Rural TN still in shock

In one tornado-damaged Tennessee county, residents are simultaneously shocked by the great needs - and cognizant that those needs will be around for a long time.

BY HEATHER MOYER | DYERSBURG, Tenn. | April 17, 2006

"There are pastures where you can't walk without stepping on some type of debris."

—Bill Neal

In one tornado-damaged Tennessee county, residents are simultaneously shocked by the great needs - and cognizant that those needs will be around for a long time.

Hundreds of volunteers from local and regional churches were combing Dyer County last week, cleaning up debris and cutting up downed trees. Local churches are recruiting volunteers. But volunteers are still needed, responders pointed out, especially to clean up farmers' fields.

"There are pastures where you can't walk without stepping on some type of debris," said Bill Neal of the Dyer County Fire Department. "We have wheat fields out there with two-by-fours sticking out of them."

Lisa Ramm, volunteer coordinator for Dyer County since the tornado, said the response has been hectic but the outpouring of support has been wonderfully overwhelming.

"We have pages and pages full of volunteers that have come here," said Ramm. "They've done cleanup, worked at our supply distribution site, prepared meals for families and more."

Ramm herself is a volunteer, having stepped into the coordination role because she wanted to help. "I've lived here all my life; I just felt the need to give back to this community."

The tornado did not damage Ramm's home, but it did seriously injure one of her friends. Plus, she added, the community itself is small - everyone knows everyone, so most people know someone who was affected.

Both Neal and Ramm said many farmers won't ask for help either, which just pushes the responders harder to find those in need. "We're trying to find those who need help," said Ramm, who is a member of Dyersburg's First Baptist Church. "Some won't ask us for it."

Ramm and other responders are also worried that some families are having a harder time in the aftermath of the storm than others. "I'm fairly young and at my age, I'm slightly confused by all of this. I can't imagine how hard it must be for some elderly people. My concern is that some people who live out there don't know about the assistance we have for them."

The current emotional state of the affected families is another concern. Ramm said the families she talks to are still in shock. "Some feel lost and don't know where to go next," she explained. "Some are overwhelmed, not only with the process but also by the generosity."

The community spirit is strong, she added, and it's only become stronger since the tornado hit. "I've heard some people say that they've lived here all their life, but they never really appreciated it," she said. "Everyone's helping each other, too. To sit here and see that it's not just my church, it's everyone - it's amazing."

Local businesses are donating money and supplies, and Ramm said she's seen every church denomination she can think of helping out.

With the aim of helping residents over the long haul, disaster relief agencies in Dyer County plan to create a new long-term recovery committee.

In a meeting last week, response agencies discussed the aftermath of a powerful tornado that wiped out hundreds of homes in the county on April 2. Facilitated by the state chapter of Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster (VOAD), the meeting brought together responders from federal, state and local agencies and faith-based organizations.

Meanwhile, care for tornado survivors continues. Dyersburg's First United Methodist Church (FUMC) is offering food and furniture to families in need.

FUMC's pastor, the Rev. Phillip Cook, also announced the formation of a grief support and counseling group - something that was already in the works before the tornado hit but is needed even more now. The tornado killed eight people and injured as many as 50 others along its path through Dyersburg into Newbern.

Representatives from the United Methodist Committee on Relief are offering case management training to response agencies. Other local churches said their Holy Week offerings were going to support the response.

Ramm said she looks forward to the response from the impending long-term recovery organization, knowing that it will take a long time to get the affected families back on their feet.

"I know we'll work together to follow up on these families and take care of them," she said.

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