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AR tornado impact assessed

The tornado that ripped through an Arkansas town has left as many as 800 people, many of them migrants, without work, creating economic hardships as the community struggles to recover.

BY HEATHER MOYER | DUMAS, Ark. | March 6, 2007

The tornado that ripped through an Arkansas town has left as many as 800 people, many of them migrants, without work, creating economic hardships as the community struggles to recover.

"This will hurt everyone economically," said Lavida Whitson, president of Arkansas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (ARVOAD). "It will take a while for the businesses to come back - and they've said they will - but it's all on how long that will take."

Whitson estimated that one-third of Dumas was wiped out by the tornado and as many as 800 people are now without jobs. Two major factories were severely damaged and have had to lay off workers. More than 20 other local businesses were destroyed.

"The number one need we have right now - especially since we haven't gotten any federal aid - is money," said Rev. Glenn Pettus of Dumas First United Methodist Church. "It's hard to say that, but it's true."

Pettus is helping meet the needs of the families affected by the Feb. 24 tornado that slammed southern Arkansas. The tornadoes destroyed 67 homes across four counties, with the hardest hit area being the Desha County town of Dumas.

Pettus said the needs are great for those affected, but the best way for people to help is to contribute financially. He said his church is gearing up with help from the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to handle long-term recovery in the area.

The outpouring of support for Dumas has been overwhelming, he said, while the town's own generosity and community spirit also continues to amaze him. Even people whose own homes and businesses were severely damaged are out helping other affected families, he said.

"The response has been unbelievable," Pettus said. "It's just an awesome group of people and everybody's ministering to each other. It's been an amazing experience to watch the community pull together."

Pettus' congregation has been helping feed affected families and working with the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. The church served as a shelter for residents of a nearby assisted-living facility who were ousted by the tornado. The church has also been helping distribute UMCOR flood buckets and other relief supplies sent in from the conference.

The response has also focused on migrant workers who live and work in the Dumas area. Many of the migrants were undocumented and lived in trailers that were destroyed or damaged, Pettus said. Still more now have to contend with economic hardship due to Dumas businesses being destroyed by the tornado.

Pettus also said that many families lost all their perishable food because power was out for so long.

"We're all worried about those people who lost their homes, those who lost their cars and their jobs," he said. "Many migrant workers lost their homes and cars, and they don't have any insurance either."

Other affected towns include Desha County's Backgate and Bradley County's Strong. Desha, Drew, Bradley and Union counties all saw some damage.

Gov. Mike Beebe declared all four counties as disaster areas and asked the federal government for $1.5 million in assistance for Dumas.

Whitson said ARVOAD is meeting regularly via conference calls to coordinate the response among more than 19 member agencies. Organizations such as Arkansas Baptist Relief had teams in town last week doing debris removal. UMCOR held case-management training with the local Catholic Charities to handle the future long-term recovery. Mennonite Disaster Service sent in work crews to help with cleanup work. Teams from the United Methodist Church's Volunteers in Mission (VIM) program are scheduled to arrive Sunday to assist in the recovery.

Whitson, who is also director of Adventist Community Services (ACS) in Arkansas and Louisiana, said ACS is helping coordinate donations and distribution in Dumas.

Lura Cayton, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison, was expected in Dumas this week to help the area coordinate a long-term recovery.

Pettus said he hoped the outpouring of support from churches and groups statewide and nationally would continue into the future.

"One of the difficult things for me has been to take all these phone calls from these churches and say over and over again, 'Thank you for your love and enthusiasm, but please wait until we can get everything into place for you to come in.' We thank God for all of this support. We believe that through all of this help that we'll come out a better community as a result."

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Related Links:

Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church

Adventist Community Services

United Methodist Committee on Relief

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