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Storms packing tornadoes & hail kill 23 in Tenn. and other states, damage structures

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Baptists were sending disaster relief crews to parts of the Midwest and South hit hard by a round of tornadoes, including the western region of Tennessee, where at least 19 people were killed along one 25-mile path April 2.

Storms marched through eight states including Iowa, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana in addition to Tennessee. Reports indicated at least 23 people were killed in Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois.

The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said preliminary reports showed the system spawned 63 tornadoes.

Most of the Tennessee deaths were reported in Gibson and Dyer Counties, where victims included a baby and a family of four, the Associated Press said, and state officials estimated 1,200 buildings were damaged in Gibson County alone.

Dyer Baptist Association had two assessment teams looking for damage and four chainsaw team out in the field before daylight Monday morning, according to Joe Wright, the association’s director of missions.

“We have a pretty significant disaster area which stretches several miles long and around a half a mile wide. We will need more recovery teams in West Tennessee,” Wright said.

He noted churches in the association are pulling together to meet the needs of the affected communities, and he said it’s important not to forget the spiritual needs while focusing on disaster relief.

“Our highest priority remains [the] spiritual needs of the people in the county,” he said, adding that none of the association’s churches had reported damage.

Charles Pratt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenton, Tenn., said the storms devastated the Rutherford area. They struck a little before 8 p.m. on Sunday and caused many to pause during the evening worship service, he said.

He led a prayer that the storm would “pass over” since the theme that night was Passover. It did, although just down the road people’s homes were destroyed, Pratt said.

“It’s by the grace of God that we are here,” he said. “God just spared us.”

People stayed at the church for a while before the electricity went out. Pratt and others ended up at the Rutherford Fire Department, which had electricity via generators and was a gathering spot for many emergency personnel. Pratt stayed after the fire department chief asked him to counsel people who learned they had lost family members in the storms. Three residents of the Rutherford community were killed.

Pratt said he offered to open the church up but most people didn’t want to leave the fire department, where the latest information seemed to be circulating. And the church wouldn’t have electricity or phones, he said. He stayed at the fire department from about 10:30 p.m. until 2 a.m., he said.

“It was a tragic scene,” he said. “You just try to provide hope and help.”

Pratt reported that Calvary Baptist Church in Rutherford lost its building, and the home of Marlon Stephens, pastor of China Grove Baptist Church in Rutherford, was severely damaged.

The relatively new rescue squad building in Rutherford was destroyed, Pratt said. In nearby Bradford, the police department building was destroyed, and a Presbyterian church and a Church of Christ church were destroyed.

On Monday Pratt said he planned to begin trying to check on members of his church and others in the community.

Teams from the Cumberland Baptist Association in Clarksville, Tenn., were making plans to assist in West Tennessee, and a team from Shiloh Baptist Association in Savannah left Monday for Dyersburg.

In Arkansas, a tornado reportedly devastated at least half of Marmaduke, and Arkansas Baptists were on the scene ministering to victims within 24 hours.

“Almost every single structure in Marmaduke has minor to moderate damage, but almost 50 percent of it is totally destroyed,” acting fire commander Chris Franks told AP, adding that much of the town also was damaged by a tornado in 1997.

The Calvary Baptist Association feeding unit was deployed April 3 to the Greene County community, where they will be serving meals at Marmaduke High School beginning with the evening meal.

According to Bill Cantrell, disaster relief coordinator for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, the Calvary unit is expected to be in the hard-hit area for three to four days and will serve up to 2,000 or 3,000 meals a day.

As of mid-morning April 3, three Arkansas Baptist chainsaw crews — from Rocky Bayou Baptist Association, Independence Baptist Association and Central Baptist Association — had been put on stand-by to help in recovery. They were scheduled to arrive in the area Tuesday or Wednesday.

First Baptist Church of Marmaduke was severely damaged. The roof was torn off the family life center and the steeple was blown off the roof of the sanctuary. The church parsonage, occupied by the pastor, Kim Bridges, had a hole in the roof.

The town’s Church of Christ was completely destroyed.

A large part of Marmaduke was evacuated Sunday after a tornado ripped through the town at about 6 p.m.

Shortly after the storm’s passing, sheriff’s deputies and emergency crews began evacuating the area because of the danger posed by a major gas leak. Residents were taken by bus to churches and hotels in Paragould. First Baptist Church in Paragould housed 31 of the residents while other churches provided supplies.

Officials cordoned off the town of just over 1,000 people and imposed a curfew as a measure to maintain order.

New reports indicate half a dozen tornadoes touched down in northeast Arkansas, leaving trails of destroyed homes and businesses and injuring dozens of people. No deaths were reported.

A spokesman at the Arkansas Methodist Medical Center at Paragould said the hospital had treated 45 people injured in the storms, most of them from Marmaduke.

Huge hail, some as large as softballs, fell in some places. Hail broke out the stained glass windows at First Baptist Church in Pocahontas.

In Kentucky, Sinking Fork Baptist Church north of Hopkinsville was destroyed by a tornado. Tom Westerfield, a Kentucky Baptist disaster relief worker who lives in Christian County, told Baptist Press the tornado cut a swath about three to four miles wide for 20 miles across the county.

A couple of walls were still standing at Sinking Fork, but the building cannot be used under any circumstances, Westerfield said. The sanctuary, education building, parsonage and family life center were “taken out.” The church’s Sunday evening service had just ended and people had left before the tornado struck, so no one was injured.

Westerfield said chainsaw crews from the state convention were en route to assist with clean-up.
Based on reports by Marcia Knox & Connie Davis Bushey of the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector newspaper and Charlie Warren of the Arkansas Baptist News.

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