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Disaster relief workers respond as killer tornadoes hit Arkansas

ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (BP)–Hours after killer tornadoes ripped through several counties in Arkansas, Baptist disaster relief efforts were in full operation in Arkadelphia and Little Rock. The March 1 storms killed at least 24 people, injured more than 300 and damaged or destroyed more than 800 houses and businesses.

“This was 31 years of our life just blown up before us,” Karen Kirkpatrick said early Sunday morning as she sifted through debris from the previous afternoon’s tornado that devastated much of downtown Arkadelphia.

Standing amid the rubble of what had been her family’s business, she added, “We’re not the only ones suffering. At least we’ve got our lives and our health. We have so much to be thankful for … . Everyone has banded together and we’re united — just pray for us.”

Two blocks away at First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia, the Arkansas Baptist Men’s feeding unit was busy preparing meals for storm victims and relief workers. More than 20 disaster relief volunteers manned the unit, preparing more than 1,000 meals for distribution Sunday afternoon. Disaster relief coordinator Ronnie O’Neal said he expected the number of meals being served to double during the next several days.

While First Baptist and nearby Ouachita Baptist University escaped any serious damage during the storm, the offices of Red River Baptist Association suffered extensive damage.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do with our offices but the ministry goes on,” noted Maurice Hitt, Red River Association director of missions. “The indications are the building has shifted on its foundation. It may be structurally beyond repair.”

Refusing to let the property damage sidetrack ministry efforts, Hitt emphasized, “That building is nothing but a tool. It is not our ministry. I can see interruptions but I do not see the ministry being damaged.” He added he already has received an offer of a office building for the association to use.

As church members, Boy Scouts and other volunteers joined disaster relief workers at First Baptist, pastor Kevin Lee noted the church had hosted a disaster relief training conference only three weeks before — never imagining the same facility would be transformed into a disaster relief site.

Affirming disaster relief efforts “make all the difference in the world,” Lee added, “The visible reminder that there are people who care helps reach these folks who are in absolute despair.”

In addition to feeding efforts, First Baptist has offered its facilities for use by the state convention’s disaster relief child care unit. Across town at Park Hill Baptist Church, Red Cross volunteers set up a shelter that housed 14 people the night of the storm.

“It’s great that the churches open their facilities to the Red Cross for shelters,” pointed out Red Cross worker Fred Fox of Hot Springs. “People are devastated when their homes are destroyed. They are physically drained and need someplace to rest and sleep.”

“We always thought we were immune,” noted First Baptist member Otis Turner, an Arkadelphia attorney whose title office was destroyed. Despite the widespread devastation, “it could have been so much more terrible,” he said. “Just clean up and start over — that’s all you can do.”

While feeding efforts were under way in Arkadelphia, three cleanup teams of Arkansas Baptist Men were mobilized early Sunday morning in areas of south Pulaski County and north Saline County. The work crews helped families remove debris from their yards and roofs — or what was left of their homes.

Sixteen men from Sherwood, Jacksonville and Little Rock helped with the efforts with chain saws, a front-end loader and bare hands. An additional 10 men were expected to join the teams Monday.

They concentrated their work in an area where a tornado injured 20, destroyed approximately 60 homes and damaged scores of other residences. When they arrived at the affected area, many team members were left speechless by the sight of homes that were leveled and forested areas flattened by the storm.

The storm hit close to home for many of the crew members. Hunter Douglas, a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, saw the twister as it cut a path less than a mile from his home. Later that evening, he helped a local woman break through debris to reach her mother in a destroyed home — to find her safe in her bedroom.

The team was aided in their cleanup efforts by a new weapon — a computer map system used by Douglas at his home-turned-command center that allowed coordinators to make assignments street by street.

Crew member Ken Scott, a member of First Baptist Church in Gravel Ridge and a veteran of cleanup efforts last year in Van Buren, Ark., said the Baptist Men’s crews “are going to stay as long as it takes” to clean up. Surveying the damage surrounding him, he added, “We may be back for several days.”

Looking at the small team of volunteers, Scott said, “If more men knew the feeling you get from helping others, we’d have the field full of people out here. I feel like I was led to do it, and it’s a good feeling to help people when they are absolutely helpless.”

“Disaster relief is the best-kept secret in the whole convention,” agreed team coordinator Warren Burleson, a member of Highland Heights Baptist Church in Benton. “In fact, we cleaned up a yard for a couple (members of a Southern Baptist church) and they had no idea we had anything like this. The next thing they asked is, ‘How do we sign up?'”

“Our greatest resources is our volunteers,” O’Neal emphasized. “We’re reaching out with the love of God to hurting people and showing them that, through our Baptist Men, that God loves them.”

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