Mood is somber in Mississippi

BY SUSAN KIM | PONTOTOC, MS | February 28, 2001

Everywhere, talk was about the tornado that struck late Saturday: the loved ones lost, those miraculously spared, where children or

grandparents were when it happened, what's going to happen now.

The rain didn't stop all day on Tuesday. But utility crews kept gathering downed power lines and putting up new poles to replace miles of broken ones. Electrical workers from across the state arrived to help.

The sound of chainsaws cutting trees -- so some residents could finally see the condition of their homes -- never ceased. For miles, tree branches were strewn with insulation, clothes, and furniture that blew out of people's homes.

Some homes were so scattered into pieces that residents couldn't identify any belongings at all. Bulldozers pushed piles of sticks, bricks, and cement blocks that used to be homes. Vehicles were blown 85 feet, into trees and other homes.

The hardest-hit neighborhoods were still blocked off by state police most of the day Tuesday since snagged power lines and snapped trees still pose a danger. Volunteer teams weren't yet allowed to canvas the area and help clean up but many are planning to help over the weekend.

The day was full of endings for the 8,000 residents of Pontotoc. Funeral services were held for at least two victims. By the end of the day, state police were able to remove most roadblocks. A furniture frame factory that employed 125 was declared destroyed. Residents who had been digging for salvageable belongings gave up as the heavy rain, pouring in through open roofs and ripped-out walls, ruined whatever was left.

But inside the Pontotoc Agri-Center, volunteers lifted people's spirits even as the rain drummed against the roof. Within a day after the twister struck, the center became a donations distribution warehouse managed by The Salvation Army. The arena-like space is full of relief items: furniture, personal hygiene items, children's toys, baby supplies, and an ever-expanding mound of used clothing.

It's equipped with a caf* kitchen that The Salvation Army is using to serve hot meals. Pontotoc resident Rosalyn Johnson was standing behind

the counter sporting a red Salvation Army apron. This was her second day at the center, and the first time she has ever volunteered. She said she came out because "the Lord spared our lives. I love every bit of it. I think I'm going to pursue it. Now I realize I always did care for people. It's very inspiring."

Another Salvation Army volunteer, Tenel Jones, spent last week in Columbus volunteering in the wake of severe storms that hit that area Feb. 16. Just when he was about to go home, the tornado struck Pontotoc. He's staying another week instead of going home to Birmingham, 80 miles away.

"Right now I'm picking out some items for a person in a wheelchair who can't make it here, and we're going to deliver them," he explained.

Betty Helms, another volunteer, was taking a half-day off to work at the center. First National Bank, her employer, gave its staff paid hours to help with disaster relief. "We clocked in just like usual, then we came here," she said.

Church group after church group dropped by, delivering food, bottled water, and quilts. A mobile Salvation Army canteen picked up food and

travels out into neighborhoods. Volunteers and survivors had to remind each other to eat, or some would go the whole day without food because they simply forgot they needed it.

The Agri-Center relief operation going like clockwork -- except for the garbage bags, truckloads, station wagons full of used clothing piling up in the middle of the arena. Not all of it was good enough to keep, said volunteers who were sorting it.

The announcement system boomed: "Please tell people who are bringing clothing here that we cannot accept any more deliveries. We don't

need any more clothes." Agri-Center managers decided to get this message out to local media.

Staff from the Pontotoc Department of Human Services were taking names for Federal Emergency Management Assistance. Pontotoc is one of

nine Mississippi counties now eligible for individual and public assistance in the wake of February disasters. On Monday, 333 individuals and 150 households applied for assistance at the Agri-Center, with many more applying at other service centers throughout the town. Even more are expected to apply on Tuesday.

Officials from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, police and fire departments, and the American Red Cross were on hand to answer people's questions.

Pontotoc officials estimated up to $10 million in losses. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove walked a request for disaster assistance for Pontotoc and four

other north Mississippi counties -- Prentiss, Lee, Tallahatchie and Leflore -- directly into the White House. Musgrove was in Washington over the weekend for a National Governors' Association meeting, returned briefly to Pontotoc to survey the damage, and then went back to Washington to deliver his request. The Federal declaration was announced late Tuesday night.

As immediate response continues, plans for long-term response are taking shape as well. Local leaders including many reported that they

intend to start a community-based response group to help take care of people's lingering unmet needs.

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