HENRYVILLE, Ind. — St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church has always been a gathering point for the people of Henryville, never more so than now.
Under a roof with a patched-up 6-foot hole, dozens gathered Sunday not just to worship, but to check on neighbors and get updates on the devastation from the weekend’s tornadoes.
Along the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky, where small towns were nearly wiped from the map, the damage is clear from a trail of smashed homes, downed trees and lost lives. 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.
But the storms thrashed the conveniences of modern life, too: Cellular phone signals were hard to find, email was hard to come by, 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, of Henryville, a Census Bureau worker.
In many cases, word-of-mouth is replacing the conversations that would usually happen by cellphone or email.
Randy Mattingly, 24, a 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 Mass, the Rev. Steve Schaftlein turned the church into an information exchange, asking the 100 or so in attendance to share information. Volunteers quickly stood to share tips on functioning in 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, though 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,” Ms. Shuck said.