First funerals held for tornado victims

Arkansas churches work together to provide support for tornado survivors.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | Atkins, Ark | February 8, 2008



"I was in Atkins yesterday. The damage there is staggering and from what I'm hearing back from others in the field, it's the same everywhere"

—Tommy Jackson, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management


The first of many funerals for victims of last Tuesday's killer tornadoes that exploded across five states in the mid-south, was held Friday.

Jimmy Glen Cherry Jr., his wife, Dana, and their 11-year-old daughter Emmy, were killed as they attempted to round up their horses in a pasture. The three residents of Atkins, Arkansas were buried in nearby Havana Cemetery after a packed ceremony at their church.

Another funeral is planned next week for Alfred Leion Fletcher, 56, who died from injuries he sustained when the mobile home he was in was picked up, thrown some 300 feet through the air, and then smashed to the ground.

Fourteen of the nearly 60 people who were killed across the south in the severe storms were residents of Arkansas.

"It's been rough on the town," said Van Tyson, an elder in the Atkins Memorial Presbyterian Church and the owner of the "Atkins Chronicle" newspaper. "The downtown area pretty much remained untouched, but just outside the city, where the highest concentration of homes is found, lots of people were injured, close to 80 houses were totally destroyed and nearly every home sustained damage of some sort."

And while many of the town's residents have sad tales to tell of losing everything they own, just as many miracles are being reported, he said.

The newly completed Union Grove Baptist Church, which houses a pre-school in the older church building right next door, was totally destroyed. The daycare facility, which still had children inside, was not touched.

The driver of an 18-wheeler, which was hauling a load of cotton, was injured but not killed when his truck was picked up and thrown through the air, dropping cotton bales as it flew.

Tim Keith was inside his mother's house when the tornado ripped through town. Seconds later, he found himself lying on the ground under a pile of rubble. All that's left of the home is the concrete slab.

A woman who took shelter huddled down under a pile of pillows inside her bathtub reported hearing a roar like a jet plane overhead. When the sound finally stopped and she peeked out from under the pillows, all she could see was sky. Her roof and her home was gone, but she walked away without a scratch.

Over the past few months, Atkins residents Amanda and Chad Sanders had been making a home for themselves inside a metal warehouse building. They had just left the house when it was hit headlong and twisted like a piece of aluminum foil. Had the couple still been inside, it's likely they wouldn't be alive today to tell their story.

Tyson said there are also dozens of reports of neighbors helping neighbors and churches coming to the rescue, housing the homeless, feeding both displaced residents and volunteer workers and acting as warehouse distribution centers for supplies.

"Our church is small, but we've been taking in donations, and then getting them where they need to go," he said. "And donations have been pouring in! We have one wall stacked high with bottled water and stacks and stacks of non-perishable food. It's amazing!"

Both the Atkins United Methodist Church and the Atkins First Baptist Church are hosting feeding programs and numerous other churches have come together to provide for and assist displaced families staying at the Matthew Civic Center.

Thursday, President George Bush issued a major disaster declaration for 10 Arkansas counties, making both individual and federal assistance available to local governments and some nonprofit groups.

Tommy Jackson, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said it would be several days before damage dollar figures were in but said the amount would be "incredible."

"I was in Atkins yesterday. The damage there is staggering and from what I'm hearing back from others in the field, it's the same everywhere," he said.

In the meantime, faith-based organizations throughout the country are gearing up for the massive reconstruction project that is about to begin.

Matt Hackworth, communications officer with Church World Service, a relief ministry umbrella for 35 protestant, orthodox and Anglican denominations, said his group had sent several hundred blankets, personal hygiene kits and clean-up buckets and supplies to Arkansas residents.

"Right now we're still gathering data. Most communities are still in rescue-and-relief mode, but in the days and weeks ahead, as the needs are evaluated, we will be coordinating efforts to help those who may not be able to recover independently," he said. "Because the damage is so severe, it's going to take a little while to determine exactly where we'll be needed."


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