Baptists feed hundreds in MS

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

Outside, sitting on professional-grade kitchen equipment sat a steamer pot that can cook 30 gallons of food at once, a grill at least 10 feet long, and neat stacks of hot meals ready to go.

It was a place full of good smells and warm hearts: the Southern Baptist Convention's mobile feeding unit. On Tuesday the end result was beef stew, whole kernel corn, and fruit, packed into meal kits, loaded into American Red Cross trucks, and dispatched to neighborhoods devastated by Saturday's tornado.

Behind their yellow jackets warm demeanor lies professionalism, some intense training, and motivation that stems from faith.

They travel across the U.S. but this time they were parked under a pavilion at the First Baptist Church in Pontotoc. After the tornado struck late Saturday, the Southern Baptist Convention sent an on-site coordinator to locate a place for the rig.

By Monday, the team was set up and feeding people. The rig is totally self-contained, and the volunteers are completely self-sufficient --

meaning they have food, water, and housing right on the truck. "We carry 800 gallons of fresh water," said coordinator Glenn Nace, "and if we run through that, we're equipped to treat our own water."

If power is down, the rig has a generator. If the generator is down, it has three different backup systems.

A HAM radio on board can help families check on the safety of their loved ones when phones are down, and can help direct Red Cross

canteens to spots where they're most needed.

There are 134 volunteers trained to work on the rig, and about eight are in Pontotoc, explained Nace. They work three-day shifts.

"We usually try to serve a nutritional meal that has a meat, vegetables, and some kind of fruit," said Nace.

The volunteers re-certify their training every year, taking intensive workshops covering such topics as mass feeding, damage assessment, and

even CPR. "We also operate under state health regulations," said Nace.

The group recruits volunteers from local churches as much as possible, he added. "That puts a familiar face on the serving line," he said.

Local volunteers, in addition to helping the Southern Baptist effort, are also busy sorting donated relief items. At this time, survivors need new bedding, major appliances, and furniture, according to Pontotoc Mayor Bill Rutledge. Still better, many response officials advised, is making a cash donation to a responding group. Faith-based groups from a variety of denominations are responding, and these groups will likely be addressing long-term needs as well.

On Monday, some 30 families were staying at the town's only motel, the Pontotoc Inn. A few hundred residents were still without power

Tuesday. Others displaced by the storm were staying with family and friends. Some were able to stay in their homes as crews nailed plastic

tarps over their roofs.

Pontotoc County schools were in session starting Monday but student council leaders were dismissed to help with relief efforts.

One disaster response official from a neighboring county warned Pontotoc County officials that managing the flood of donations could be

difficult. "The help may be worse than the disaster," said Terry Steed of Forrest County emergency management, adding that local officials can

be overwhelmed by donations -- especially used clothing -- from well-intentioned people who don't necessarily know what survivors need.

For many survivors, donations centers throughout the town are not so much a place to pick up clothing as much as to have a cup of coffee and

talk over harrowing community experiences -- and losses -- when the tornado hit with 157-mph winds.

City and county officials estimated that 95 houses were destroyed, 81 more received major damage, and 168 others received minor damage.

Some residents are able to identify their homes only by a slab. Others will be able to identify where their homes stood only later this spring, when the flowers bloom.

Robie Van Steenburgh was hosting his 10-year-old stepson's sleepover birthday party when the storm hit. He described to his friends that he

felt the floor lift up, and he felt like he was high in the air. He landed in the mud outside of the house, where his truck was blown down the hill and hit him in the back. Steenburgh was hospitalized with a severely bruised spine.

Of the eight people in the house at the time, only one died --Steenburgh's stepson, Evan Nixon, just hours after turning 10 years old. Now the other parents -- and the entire community -- are trying to console Steenburgh, even as they thank him for saving the other children.

Another couple took refuge in a waist-high creek with their three children. Still another family huddled under a queen-size mattress with a baby and a young child in their hallway as the tornado pulled the roof off the house.

Others described taking refuge under their kitchen counters, in hallways, or outside in ditches.

Besides Evan Nixon, other storm victims in Pontotoc included: Donnie Clowers, 40, Peggy Hester, 72, Michael Seale, 36, and Betty Clowers, 65.

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