South recovering from 'white tornado'

Volunteers assisting ice storm survivors as electricity slowly returns

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | BALTIMORE | February 6, 2009


The ice storm brought down tree branches and other debris throughout the region.
Credit: Camden County MO Sheriff

Residents are calling it the white tornado the snow and ice storm that tore through Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and other states last week. With much of the region still thawing, disaster response groups said it's hard to get in to many of the impacted areas.

"Things are still a mess down there," said John Robinson, Associate of Disaster Response for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

Robinson said there are churches still sheltering people who are not able to get back into their homes. He said they are planning future response that will be needed. Mike Nevergall, of Lutheran Disaster Response, said his organization is reaching out to the Presbyterians to see where they are needed as well.

"We are extremely grateful for the Lutherans and the help they've offered," Robinson said.

The Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church activated its disaster response plan immediately following the January storm. According to Cathy Farmer, Communications Director, several churches have opened as shelters, and special Sunday offerings are being collected for response to the storm.

The conference also helped set up toll-free call centers in three areas in western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee for residents who need help clearing tree branches and other debris. Volunteers who want to help survivors of the storm can also call those numbers, according to Farmer.

Farmer said local pastors have been asked to assess immediate needs so when volunteer groups arrive, the conference knows where to send them.

So far, clean-up has been slow. Temperatures have begun to rise in the region, but things are just beginning to thaw out, making power restoration difficult and leaving some residents stranded. And as those temperatures rise, authorities want to make sure residents keep an eye out for ice falling off buildings or power lines.

Art Opperwall, Manager of Volunteer Groups & Equipment for the Christian Reformed Church, said they sent a chainsaw team to Kentucky on Friday to help clean up trees in the area.

"They're working with local people, finding the greatest need," he said. "They're equipped with chainsaws and tractor that can haul trees and brush and so forth. As I understand it, Louisville is allowing people to put things on side of road and they'll pick up next week."

Opperwall expected the group to be in Kentucky for the next two weeks cleaning up. They arrived early Friday afternoon, expecting to start work Friday evening or early Saturday morning.

The National Guard was activated in Kentucky and went door-to-door looking for people who were still in homes without power. In many areas they distributed food and water to survivors as well as removed ice-covered trees. Twenty-five people died in Kentucky that have been blamed solely on the storm. Some were victims of vehicle crashes caused by icy roadways and some were victims of hypothermia from people who did not leave their homes in the cold temperatures. The storm is blamed or suspected in 57 deaths across the U.S.

In Arkansas, power is slowly but surely coming back, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has declared 32 counties in the northern half of the state disaster areas. He also made emergency appeals to President Barack Obama for a federal major disaster declaration for the counties where FEMA assessments have already taken place. Authorities estimate 100,000 people are still without power.

The Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church began work in the state immediately after the storm hit. According to the Rev. Maxine Allen, Arkansas Conference Minister of Missions and Ethnic Ministries, the state is still in a clean-up and restoration phase.

Allen is also the Disaster Coordinator for the Arkansas Conference. She said there are 12 churches in the northern part of the state serving as shelters or feeding stations.

"We have two conference camps that are active in disaster," Allen said. "One of them had a lot of damage to it, and the road has not been cleared and we're housing Volunteers in Mission (VIM) groups at it. The other didn't have as much damage and it's being used to house electric lineman."

Allen said the VIM groups came to Arkansas from southwest Texas, Missouri and local church disaster response teams. According to Allen, one team is from Dumas, a town hit by tornadoes two years ago. She said the team has been active in disaster response since the town was hit, helping both with ice storms last year as well as tornadoes.

The Arkansas Methodist Conference also has a jurisdictional retreat center in Fayetteville.

"They had four buildings with roof issues. They were without power for two days until the Salvation Army came and hooked a generator up," Allen said. "The Methodists and Salvation Army are working closely in disaster response."


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