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Teamwork helps in tornado recovery

Rebuilding lives in rural Holly, Colo., to be long process.

BY BOYCE BOWDON | HOLLY, Colo. | May 2, 2007

Teamwork is helping people in this tornado-stricken town begin the long process of recovery, says Ralph Plummer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Holly.

"Thanks to tremendous help from the federal and state governments, Red Cross, Salvation Army, non-profit agencies and hundreds of volunteers from churches across the country, we're getting along well with our cleanup operation," Plummer said.

"But," he added, "it will take a long time for our folks to rebuild their lives."

A farming community two miles from the Kansas border, Holly is home to 1,048 people.

Without warning, a twister struck about 8 p.m. March 28. It skipped downtown and plowed a path 600 feet wide and a mile long through a residential area, killing a 29-year-old mother and injuring at least 11 people. A 76-year-old woman died a few weeks later, her death attributed to injuries she suffered in the storm.

The tornado destroyed 48 homes and damaged 114 others. One-third of Holly’s homes had at least some damage.

Support for the town has poured in from around the state and nation.

Plummer said the community appreciated the financial assistance, expertise and various services that government agencies and other caregivers from outside the community were providing.

"I don't know what we would have done without their help," he said. "It takes a team to help a town recover from a disaster like this. And our local people, especially our churches, play a unique role on the recovery team. We can help in ways that others cannot because we know one another and love one another and we are going to be here for the long haul."

Now in his 18th year as pastor of First Baptist, Plummer said he was making himself available to people who need to talk.

"I’m having lots of coffee downtown, where everybody is meeting," he said. "We just sit around and share our experiences and count our blessings."

Plummer and his wife Candy were in their home when the tornado struck.

"It was Wednesday evening, and ordinarily that's when we have a service at our church," Plummer recalled. "But my wife and I were both ill, so we cancelled services. We were in our living room, watching television. Suddenly, our power went off. We have flashlights in our electrical outlets that automatically come on when the power goes off, which isn't unusual. So we weren't left in the dark.

"Candy and I just smiled at each other, thinking we had no reason to be concerned," he said.

Since the basement of First Baptist Church is the town's shelter, Plummer keeps a weather radio with him to monitor warnings from the National Weather Service. When he hears a warning, he opens the church and prepares the basement for people seeking shelter.

"I had listened all evening, and there hadn't been any warnings," he said. "The emergency siren is in our block and it hadn't gone off. So we assumed the power outage wasn't caused by a storm.

"Then we heard what sounded like a freight train heading north, and since trains in Holly run east and west, we knew we weren't hearing a train. A tornado was close. We had barely enough time to run 10 or 15 feet and get in the bathtub," he said.

The Plummers escaped injury. The parsonage lost a few windows and shingles, but was not seriously damaged. However, the church, which is next door, sustained structural damage, making it unsafe for use.

Constructed in 1928, the church building is being evaluated to help the congregation - which includes about 50 active members - determine whether to repair their old building or build a new one, Plummer said.

Even though the tornado drove the Baptists out of their building, it didn’t stop them from ministering.

The owner of the local funeral home invited church members to use the funeral home chapel for services until they get back in their building, and Plummer quickly accepted. On Sunday morning - four days after the tornado hit - church members gathered for worship at the funeral home. The church is renting office space a few doors from the funeral home.

Not only did Plummer preach the first Sunday after the tornado, he led outdoor prayer services that afternoon in two heavily damaged neighborhoods. Both services were well attended.

"I encouraged people at the prayer services to give everybody a hug," Plummer said. "Since then, I've got lots of hugs and given lots of hugs, including to grown men."

On Easter Sunday, 11 days after the tornado, the ministerial alliance of Holly sponsored a community-wide ecumenical worship service. Close to 600 people - more than half of the town’s population - attended the event, held in the high school gymnasium. Ministers, musicians and vocalists from all nine of Holly's churches participated.

Bill Williamson, vice president of the ministerial alliance, delivered the sermon.

"I wanted to remind our people that even in disasters God is still loving and caring," Williamson said. "We don't know why bad things happen, but we do know God can turn bad things around for good. We prayed for everyone who was suffering and thanked God for the assurance that we could receive the wisdom and strength to face anything."

After the service, people gathered for dinner. Then children of the community hunted Easter eggs.

"Denominational boundaries don't matter around here," said Williamson, pastor of Holly’s Evangelical Free Church. "Members of our various churches are helping each other deal with the painful losses all of our people are going through."

Williamson sponsors an ecumenical youth group that meets in his church, which is a former country club located on the outskirts of town. The Plummer's 20-year-old son Chris helps with the group.

"We were meeting the night of the tornado,” Williamson said. "We had 25 kids here. There had been a thunderstorm earlier in the evening, and it had passed through, deposited a little hail, but not anything you wouldn't expect in eastern Colorado."

He said when the youth group started about 7:30, it was a beautiful and tranquil evening, and he considered having the youngsters do activities outside because it was so nice.

"A little after 8 o’clock, the wind started blowing and it started raining and our lights went out," Williamson recalled. "A few minutes later, Ralph Plummer called us from the Baptist parsonage and reported that the tornado was going through town. We took our youth to a room in our church that has four solid concrete walls and waited until we got word from the sheriff's department that it was safe to come out."

Williamson said that because there was no warning, "nobody was in the right place to be during a tornado. Some people were just sitting in their living rooms, some were working in their garages, and others were playing outside.

"As bad as our losses were, we had countless miracles that night," he said.

One so-called miracle happened at the United Methodist parsonage. The tornado shattered every window in the house except for the one just above the head of Sheri Moorman, wife of Pastor Dave Moorman. The parsonage was heavily damaged, but Sheri Moorman escaped injury.

While the parsonage is being repaired, the Moormans are living in a camper provided by Donna Patterson, a United Methodist pastor in a neighboring town.

Bishop Warner Brown, United Methodist Episcopal leader for the Rocky Mountain Conference, and Brenda Lear, superintendent of United Methodist churches in the district where Holly is located, toured damaged neighborhoods with Moorman the Sunday after the tornado.

After seeing the damage, Brown requested a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to provide long-term ministry funds to help traumatized survivors cope with their losses and rebuild their lives.

Williamson said several faith groups plan to bring volunteer crews to Holly to help in the recovery.

He also expressed gratitude for the assistance that has been provided from federal and state agencies and numerous non-profit groups.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has set aside $1 million in state assistance to help offset the cost of temporary housing, mental health services and other needs. Of that amount, $145,000 was spent transporting 50 travel trailers and mobile homes provided by the federal government from Hope, Ark., to Holly.

The Salvation Army was serving meals to about 500 people a day, and planned to stay in town until early May.

Williamson said the ministerial alliance was receiving money from individuals and churches across Colorado and beyond, and that the funds would be used to help people who do not qualify for assistance from other sources.

He agreed with Plummer that the recovery was a team effort.

"It takes a team to help a town recover from a disaster, and we are all working together as a team," he said.

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