LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP) — Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief Director Randy Garrett was responding to tornadoes in north Mississippi March 31 when he heard the news that storms were heading to his home state of Arkansas.
“And so, what we’ve done, we did what Patton’s army did in World War II. We turned the whole army around out of Mississippi and came back to Arkansas to deal with this,” Garrett said, referencing Patton’s maneuver at the Battle of the Bulge. “I was traveling back to Arkansas when this hit. I’ve been the state director in Arkansas for almost 10 years, and in my time this is the worst disaster that we have incurred.”
Storms struck various parts of the U.S. in quick succession March 31 after tumultuous weather in several southern states just days before, battering Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana, Illinois and Delaware, with suspected storms reported in four additional states.
At least 32 deaths were reported, with the largest death toll – 15 – in Tennessee, the Associated Press reported. At least five deaths have been reported in Arkansas, five in Indiana and four in Illinois. One person was found dead in a tornado-damaged home in Delaware. Dozens of people were injured.
In McNairy County, Tenn., where the death toll of nine in was the highest in one single community, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief set up one of its two command centers at First Baptist Church of Selmer. Liberty Baptist Church in Covington is hosting a disaster relief feeding team, the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector reported.
Russ Wilkins, associational mission strategist with the Shiloh Baptist Association that serves McNairy County, was with Tennessee Baptist Mission Board Executive Director Randy Davis when Baptist Press spoke with the two on the morning of April 3. The men were visiting churches and pastors in the aftermath of the storm.
“It’s pretty bad,” Davis said, “really bad here, over in Tipton County, and then in the Covington area in far west Tennessee.”
First Baptist Church of Bethel Springs is receiving and distributing supplies, food and water, and offering its shower facilities to the community, Wilkins said, commending McNairy churches for their outreach as the community recovers.
“It’s been fantastic the way the churches have really responded,” Wilkins said. “We haven’t had a lot of churches themselves damaged. But we’ve had a lot of church members who totally lost their homes. In this county there were 80 homes 100 percent destroyed.”
First Baptist Selma lost the family life center and gym at its north campus, one of its three sites. At least two of the dead were members of Good Hope Baptist Church, Wilkins said.
In Arkansas, Garrett anticipated a lengthy response.
“Both our disaster relief volunteers and churches are standing up to help wherever help is needed,” he said, “and we will stay here and help those as long as we’re needed, which will be quite some time.”
Baptist Collegiate Ministries from University of Arkansas locations in Monticello, Little Rock and Pine Bluff are participating in the response.
Wynne Baptist Church, which suffered tornado damage to its children and youth ministry building as well as its main building, is serving as a disaster relief command center. Stacey Dunavant, wife of senior pastor Matt Dunavant, talked with Baptist Press as her husband served the community.
“Some are still in trauma response,” she said, referencing those who attended the April 2 worship service at the damaged facility. “People were thankful to be together. Lots of tears yesterday. Lots of real worship.”
The Dunavants, who served as missionaries in the Middle East before he began his pastorate at Wynne Baptist three years ago, have been leading the congregation to serve the hurting across social classes, Stacey said.
“We’ve been leading our body to look outside the walls and to love people well, and really praying for Gospel opportunities, up until now,” she said. “It has been our desire for the body to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and to speak the Gospel to this community.
“And so having a disaster like this, watching our members serve in some of the lower socioeconomic areas, serving and loving and sharing the Gospel, is what we’ve been praying for.”