By Jerry ZufeltEditor
GREENSBURG — It has been three months since a tornado tore through Sewickley and Hempfield townships in central Westmoreland County causing serious damage and leaving many families with a mountain of recovery work.
The local damage pales in comparison to the devastation and loss of life in the horrific tornado outbreak in the South and the monster twister that destroyed a large part of Joplin, Mo. Locally, there were no deaths or serious injuries. But for people who lost their homes and possessions, it’s been a challenging three months made more manageable by assistance from Catholic organizations, especially the St. Vincent de Paul Society and local Catholic schools, and other groups.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society conference at St. Paul Parish, Greensburg, took a lead role in that assistance. Ironically, its president, Paul Whalen, just missed being a storm victim himself.
"I was in the damaged area within 15 minutes of the storm passing through," he said, adding that the March 23 tornado missed his house in the Fort Allen neighborhood in Hempfield Township by 200 yards.
The St. Paul Parish conference was given responsibility for coordinating storm relief by the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul conference, according to Whalen.
The conference provided a lot of direct assistance, more than $17,000, to storm victims in the form of gift cards for home improvement stores, local department stores, restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations, Whalen said.
"We’re trying to do what we can," Whalen said, adding the St. Vincent de Paul Society also provided food and personal items in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Father Thomas A. Federline, pastor of St. Paul Parish, praised the work of the society and said the parish also contributed to the effort, raising the relief total to more than $22,000.
He said the St. Vincent de Paul Society helps people "the way St. Vincent himself said it should be done, without fanfare and without recognition."
The St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Edward Parish, Herminie, appreciated the help received from the St. Paul conference.
George Huss, St. Edward Parish conference treasurer and a parishioner there, said he watched the storm from his dining room window.
Huss said the St. Edward conference has provided more than $5,000 in assistance in the form of cash and gift cards to use at local stores.
Three months after the storm, Huss is still working with an elderly neighbor, helping him with the insurance process.
Paperwork has been a major ongoing challenge for the Cerilli family, whose Rillton home suffered extensive damage.
"I was the poster child for the iPhone," Jaime Cerilli said, using it to take videos and photos of their house in advance of meetings with FEMA representatives, public officials and three sets of insurance adjustors.
The Cerillis will have to demolish their home and rebuild, she said.
The family has been struggling with its insurance company. It took complaints to the state to get the company to begin moving, Cerilli said.
The Cerillis, parishioners of Immaculate Conception Parish with two young children, Dominic and Salvatore, students at Queen of Angels Catholic School, North Huntingdon, appreciate the different forms of assistance they have received.
Cerilli said they were especially grateful for the "constant concern and prayers" from the parish and school communities.
"We’re blessed nobody was hurt. All of our things are replaceable," she said. "And Father John (Moineau, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish) has been wonderful."
School families made dinner for the Cerillis for three weeks, the second-grade and pre-school classes made Easter baskets filled with gift cards and toys, and the parish provided additional gift cards.
In the weeks immediately following the tornado, the Cerillis did not have bus transportation to the school, so Queen of Angels teacher Sandee Farrell helped by driving the boys back and forth to school.
The Cerillis now live in a rental home in North Huntingdon closer to the school.
"All of us were so overwhelmed with the kindness and generosity we were blessed with during this difficult time," said Cerilli, who also thanked the local Red Cross chapter for its assistance.
"We were so blessed to have our Queen of Angels family help us through the weeks after the storm," she said. "We would not have been able to cope without them."
They hope to be in a new home by next spring, "if no other issues arise," she said.
Two other Catholic schools have helped Theresa and Rich Marcheleovich, who lost their Fort Allen home and many possessions.
Theresa works in the cafeteria at Greensburg Central Catholic High School. Their children, Richie and Elizabeth, attended Aquinas Academy, Greensburg, this school year.
Aquinas raised more than $4,600 for the family through fundraisers, and GCC raised more than $4,000 in cash and gift cards. The first Central Charity Classic Co-Ed Softball Tournament generated an additional $455 for the Marcheleovichs.
Theresa called the assistance from the schools phenomenal and said she appreciated their graciousness and prayers.
"They were such a blessing," she said of the Aquinas and GCC communities. "They were so helpful to us."
The family is also dealing with insurance challenges and hopes to be back in their house by September.
Theresa thanked Whalen and the Very family from GCC for their constant support and John McFarland of the GCC religion faculty, who helped coordinate the school’s outreach.
Some other groups providing assistance to tornado victims included the Greensburg Ministerium, Westmoreland County Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, along with local schools, churches and merchants.