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Response unites in MS

BY PJ HELLER | PONTOTOC, MS | March 1, 2001

With support from Church World Service (CWS) and its denominational member partners, churches in Pontotoc are creating a long-term

disaster recovery committee to help people rebuild their lives after a tornado ripped through the area Saturday.

Even though the committee hasn't yet officially formed, preliminary discussions between church leaders have already helped make disaster

response in this town better, said Art Jackson, a CWS disaster resource consultant.

"A couple of days ago, five or six churches decided they'd be feeding everybody. Then after the churches communicated, they decided which

churches should be feeding, and which ones should be supporting that effort or doing other types of response," he said.

Normally the creation of a long-term response committee doesn't happen until about three weeks after a disaster, Jackson explained, so this

effort is starting early. "It's early -- but they're ready. There is a wealth of talent here."

There is little doubt that residents in Pontotoc will be facing a long-term recovery. The twister shaved homes entirely off of hilltops. One

man found a 100-foot cedar tree drilled into his yard when there were no cedar trees in his neighborhood before.

Rain has been steadily falling since Tuesday, and forecasts call for that to continue through Saturday. None of the storms are expected to be severe. Cecil Harrison of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said that the rain is slowing initial recovery efforts.

About 100 homes are still without power, and crews are having difficulty hooking them up, said Chuck Howell, general manager of the

Pontotoc Electric Power Association. "The ground is too wet to set the poles," he said.

Pontotoc Sheriff Leo Mask warned people to beware of scams. "Some people are coming in and doing work for them and things are not

legitimate," he said, adding that several people have tried to scam residents out of money by clearing property then charging them a large

amount of money.

The Tupelo-Lee Humane Society sent a team of volunteers to help find injured or lost animals.

The Pontotoc Agri-Center is still set up as a relief goods distribution center, and is not taking any more shipments of clothes. The most

urgent needs currently are for kerosene heaters, ice chests, and bath towels. Volunteers there are assembling "care packages" and delivering

them to affected neighborhoods.

Over the last few days, hundreds of people attended memorial services for the dead.

After viewing the damage, Jackson met with local pastors. "He came in right when we needed him most," said the Rev. Ken Corley, pastor

at the First United Methodist Church in Pontotoc and president of the local ministerial association. "We've never responded to a disaster


Jackson has requested an initial grant from CWS to help get the committee started. Already, the United Methodist Committee on Relief

(UMCOR) and Lutheran Disaster Response pledged funds as well.

CRWRC can also provide a 'capacity builder,' or a person who can help the interfaith group learn to set up an office, provide case

management for local families, manage a database that keeps track of people's needs, and write grant proposals. CRWRC can also provide a

needs assessment team that travels from house-to-house to ensure nobody's needs are overlooked.

Response that churches put into place now is likely to make a long-term difference in people's lives, said Jackson. "After FEMA (Federal

Emergency Management Agency) and the Red Cross leave, you'll be left," Jackson told Corley, adding that church-based response is generally long-term rather than immediate. "Remember this is not a sprint, it's a marathon. You're not a microwave, you're a slow cooker."

The group will meet Friday at the Second Baptist Church to talk over their next steps. Another interfaith group -- the Golden Triangle

Community Agency Recovery Effort (GTCARES) -- is being created in Columbus to help meet long-term needs in that area.

A disaster relief fund -- managed by local clergy -- has been set up through First National Bank. Representatives from Mennonite Disaster

Service are in Pontotoc and ready to help rebuild homes, and UMCOR and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance sent representatives to town to help assess damages. CWS can help shore up more funding through response from its partner denominations, said Jackson.

FEMA is setting up disaster field office in Tupelo and will cover both the Pontotoc area tornado and the Feb. 16 storms that caused damage

nearer to Columbus. In all, 34 counties in Mississippi were impacted by the two separate storms, said Ken Skalitzky, FEMA voluntary agency liaison for the region. FEMA has authorized disaster assistance for residents in northern Mississippi for both storms.

Skalitzky encouraged local response leaders to contact the University of Mississippi -- "Ole Miss" -- which is about 30 miles away, to see if

space is available to house volunteers.

Jackson was concerned that, in areas on the outskirts of Pontotoc -- Baldwyn and Algoma -- there may be houses that were destroyed or

damaged but still isolated from responding agencies. Many times, families used to getting by on their own won't ask for help even if they need it, he said.

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