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Town celebrates twister recovery

For the Rev. Milton Wilson, the last ten months have been a learning experience.

BY HEATHER MOYER | Olla, La. | August 25, 2005

"It's neat seeing all the denominations join together regardless of religious beliefs to get homes back in order."

—Ileen McGuffee

For the Rev. Milton Wilson, the last ten months have been quite the learning experience.

"What I learned from all of this is that it can be done," laughed Wilson, pastor of Olla's First Baptist Church and a member of the town's Long-Term Recovery Committee (LTRC). Last November, a powerful tornado devastated the small town of roughly 1,700 people, killing one person and destroying numerous homes.

"It came in one end of town and went out the other end," he said. "It looked like it cleaned out a two-block path in the middle."

Ileen McGuffee, the relief coordinator for the LTRC, said as many as one-third of the homes in Olla were damaged or destroyed.

Now, months later, the recovery process is nearing the end and McGuffee agrees with Wilson that they have learned more than they ever thought they would about disaster recovery.

"It's been a learning process for everybody," she said with a laugh. Members of the LTRC include representatives from the community's churches, the Louisiana chapter of the Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster (LAVOA), the American Red Cross, and numerous local non-profits. Since November, the committee has closed 150 cases where they have helped replace sheetrock, fix electrical work, lay flooring, and every other housing repair one can imagine.

They are now wrapping up work on several remaining homes. Two homes are being completely rebuilt from the ground up, said McGuffee, two others are being moved and then repaired, and then several more have minor repairs left. She expects the final work to wrap up in mid-September and added that skilled volunteers are still needed to finish the final houses. Another important need, she said, is funding for administrative costs.

The LTRC is also reaching out to two other towns that are several hours away but were hit by the same storms last November. McGuffee said both Lena and Leesvilla, La., are in need of assistance. "They're very small towns," she noted.

Yet having the recovery work in Olla nearing completion almost 10 months after the twister hit is something by which both she and Wilson are thrilled. Both credit the amazing work from volunteers who poured in from churches across the region and the country. Churches from around the region have either sent work teams or sponsored the complete repair or construction of a home. Other have donated or bought new trailers for families, or even helpd to move homes to entirely new locations.

"It's been a wonderful blessing," said McGuffee. "It's neat seeing all the denominations join together regardless of religious beliefs to get homes back in order. That's the way the church is supposed to be."

Wilson said he has seen the community come a long way emotionally and spiritually since last November as well. He saw some definite change at a "Thanksgiving" feast held in late July.

"The tornado hit on November 22, so no one in town got to celebrate Thanksgiving," he explained. "So we did a city-wide Thanksgiving celebration in July to get the community together, to try to have some fellowship. It was a bit of a healing moment for everyone. It was good to see people laugh and enjoy themselves."

More than 1,300 people turned up for the celebration, Wilson said, which featured free food and entertainment for adults and kids. A local poultry company donated chicken to be grilled and a grocery store donated all the drinks.

For Wilson and McGuffee, there's no question that the church involvement in the recovery process has made a lasting impact on everyone.

"I think there's a renewed spiritual movement in this community," said McGuffee. "Lives are being changed by people reaching out to each other. I've seen God working. One thing this has allowed us to do is build relationships in the community with people we didn't know."

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