Response intense in Mississippi

BY SUSAN KIM | PONTOTOC, MS | February 26, 2001

Scores of people were injured, many cut by flying shards of glass as they frantically tried to escape their homes when the twisters plowed

through late Saturday. The tornadoes devastated the town of Pontotoc, also hitting Baldwyn hard and causing damage in Greenwood as well. The twister also struck the small town of Algoma and the communities of Liberty and Buck Horn, all in Pontotoc County. Damage was also reported in the Little Rock, AR area.

In Pontotoc, homes were torn from their foundations, and mobile homes were hurled more than 100 yards. As damage assessments continue, the number of homes destroyed or damaged has grown to more than 300, according to reports from the American Red Cross.

In Baldwyn, many houses were crushed by fallen trees, and the roof was ripped from the high school gym. Power poles along Baldwyn's Main Street were snapped off or bent at severe angles. Two homes were destroyed, 26 sustained major damage, and 70 sustained minor damage, according to the Lee County Emergency Management Agency.

A Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) meeting was held in Columbus, MS Monday, where agency representatives discussed needs related to the recent tornadoes as well as to severe storms that struck eastern and central Mississippi Feb. 16. The Columbus area was hardest hit by those storms, particularly Holmes, Oktibbeha, and Lowndes counties.

The Pontotoc Ministerial Association, chaired by the Rev. Ken Corley, aims to organize a community-based disaster response organization

to handle long-term recovery needs. Corley is pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Pontotoc.

Representatives from faith-based organizations such as the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church World Service, Lutheran Disaster Response, Mennonite Disaster Service, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief are on the scene assessing damages and plan to offer guidance in forming the community-based recovery organization.

Pontotoc residents are still in a state of shock since this close-knit community lost friends and neighbors. Downed trees and power lines still blocked some roads on Monday, and people were still combing through wreckage to try to salvage their belongings.

The sound of backhoes and chainsaws was a constant reminder of the ongoing cleanup.

Pontotoc Mayor Bill Rutledge said he was pleased at the response so far. "There are probably not enough good things to say about the

community, the state, the government. It's amazing the people who have come together to help their fellow man."

He was at the Agriculture Center in the heart of Pontotoc Monday night, comforting tornado survivors and meeting with community leaders. The center has been set up as a donations center, and the Salvation Army and Red Cross are onsite there.

The Salvation Army is also stationed at the Pontotoc National Guard Armory to help feed and provide relief supplies to tornado survivors.

The Victory Baptist Church, which lost its steeple in the storm, sprang to action immediately after the storm, providing meals for local police

who set up a trailer office there because the church was centrally located within the community.

Many other churches have since opened their doors, providing food and comfort for survivors and emergency response workers.

Hal Shope, a volunteer with Lutheran Disaster Response, attended Monday's VOAD meeting and reported that the response would definitely be long-term for Pontotoc and other storm-stricken areas. "After the initial shock and rescue, we get involved."

Shope said that the group made connections among a variety of agencies to ensure there would be no overlap of services.

He added that long-term needs in Pontotoc could be substantial. "It's a sort of rural area, and a lot of people don't have much insurance. They're going to need help. In three, four, five years, what's going to happen to them?"

Shope helped coordinate response for tornado survivors in Arkansas in 1997 and again in 1999. He spoke with Arkansas government officials Monday about the needs in that state from the recent storms.

Now based in Jackson, he said that his experience in Arkansas would help him respond well in Mississippi.

"I think here [in Mississippi] people are more used to floods and hurricanes. You don't see as many tornadoes."

Saturday's storm was estimated eighth in a list of the ten most devastating storms ever to strike northeast Mississippi.

He described damage in the Columbus area as "a lot of trees that fell into houses and roofs" but said that the devastation in Pontotoc "was a

whole different animal."

He expressed concern about the children in Pontotoc and other hard-hit areas. "Sometimes when we've helped someone put a storm shelter in after a tornado, they say that's the first time their kids have slept through the night."

Shope met his wife -- herself a tornado survivor -- when he worked in Arkansas. "She lost her house, her husband died. Disasters are absolutely terrible - but one changed our lives."

The couple travels to churches in the local area to give talks on how to effectively respond to disasters. "It's a ministry. Churches have a

heart for disaster response. But some churches need to know how to go about it. You don't just start collecting old clothes. People have

other specific needs."

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