Caring hands reached hundreds of families in the South as faith-based groups mobilized a response to killer tornadoes that struck over the weekend.
Hundreds of families in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee saw their homes destroyed or badly damaged in the severe storms.
Local churches and volunteers were already playing a key role in recovery, according to response groups.
In Mississippi, Madison County was hardest hit, with up to 47 homes destroyed and more than 130 homes affected. The National Weather Service confirmed that an F4 tornado brought 200-mph winds to the area. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove declared a state of emergency in that county and in eight others, with plans to request federal help.
Statewide in Mississippi, some 343 homes were affected. The second worst damages were reported in Quitman County, where 13 homes were destroyed and 49 were damaged.
The Salvation Army deployed a canteen and two disaster response vans to Madison County early Saturday morning. Since then, Salvation Army teams have served meals to more than 650 families, and have distributed vouchers for food and other essentials. Salvation Army officers also provided pastoral care.
A trained volunteer from Church World Service has been in contact with federal and local disaster response officials and representatives of the faith community in the affected areas to assess the needs of the most vulnerable populations.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been in contact with local congregations to assess damages and gauge needs.
Disaster response personnel from the United Methodist Mississippi Annual Conference reported that assessments were under way and that most of the response will likely be handled by volunteers from local churches.
In Tennessee, a rural community was slammed late Monday by a violent storm that hit the unincorporated town of Oakland, some 80 miles east of Nashville. About 25 homes were destroyed or damaged.
Northern Alabama also saw storm damage, with a tornado ripping through downtown Haleyville and destroying some 50 businesses. A tornado also cut a swath through Argo near Birmingham, damaging about 50 homes.
The Alabama State Emergency Management Agency reported that rural communities in that state were hard hit. The Salvation Army deployed four units to Argo, Haleyville, Blount, and Etowah counties. Salvation Army units have served meals to more than 280 families in those areas. Additional families received emergency assistance with food and shelter.
In Arkansas, the storms destroyed 34 homes and damaged dozens more. Several poultry houses, barns, outbuildings, and vehicles were also destroyed or damaged, and thousands of chickens were killed, reported UMCOR. Twisters in that state were classified as F2 -- bringing 140-150 mph winds -- by the National Weather Service.
UMCOR reports indicated that most of the response in that state will be focused in Ashley County near Wilmot.
But a community in Madison County, MS seemed to bear the worst damage of all. The subdivision of Fairfield was particularly hard hit when a tornado roared through at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, pulling homes completely off their foundations. Residents were jarred from their beds by warning sirens. Then the tornado hit with what sounded like explosions, residents reported.
Two hours after the twister struck, another severe thunderstorm rocked the area, re-traumatizing residents and causing even more damage.
The First Baptist Church of Madison was open as an evacuation center, and evacuees were sheltered in that church's Christian Activities Center.
Parkway Hills United Methodist Church, the church closest to where the tornado touched down, was also open as a shelter, said the Rev. Bruce Taylor. Taylor walked through Fairfield Saturday morning to check on residents.
Even the west coast saw its share of dangerous weather over the weekend. Winds of 60 mph hit California Saturday, downing trees and knocking out power to some 500,000 people. Scattered wind and flood damage was reported there, according to the California Highway Patrol.
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