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Dam burst destroys MS homes

A freak dam burst destroyed more than 40 homes and severely damaged more than 20 others last week in southern Mississippi.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PURVIS, Miss. | March 18, 2004

A freak dam burst destroyed more than 40 homes and severely damaged more than 20 others last week in southern Mississippi.

The Big Bay Lake Dam broke Friday afternoon, sending a devastating 8-foot wall of water through several communities in Lamar and Marion counties. According to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Big Bay Lake drained its 3.5 billion gallons of water in three hours. No one was killed, but homes were wiped out, and several roads and bridges were knocked away or damaged.

"All the water went through the communities and emptied into several creeks and the Pearl River," said Lea Stokes, MEMA spokesperson. She said her agency sent out flash flood warnings all afternoon on March 12 to alert areas in the water's path.

Stokes said 24 homes and 20 mobile homes in Lamar County were destroyed. Another 15 homes in the county saw major damage. In Marion County, one mobile home was destroyed and14 homes were severely damaged. Two churches and one volunteer fire department were also significantly damaged in Marion County. The governor has declared a state of emergency, but no federal declaration is expected.

"Those damage counts are preliminary, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration are still counting," said Stokes. "But we don't expect the numbers to go much higher than that."

Amid destruction and loss, local volunteers and churches are stepping up to help out. The Greenville Baptist Church in the small town of Purvis has become a command post for the recovery.

"We serve lunch and supper every day to anyone who needs it both relief volunteers and those who lost their homes," said Suzanne Kelly, director of the Greenville Baptist Church Women's Mission Union. "As long as people need it, we'll serve it."

Kelly said her church is holding all kinds of donations for the survivors of the disaster. "We have linens, dishes, furniture, appliances and even groceries. The church is getting full from all the donations," she said.

Not only are people donating needed goods, they are also donating their time as volunteers, Kelly added. "We have lots of volunteers doing all kinds of tasks," she said. "Some people are here sorting all the donations, others are going into the affected areas to help survivors salvage their items. We often bring survivors' dirty dishes and clothing in so we can wash and launder it all for them."

The relief effort is communitywide, according to Kelly. "We're receiving donations from the local community and from other churches in the region," she said. "It's been wonderful."

She added that they make sure to care for anyone who needs it. "Quite a few members of our church were affected," she said. "But we're not just focusing on our own members, we're focusing on the whole community."

The pastor of Greenville Baptist Church is also offering pastoral counseling as needed, and Kelly said she and the volunteers step in to help with that as well.

"We don't hesitate to pray with someone if they come in here and ask," she said. "And sometimes they just need a touch on the shoulder we even give hugs when they're needed."

Kelly said that before the dam burst, the church had planned a large revival service for this coming Friday night and Saturday morning. "When all this happened, we thought we would have to cancel it," she said. "But many people said, 'No, don't, we still want it to happen, we need it.' So we kept it on the schedule."

The church is offering childcare for parents coping with flood cleanup, but Kelly said most families have not needed that service. She added that toy donations are coming in and the volunteers are there to talk if the kids want to.

"One little boy came in here with his family and mentioned to the pastor and me that he was sad about the water sweeping away the $45 he'd saved up at his home," said Kelly. "So our pastor took out his own wallet and gave the boy some money."

MEMA's Stokes said this type of disaster, a dam bursting and flooding many communities, is the first of its kind in Mississippi. She said all the community assistance is wonderful.

"This is very much a team effort with everyone the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, the local sheriff's departments, and the local churches are all helping," she said. "There's a lot of outpouring of support."

Officials expect the recovery to last for some time, but that doesn't deter those in the community. "We'll stay until the last person is served," said Kelly.

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