live there? Well it's our original home," she said. "I was in the process of going back there. My kids are all grown. My best friend had lost her mom. I had lost my mom. We like Naplate. We've lived there in three houses around there and aunts and uncles lived on the hill. I've been gone since 1979 and there are still people who haven't seen me in a long time and say 'you're that Rick girl, aren't you?' "

Ferracuti has been deeply involved with many of those affected by the Naplate tornado, and believes Jim Rick is still working behind the scenes to ensure people's lives are brought back to normal.

"Ever since 'Jocko' died all I can hear is, 'You better check on their house. You better check on their house.' He was always checking on everyone," Ferracuti said.

Ferracuti said of the original $301,000, the committee is down to around $12,000 that has not been earmarked.

"Honestly we didn't think we were going to have enough money to finish," Ferracuti said. "This (Zimmerman) house was a family home and had blue tarp over it and it looked really sad and reminded us all of the tornado. Really symbolic."

She noted the work the long-term recovery group is doing typically takes two to three years to complete, but they are ahead of schedule with work left to be finished on a few houses.

Much of that work, she said, couldn't have been done without local contractors assisting and agencies donating services.

"None of this would have been possible without union laborers and tradesmen," Ferracuti said. "They've showed up everywhere and offered free services. Bill Serby at Golden Rule Lumber gave us all materials at 10 percent of cost. We've had referrals from A Servant's Heart and Salvation Army has been very helpful too. It's been incredible."

One outreach of the LTR group Ferracuti is particularly proud of is Camp Noah, normally sponsored by Lutheran Disaster Services, which was staged for five days last summer above Jeremiah Joe Coffee. She is hoping to bring it back this summer if there is a demand.

The camp is modeled after the Biblical story of Noah's Ark and is for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, to help them deal with the aftermath of a traumatic weather event and to be prepared for future events. About 30 to 36 children attended each day.

Activities for each day built upon one another with children receiving disaster backpacks, with a blanket, flashlight, snacks, water and a coloring book.

The fourth night of camp, a particularly strong storm came through and Ferracuti was surprised by one boy's response.

"He said he wasn't worried about it, because he had his backpack and he knew what to do," she said. "We heard a lot of really heartbreaking stories."

Looking back over the past year, which often was emotional, Ferracuti said she would do it all again.

"The whole experience was a little stressful, but totally worth it," she said. "It's been very humbling, heartbreaking and emotional. It makes me happy we are where where we are.

"The way people band together when this happens the way people help neighbors instead of themselves," she continued. "We're all very lucky to live here. There's a big difference between small towns and big city life. I've lived in both. We're lucky here where we are."

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