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Mennonite community rallies to repair tornado-damaged home


Randy Classen talks on a cellphone while his tornado-ravaged home is repaired in Noxubee County Saturday afternoon. Volunteers responded with cleanup efforts across the area almost immediately after Thursday’s storm.

Randy Classen talks on a cellphone while his tornado-ravaged home is repaired in Noxubee County Saturday afternoon. Volunteers responded with cleanup efforts across the area almost immediately after Thursday’s storm. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff  Buy this photo.


Birney Imes



Thursday afternoon, before answering his wife's call to lunch, Randy Classen walked out on his back porch. The area was under a storm warning and he wondered if he could see evidence of a tornado that had torn through neighboring Kemper County less than an hour earlier. 


This is farming country, and to the south and west of the Classens' home are open fields and catfish ponds; the land here is gently rolling, and in places one can see for miles.  


This corner of Noxubee County is no stranger to tornadoes; two years earlier, a Jan. 1 tornado ripped into the home of Pat and Darlene Siler, who live about two miles from the Classens as the crow flies.  


There had been others before that. 


"We're not going to sit down; we're going to watch this," Classen told his wife, Ruby. 


For their 30 years of married life, the Classens have lived in a mobile home. That was until last August when they moved into a newly-built, two-story brick house on Douglass Road.  


"We weren't even finished with the painting," Classen said. 


From their back porch, the Classens watched a wedge of swirling darkness peel off the metal roof of a neighbor's barn three-quarters of a mile away.  


"If I had to choose one word, I'd say it was spellbinding," Randy said. "I could hardly could get my wife and oldest son into the storm shelter." 


For situations such as this, the Classens had built an 8-by-10-foot cement room they use as a closet in the center of their house. 


Randy said he didn't hear the roar people say they hear when a tornado hits, only the thumping of debris hitting their house. 


"It sounded like somebody was throwing a thousand baseballs," he said. 


When they emerged from their sanctuary, the Classens found their home intact. At least, for the most part. The storm had torn a hole in the roof, ripped off a section on the back of the house and lifted the roof. 


Every tree on the place was shredded. Classen's machine shop was damaged beyond repair and a small storage building was destroyed. Paper records from his catfish farming operation were strewn through a pine forest 200 yards away across the road.  


Classen said the first feeling that washed over him was one of helplessness. 


Like the Silers, the Classens are members of South Haven Mennonite Church, which helps support Christian Disaster Relief, a worldwide program that helps storm-ravaged families recover from natural disasters. Members from other area Mennonite congregations showed up to help. 


By Saturday afternoon, the Classens' home was well on its way to restoration. As a large fire burned storm debris, a dozen men nailed decking and tar paper to the roof; a troop of carpenters replaced damaged support beams and window molding along the front and back porches. A group of boys too young to help sat at the edge of the front porch enjoying the opportunity to socialize while a large black dog of indeterminate origin was doing his best to sleep through it all.  


Inside, Mennonite women cleaned the kitchen and scrubbed the walls. One of the Classen daughters, who traveled from Oklahoma to help with the cleanup, stood in the garage sorting through family snapshots and mementos. 


Standing amid the swirl of activity, nothing in Randy Classen's demeanor suggested the despair he felt 48 hours earlier.  


"We've got a tremendous support group," he said. "These guys out here come and hope springs up." 


Inside, Ruby Classen paused in the cleaning of her large, bright utility room. 


"I'm enjoying our new house very much," she said without a trace of irony. "Right here we had a table that seats 16 people," she said pointing to an empty alcove beside the kitchen. "There were times it was full." 


A first-time visitor to the Classen's home can't help but notice a Bible verse painted with a flourish on the end of a divider in the kitchen. It comes from Joshua and appears not to have been damaged in any way: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.



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