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Southern Baptists mobilize after deadly Ga. twisters

CAMILLA, Ga. (BP)–More than 200 Georgia Baptist volunteers have arrived in south Georgia to assist local authorities in rescue efforts following a series of deadly tornadoes Feb. 14 that killed at least 18 people and injured hundreds more.

Authorities confirmed many of the deaths occurred in the town of Camilla, 200 miles south of Atlanta, where the tornado cut a five-mile path of destruction through a housing development two miles south of town.

Jim Richardson, director of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s disaster relief team, told Baptist Press destruction in south Georgia is “very extensive. It looks like we are going to be here at least two weeks.”

Richardson’s team of volunteers from across the state set up a command post at First Baptist Church, Camilla. The church is also operating as a shelter for victims of the deadly storm.

Ironically, Richardson said, the church’s pastor was one of the storm’s victims. Harris Malcolm and his family were huddled together under a mattress when the tornado slammed into their home in the Royal Heights subdivision.

Their home was destroyed but the pastor and his family escaped serious injuries. Church secretary Brenda Gay said five church families lost their homes in the twister.

In neighboring Grady County, Macedonia Baptist Church sustained major structural damage. The storm blew away the front portion of the church. A spokesperson for the Grady Baptist Association said several church members living nearby were injured by flying debris. Authorities said five deaths were confirmed in the vicinity of the church.

Joe Beechum, director of missions for the Tucker Baptist Association, said the shock of what happened is being felt across the region. “This is enormous,” he said. “You can’t even get to the areas that are the hardest hit. It’s simply amazing.”

Another hard-hit community was Moultrie. Jerry Songer, interim pastor of First Baptist Church, Moultrie, said the Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter in the church. “Our minister of music is also a volunteer firefighter and he’s been out all night assisting in the recovery efforts,” Songer said. “But it doesn’t look good. They anticipate finding more fatalities.”

In Cairo, Ga., a spokesperson for First Baptist Church said one church member’s family was wiped out by the tornado. Annette Harrell, who was preparing for an On-Mission celebration, lost her daughter-in-law and grandbaby. Her son remains in a south Georgia hospital in serious condition.

Mitchell County Hospital reportedly treated more than 100 people, but others were sent to neighboring health-care centers because of widespread power outages.

Richardson said the first wave of response teams from Warner Robins and Moultrie, Ga., have already arrived. “We’re working with the Department of Transportation and local utilities to cut away tree limbs and clear away debris,” Richardson said. “Southern Baptists are mobilizing all across the state. When it’s all said and done we’ll have more than 200 volunteers on the scene.”

More teams are expected to arrive including a mass care feeding team. “We’re here to lend a helping hand and help minister to people who’ve been affected by this storm,” Richardson said. “That’s what Baptists are all about, being there when someone needs help.”

The disaster relief teams are funded through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ giving channel for missions and ministry by state Baptist conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Todd Starnes