Chaplain called to tornado ravaged area

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Creemore resident Shirley Ferris is in Ottawa this week as a chaplain with a rapid response team.

She is one of four crisis-trained volunteer chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada (BGEAC) now in Ottawa-Gatineau to offer spiritual and emotional aid to residents, first responders and anyone else traumatized by the tornadoes that hit the area Sept. 21. 

The Echo reached Ferris by phone on Wednesday. She was working with a crew of volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse Canada who were using chainsaws to clear trees felled by the storms. 

“We are in a residential area and it is surrounded by beautiful old, old evergreen trees and these evergreen trees have just snapped. The whole root system on some of these trees has been pulled up,” said Ferris.

Her team was walking the Arlington Woods neighbourhood, one of the most devastated areas hit by two tornadoes, providing emotional and spiritual support. The day before, they were in Dunrobin, a small community hit by a more powerful twister.

“Some new subdivisions had recently gone in and they are totally decimated. The houses are totally blown away, there’s nothing left but the foundations. So there’s about 50 houses out there that are just totally wiped out,” said Ferris.  

The residential areas are blocked off by police but the response team gets access when possible, although on Wednesday, as another storm came through their access was limited as heavy equipment like cranes and hydro trucks came through. 

“The police have been very supportive, allowing the right people to get where they need to go,” said Ferris.

Initially residents were only allowed to get into their homes for 30 minutes to grab the essentials. 

When the team does talk to residents, Ferris said she can see that they are still in shock.

“Many of them are thankful because it could have been a whole lot worse… The people are very emotional but they’re thankful for a lot of things. There was no loss of life, they had a basement to get into when they heard the roar… It’s a train sound that you hear when a tornado is going through,” said Ferris.

She said the volunteers come from western Canada and there are a lot of local people from the community, who were not impacted by the tornadoes, also coming out to help.

“We are the listening ear. We listen to their stories,” said Ferris. “We try to help them work through some of the emotions they’re experiencing and get their mind to a better place.”

They can then refer them to other agencies that can help them further.

Chaplains are limited to one-week deployments so Ferris will return home to Creemore on Sunday.

“We’re listening to hundreds of stories so there is an emotional toll on the chaplains,” said Ferris.

A veteran chaplain with the Rapid Response Team, Ferris has been deployed to Toronto in July after the shooting on Danforth Avenue; Fredericton in June after devastating flooding; Ottawa in 2017 after flooding hit the region; and Fort McMurray after the 2016 wildfire. 

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