LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–Arkansas Baptist disaster relief teams have had their hands full lately, with massive flooding that damaged hundreds of homes, then multiple tornadoes on Feb. 5, April 3, May 2 and May 10 that hit dozens of Arkansas towns and communities.
South Side Baptist Church of Bee Branch and Earle (Ark.) Baptist Church were leveled by two EF-3 tornadoes May 2. Then, on May 10, First Baptist Church, Southside Baptist Church and The Lighthouse Church (also Southern Baptist), all of Stuttgart, each received extensive roof and structural damage when a three-fourth-mile-wide tornado stayed on the ground for about two miles, damaging or destroying about 200 homes and leaving many more homes without power for several days.
The steeple of First Baptist in Stuttgart was blown off the building. The main sanctuary sustained water damage and many of the windows were broken. The church’s signs were both damaged. Structural engineers are assessing the damage to the building to determine how much repair work will be needed.
Roof damage to Southside in Stuttgart included a collapsed gable. The church also had additional damage to the back section of the sanctuary. A carport-type covering was blown across the parking lot and a metal bus covering was reduced to a twisted mass of debris. Miraculously, the church van sitting underneath the structure sustained only minor damage. The church parsonage also was damaged.
Lighthouse Church’s roof was ripped off and the building had damage to much of the contents inside, including the sound system. The church’s sign was found about four blocks away. Pastor Steve Bushey said he expects the building will be a total loss.
“It’s pretty rough,” he said. “We’re trying to see if it’s fixable or if we should put a bulldozer to it and start again.”
Arkansas Baptist disaster relief units from churches, associations and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) responded quickly following each storm. Recovery/chainsaw teams have completed hundreds of jobs while feeding units have provided thousands of meals to victims who lost homes or were left temporarily without electricity. Disaster relief chaplains have provided counsel and a listening ear to traumatized victims.
In May alone, Arkansas Baptist teams prepared more than 10,000 meals, completed more than 250 recovery jobs and had more than 230 contacts through crisis chaplains. Teams reported 11 people received Christ as a result of volunteers’ witness. A total of 13 Arkansas Baptist disaster relief teams have assisted Stuttgart residents. Along with recovery units, these teams included a feeding unit and a shower unit.
“I don’t know what our town would have done without the Baptists,” Earle resident Clara Ballard said May 5 as she pointed to a group of Arkansas Baptist disaster relief workers in her tornado-battered hometown. “They are a godsend, literally. I can’t praise them enough.”
When the May 2 tornadoes hit, Steve Stephens, pastor of South Side Baptist Church of Bee Branch, and six or seven workers were in a new sanctuary that was under construction. They escaped injury by taking shelter in a classroom.
Stephens said metal beams snapped like plastic in the new worship center. The roof was partially blown off the older section of the church.
He said the storm shook the metal beams in the walls and even the physical foundation of the church.
“We lost every building,” Stephens said. “We’ve lost it all. … We’re going to be OK. It’s going to be tough. We’re bruised but we’re not beaten.”
The church plans to hold Sunday and Wednesday services in a local school auditorium until further notice.
At the 106-year-old Earle Baptist Church, the baptistery and balcony are all that were left standing. Its steeple is yet to be found.
The church gym, which housed a full-court basketball court, weight room and locker room, now is a pile of rubble. The education building lost its roof and most of its stained-glass windows, while the fellowship hall sustained roof and structural damage.
“The devastation is just overwhelming,” pastor Steve Bailey said. “I think the shock is about to wear off and reality will set in.”
The church has held worship services in the fellowship hall despite the damage to it since the storm.
“We want our community to know we are still here,” Bailey said. “We are not leaving. We are going to rebuild. We are going to stand firm. I think the town has appreciated that we are here.”
Arkansas Baptist recovery teams are continuing to operate in Stuttgart and ABSC officials have provided financial assistance to the damaged churches.
Compiled by Charlie Warren, editor of the Arkansas Baptist News with reporting by associate editor Stella Prather and assistant editor Lisa Watson.