Priest: ‘I grabbed my dog and ran down into the basement’

‘Howling wind’ sends uprooted tree through rectory window in Grinnell

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

GRINNELL — “The storm hit so fast, we were all pretty well caught off guard,” recalls Father Ross Epping, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell.

The priest, who also serves as diocesan director of Vocations, had just finished eating lunch in the rectory on Aug. 10 when the storm system, known as a derecho, struck the college town. Before Father Epping had time to comprehend what was happening, he heard the sound of breaking glass as an uprooted tree broke through the front window.

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Father Ross Epping
Rain water and debris from the Aug. 10 derecho storm fills the rectory at St. Mary Parish in Grinnell.

He grabbed his dog, Tut, and ran down into the basement. “We sat there for about 30 minutes as the winds kept howling.” When the winds slowed down, Father Epping crawled back out of the basement to survey everything.

The tree which had broken the window lay in the front yard. Wet leaves and branches were scattered throughout the rectory, which Father Epping describes as a “big old house.” Water was coming in through the ceiling. The electrical wires had ripped off the side of the house. Roof shingles were scattered throughout the backyard.

Then, Father Epping surveyed the church, which “fared better, thank God.” Still, the winds had blown off about half of the clay shingles, which were “scattered for blocks.” Some of the stained glass windows had hairline cracks.

The majority of the Grinnell community was without power for several days, Father Epping said. The community was not alone; the rare storm completed a 770-mile tour of destruction through the Midwest. The Weather Channel reported that more than 1 million homes and businesses from South Dakota to Ohio lost power from winds that exceeded more than 100 miles per hour in some areas. More than 500,000 Iowans lost power.

Father Epping

Due to the widespread damage, crews were not able to begin work restoring power to Grinnell until late in the week, Father Epping said. In the meantime, the community came together to meet the needs of its students and 9,000 permanent residents. Grinnell College opened its field house so community members could take hot showers, get toiletries and charge their phones and other electronic devices. The fire station also set up charging stations. The owners of Relish restaurant in Grinnell provided hot meals every night beginning at 5 p.m. for community members in need. “And then all of us were just walking around, cutting trees and moving them out of yards,” Father Epping said on Aug. 13, just before Alliant Energy announced it would begin work to restore power. “We’re sharing generators and food when we can.”

An insurance adjuster assessed the damage to St. Mary’s church and rectory Aug. 13, and while Father Epping said the cost estimate is a work in progress, repairs will be made as soon as possible. St. Mary’s office manager, Jay Deitrich, and his wife, Renee, boarded up the front window of the rectory soon after the storm.

In the midst of the destruction, Father Epping said he feels blessed to be part of such a caring community. “I would say, and I know it’s cliche, but Christ is fully present here in the community in everyone trying to take care of one another,” he said.


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