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'Ding dong daddies' down but not out

Work remains to be done in rural Dumas, Ark.

BY P.J. HELLER | DUMAS, Ark. | July 20, 2007


"I've heard all my life, 'I'm a ding dong daddy from Dumas' and I didn't realize what that really meant. I've come to understand that if you're a ding dong daddy from Dumas, there's nothing better on the face of the earth."

—Rev. Glenn Pettus


"We might be down, but we're not out."

That seems to be the prevailing attitude in this rural Arkansas town as it continues to recover from a powerful tornado that ripped through the area Feb. 24 with winds of 138 to 167 mph. More than 100 homes and mobile homes, along with 49 businesses, were damaged or destroyed. The storm, one of four that struck the region that weekend, injured 27 people.

Since then, individuals inside and outside the town, along with community and faith-based organizations, have rallied to get the small (population about 5,200) community back on its feet.

"People are still rebuilding and businesses are still getting up and trying to get going," said the Rev. Glenn Pettus of the Dumas First United Methodist Church.

While progress has been made in the weeks and months after the tornado, much still remains to be done and concerns are being raised about the economic impact on residents especially when school resumes in the fall - and on local businesses.

"Some of the businesses are completely rebuilt and back up and running and some haven't even started," said Linda Weatherford, a resident who has been helping coordinate volunteers coming into the town. "Some are not coming back. People are having to find different jobs."

Weatherford said residents were feeling more financially pressed this summer due to business and job losses and having to drive further to purchase goods previously available in Dumas.

Come fall, when school resumes, the economic pinch is likely to be even tighter, predicted Monica Freeland, executive director of the nonprofit Delta Area Community Foundation.

"We figure that probably come early fall we're going to see some new needs as school starts back and people all of a sudden don’t have clothes or winter clothes or school supplies that they might have had otherwise," she said. "So I think we'll see more of that as fall starts in."

Weatherford said volunteers with specific construction skills, such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry and drywall, were needed to help in the rebuilding.

"We need skilled labor more than anything," she said.

"Houses that were not completely demolished that were being fixed or remodeled are pretty much done," Weatherford said. "Those that are having to be totally rebuilt are in a variety of stages. Some are just now getting their foundations and some are completely finished."

Individuals and faith-based volunteer groups from such organizations as Church World Service, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Church of Christ, Daughters of Charity, Adventist Disaster Response, Mennonite Disaster Service and Southern and Missionary Baptists, have all assisted the town. The community is located in Desha County about 38 miles from Pine Bluff and 120 miles from Memphis, Tenn.

About 30 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were providing housing for area residents who lost their homes or apartments in the twister. Some of the residents were looking into the possibility of purchasing the trailers, while others had made little progress toward finding new housing, Freeland and Pettus said.

Pettus said that the trailers were made available for 18 months.

A local long-term recovery committee was created after the tornado and had been meeting weekly. In the last few months, however, as needs in the town declined, those regular meetings ended and members now stay in touch and share information via e-mail.

Despite the committee's winding down its efforts, people were still volunteering to come to town and donations continue to arrive although a distribution center for relief supplies closed in May.

"I've been surprised because people are still calling wanting to come in October and November," Weatherford said.

Pettus said that in the days and weeks after the tornado, so many people were volunteering to come to the town that they had to be turned away.

"I had to say to them over and over again, 'Please, we appreciate your love and your care but do not come because we have too many volunteers now to control what's going on.'

"We still occasionally have groups come in to help in some areas," Pettus added, recalling that several weeks ago a church group came to clean up a mobile home.

"We had a house trailer that had been destroyed but because of where it was no one had gotten it cleaned up yet," he said. "A group came in from a church and that's what they helped do, cleaned it up and pick it up."

Pettus, Weatherford and Freeland all agreed that the spirit of the townspeople aided in the recovery.

"Overall, I have to say they have done amazingly well," Freeland said. "The whole town pulled together with such force and leadership that people weren't given much time to realize how back it was before things started looking better."

Pettus said he has been "amazed" at the response from his church which housed as many as 65 Katrina survivors for six weeks after the 2005 hurricane as well as from the local and outside community.

"It has been truly the most humbling experience of my life," he said. "I have just been awestruck by such an awesome community and church. We keep saying, 'We might be down, but we're not out.'"

Even as the town works to recover from the tornado, Pettus said residents were asking what they could do to help others affected by disasters elsewhere in the U.S. Such caring, he said, made him proud to be a resident of Dumas, a town that was mentioned in the 1930's song "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas."

"I've heard all my life, 'I'm a ding dong daddy from Dumas' and I didn't realize what that really meant," Pettus said. "I've come to understand that if you're a ding dong daddy from Dumas, there's nothing better on the face of the earth."


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