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Small disasters leave big needs

BY SUSAN KIM | Estillfork, AL | April 26, 2000

Two weeks ago, a concrete ford that crosses Estill Fork on Jackson County 140 was overtaken by floodwaters. A school bus, taking children home from school, couldn't cross and had to drop children off with neighbors.

Nearby, County Road 175 was shut down when floodwaters on Burks Creek pushed a concrete column loose under a bridge, causing the structure to

break in the middle. Eight families for a few days.

Now the County Commission is raising money to fix the bridge. And the community -- with a gospel singing and supper at the fire hall among other events -- is raising money to buy a 1-ton, all-terrain truck that can cross the ford when it's under water or go into other flooded areas to rescue people stranded by floodwaters.

Until then, residents who are elderly or who have medical conditions are vulnerable because they can't get to doctors or hospitals when floodwaters strand them. Similarly, family members who cross the creek to go to work may find they can't get home at night.

Estill is a tiny rural town where disaster response is as localized as it ever gets. It is one of several rural towns in the state that have experienced significant flooding this year. Now -- during tornado season and with severe weather repeatedly hitting the southern U.S. -- while some larger-scale disasters receive significant media coverage and organized response, other disasters seem to go unnoticed except by those few families they directly


Residents in parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida anxiously waited under tornado watches and severe thunderstorm warnings this week.

By mid-afternoon, Florida's emergency management officials were optimistically thinking they were going to escape with just some wind and rain. "Actually, we need the rain. We're still in a drought status," said Ann Rowe, public affairs officer for the Florida Emergency Management Agency. Florida has also had its share of fires, with a Dade County blaze destroying homes earlier this month.

But a funnel cloud could just as easily have touched down and leveled one or two homes, said Jody Hill of Florida Interfaiths Networking in Disaster (FIND), who added that just because a disaster isn't 'big' doesn't mean it's not a disaster.

Some kind of response usually happens -- or at least is needed -- even when one house is destroyed by disaster, she said. "In 1998, tornadoes in central Florida and killed more than 40 people. But, typically, tornadoes aren't the kind of thing we particularly worry as much about."

If a local tornado wipes out a few homes, FIND or other interfaith groups try to connect the affected families with local relief organizations or churches. Though those connections are small, they are vital to many people. "For every big disaster event, we have scores of these little events," said Hill.

Hill said that public perception about large disasters may be skewed when media attention focuses only the hardest-hit area. "We got no press about the damages Hurricane Floyd caused here, because the situation was so much worse in North Carolina," she said. "Then, Hurricane Irene hit us, and nobody paid attention because Floyd had just hit."

In a very local disaster -- tornadoes and fires are the most common examples - one or two homes may be destroyed. "But if it's your home, it doesn't matter if it's just you, or if you're one in a thousand. It's still your home," said Hill.

When word gets out about a large-scale disaster, churches and denominations usually respond on a national scale. But for local disasters, response is more commonly on a congregational or regional level.

"First, we try to pay attention to the news to find out about disasters. Then, we may participate in national denominational response. Or we may respond as a local congregation," said the Rev. Randy Crawford at the Church of the Nazarene in Scottsboro, AL.

Most churches in Scottsboro report they aren't currently responding to the flooding in Estillfork, some 35 miles away.

But within Scottsboro, churches might respond to disasters through the Scottsboro Ministerial Association, said the Rev. Chuck Bell, pastor at the Fellowship United Methodist Church and a member of the association. "If somebody is stranded in Scottsboro, we have a Samaritan Fund that gives

them vouchers for food and supplies," he said.

Ben Chandler, director of missions for the Tennessee River Baptist Association, said that his group decides on the level of response after assessing the extent of the disaster. "When we learn about the disaster, we respond in some way. If it's a large-scale hurricane, we would work through the disaster relief arm of the Baptist Convention. But if it's more of a local disaster, we'll respond on a regional level, or we'll work through a single congregation."

Sometimes, churches in more metropolitan areas just don't hear about about localized or rural disasters. "I'm a youth minister, and I'd love to find about the needs in a rural community that had been flooded, and try to take volunteer groups to help out there," said Steve Barber at the Calvary Baptist Church in Scottsboro. "I just don't know how to find that out."

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