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Tornadoes cause death, destruction in Ark., Tenn.; Baptists respond

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story was reported by Trennis Henderson, Lonnie Wilkey, Marcia Knox and Andrea Aldridge, a student at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–A cross-country storm system of up to 75 tornadoes ripped through Arkansas Jan. 21 and Tennessee the next day, killing eight people, injuring dozens of others and destroying hundreds of homes.
In Tennessee, it destroyed much of the downtown of Clarksville, including the historic courthouse and an estimated 150 businesses and homes. An additional 550-plus businesses and homes were damaged. A Baptist assessment crew was on the scene Jan. 25.
Baptist disaster relief crews were serving meals at two locations in Arkansas Jan. 25 — Beebe and Newark — and two locations in Tennessee — in Clarksville and Jackson. In the Jackson area, six people were killed when tornadoes struck Sunday, Jan. 18,
In Arkansas, the grounds of the governor’s mansion was among areas damaged in Little Rock. “Your first reaction is that you are stunned,” noted Gov. Mike Huckabee. He said the mansion’s manicured lawn went from a “picture perfect garden” to devastation that “looks like a bomb hit it.”
He added, however, “you start realizing how actually blessed you are that you are alive and your neighbors are alive.”
Calling the close call “a little unsettling,” Huckabee said, “It reminds you that it doesn’t matter whether you are the governor or you are a guy living in a mobile home park in a remote part of Arkansas, tornadoes don’t play favorites. We ought to all realize that we are here by the grace of God.”
Reflecting on the devastation and loss of life across the state, Huckabee remarked, “I can’t offer an explanation as to why some are taken and some are left. Those are questions we won’t know in this life. But what we can say is those folks don’t have to go through their tragedy without feeling the prayers, the concern and the sympathy of their neighbors and friends in Arkansas.”
In addition to damage in Little Rock and North Little Rock, the most extensive destruction centered in Beebe and Newark, communities located northeast of the capital city. Initial reports indicated that First Baptist Church, Beebe, was among facilities heavily damaged.
In addition to the Baptist feeding units in Beebe and Newark, Dan Clevenger, the state convention’s disaster relief coordinator, added several chainsaw crews also are on standby to do clean-up work.
Citing the speed with which disaster relief volunteers have responded, Clevenger said a group of volunteers already was providing initial food service in Newark the morning after the storm.
Noting each of the disaster relief units is equipped to feed up to 3,000 people per meal, he explained, “It’s ministry to help people in need in a time of crisis.
“We always combine ministry and evangelism — they’re never separate,” he said. “We’ll go to share our faith by establishing relationships in a time of crisis. We’ll be expressing love to people, helping them and caring for them. People respond to that.”
The tornadoes swept through Arkansas just two weeks after a series of ice storms hit the state. Clevenger said Arkansas Baptist volunteers had just completed the disaster relief response to that crisis, with several follow-up projects still under way.
Maurice Hitt, director of missions for Red River Association which includes Arkadelphia, hit by similar tornadoes nearly two years ago, was among the disaster relief workers responding to this January’s storms. Helping lead a team of 12 to 14 volunteers in Beebe, Hitt explained, “This is the heart of many of the people in our association. It’s a desire to serve in this capacity. We understand the trauma of it hitting in your own backyard.”
“We’ve got a battle” he added. “Now it’s time to pitch in and help and bring a ministry of presence and encouragement.
In Jackson, Tenn., David Williams and his wife, Regina, lost everything the family owned in a tornado that ripped through the Westover Road area Jan. 18. Despite all this, the couple continually gave volunteers a smile, followed by the simple words, “God bless y’all,” as they accepted food and clothing Southern Baptists had donated to Madison-Chester (Tenn.) Baptist Association.
The Williamses and other storm victims in Madison County continually thanked Tennessee Baptists as volunteers from churches across the state poured into the community.
“Most of the people in the city have been so good,” Regina Williams said. “It could have been so much worse, but God will have his way even in a whirlwind.”
Carol Vaughn, director of community ministries at Madison-Chester association, noted “everyone is devastated and overwhelmed.”
Vaughn and Conroy Ryan, associate director of missions, coordinated teams to help with initial clean up of debris and to distribute clothing and food collected at the associational office.
A Tennessee Baptist disaster relief team began providing meals on Jan. 20.
“They’re just like a bunch of angels. That’s the only way to describe it,” said Gary Holbert, a resident of the severely damaged George Latham area said after the Red Cross truck arrived with a meal prepared by the Baptist volunteers.
Ryan noted more than 20 churches from across the state have volunteered. “The first thing we’re doing is to help clear areas, sort clothes, and cook and deliver food to the victims and workers,” he said.
Local churches also have been involved in the effort. Mark and Paige Ferguson said Mercer Church worked with the local fire department and community to help clear debris, sort through donated food, and coordinate volunteer teams.
With Madison County schools closed for the week, 70 youth and adults from West Jackson Baptist Church delivered food and drinks to the disaster areas.
West Jackson church also opened its doors as a free day-care for school-age children, said Connie Stricklin, state disaster relief temporary emergency child-care coordinator. She noted it was available not only for tornado victims, but also for volunteers who come to help.
“It’s gotten busier every day,” said Teresa Kee, a volunteer at East Union Baptist Church which served as a city-wide shelter for those who lost their homes.
“We’ve just been amazed at people who have brought stuff,” she added. East Union served 400 hot meals and more than 1,000 sack lunches to storm victims and volunteers. The church also received eight Sunday school rooms full of clothing for storm victims.
“We got here Wednesday and they fed us and gave us clothes,” said Sherry Arthur, a resident of Beech Bluff, who also lost her home. “They just really lifted our spirits. We’re thankful we’re here. We can replace everything else.”
Care packages distributed by East Union consisted of non-perishable food items, cleaning supplies, toiletries and bottled water.
Amanda Mayo, a volunteer, said the packages were given to victims as they came to the church and also were delivered to storm victims across the county.
“It’s wonderful to see the community pulling together like this,” one volunteer said. “It restores your faith.”