TN volunteers reach out to help twister survivors

Volunteers continued cleaning up the tremendous tornado damage in Morgan County.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | WARTBURG, TN | November 13, 2002

"I've never seen a community come together like this."

—Mary Simpson

Volunteer groups, local fire and rescue crews, Civil Air Patrol squadrons and teams from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) continued work Tuesday to clean up the tremendous tornado damage here in Morgan County.

The tornado-officially classified by the National Weather Service as "a strong F3" on the Fujita scale-touched down just west of Mossy Grove and continued east into the communities of Joyner and Petros. A total of seven people were killed-five in Mossy Grove and two in Joyner. More than two-dozen were injured, and 13 were hospitalized.

According to TEMA, 36 homes were destroyed in Morgan County and 84 were damaged. At least 100 vehicles were totaled.

One person was still considered missing Tuesday afternoon, according to Morgan County officials, although it was not clear whether this person actually existed. Police weren't taking any chances, however, as they continued their countywide search.

The tornado caused the worst damage in the town of Mossy Grove, which was virtually destroyed. The storm cut a 200- to 300-yard-wide swath through the town, and totally wiped out a small trailer park.

As residents and volunteers sifted through wreckage in the stricken communities, volunteer groups worked to get food, water and clothing to those who had just lost everything.

Here in Wartburg, relief workers set up a kitchen in the Calvary Baptist Church.

The Rev. Benjamin Blakney said the church opened its doors Sunday night. That night, and every night since then, people have slept on the floor of the church. On Tuesday, the American Red Cross brought in some cots.

"We started with absolutely nothing," Blakney said. That quickly changed, as several volunteer groups moved into the area.

Blakney's church became so filled with people, food and donated clothing, that "the mountain of clothes" and canned food had to be moved to Wartburg's Civic Center so people had room in the church to eat.

Blakney said his church was working closely with The Salvation Army, Red Cross and disaster workers from the Southern Baptist Convention. Donations of food, drinks, toiletries, first aid kits and clothing are constantly being brought to the church.

Mary Simpson, a volunteer with the Southern Baptist Convention who lives in Wartburg, worked in the church kitchen Tuesday, serving meals to tired volunteers and dazed tornado survivors.

"I've never seen a community come together like this," she said.

Simpson said food trucks were in and out all day, delivering food to seven different work areas and three distribution points around the county.

"When it comes time to feed people," she said, "these women will kick in like nothing you've ever seen. These are people who want to work-awesome women and men. All of them."

Just across the road from the church, emergency officials established a makeshift command center on the grounds of the abandoned Bluefield Company.

Bluefield, as well as two other major companies, left this economically depressed area in the past three years, leaving behind bleak job prospects.

Most Morgan County residents, Blakney said, either work for the jail system, the county's biggest employer, or they work outside the county. People here were already living through an economic slump, he said, and the damage caused by the tornado won't make life any easier.

In Mossy Grove, The Salvation Army set up a mobile food truck in the parking lot of the destroyed New Life Apostolic Church. Amidst a fleet of TV news trucks, Salvation Army volunteers served up meals to the hungry.

Simon Henley, Salvation Army spokesman, said the truck arrived Monday morning and "started feeding straight away."

The food truck, run by Marie and Ralph Ruby, was serving up between 75 and 95 meals a sitting, as well as cleanup kits and financial vouchers, good for up to $50, Henley said.

Salvation Army Capts. Melissa and Joe Irvin traveled around the disaster site, bringing water to survivors and providing what spiritual comfort they could.

"We know that it is very easy for people to feel very isolated and alone," Joe Irvin said. "A lot of this is to enable them to grieve and to allow the loss to sink in."

"Their emotional anchor points are all gone, and they are going to have to rebuild and find new ways to give their life meaning," he said.

Many survivors said deep religious faith was helping them bear their loss, according to Melissa Irvin. "It's a miracle to hear people praising the Lord at a time like this," she said.

Meanwhile, Red Cross workers, joined by a team of ten AmeriCorps volunteers, made a preliminary survey of the property damage.

Americorps volunteer Crystal Kelley said her team, originally from Charleston, S.C., was working in Maryville, Tenn., when they were called here to help.

Kelley and her teammates walked around with clipboards, keeping a tally of destroyed and damaged buildings.

Four Civil Air Patrol squadrons, from Knoxville and Oakridge, helped with debris removal Tuesday.

"There's a lot of devastation," said Capt. Jeff Meyer. "There are houses that are blown completely apart. We're going from house to house and seeing if families need help cleaning up."

Patrolmen stacked the debris into large piles. Bulldozers and backhoes plowed through the rubble and scooped the trash and tree branches into dump trucks.

Then there were people from nearby communities, who came to help complete strangers.

Ron Hendrix drove to Mossy Grove, not because he knew anyone here, but because he had two days off from Home Depot, and he wanted to help any way he could.

"It's like going through a garbage dump," Hendrix said. "This could be me, you know. That's what it's all about-helping one another."

Then there's the future. That's what Will Rabert, disaster response and recovery liaison for Church World Service, was thinking about as he made his way around the wrecked town.

Part of his job, he said, is to set up connections between local church groups, in order to help them form an interfaith recovery organization. This is just one of the first steps toward forming a long-term recovery plan.

Judging from the damage here, he said, returning life to normal is going to take quite some time.

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