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Arkansas churches help survivors

Planned Shrove Tuesday pancake supper transitioned to breakfast, dinner in one community.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | ATKINS, ARK | February 6, 2008

"It appears that there’s damage spread all the way across a good portion of the state’s northern tier. Many people lost everything. Homes, businesses and a few churches are just gone"

—Martha Taylor, Arkansas Conference, The United Methodist Church

Volunteers from local churches in Arkansas pitched in Wednesday to support survivors of an tornado outbreak that the National Weather Service is calling one of the deadliest on record.

More than 50 people lost their lives across the South Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. In Arkansas alone, the death toll stands at 13.

“And we’re hoping it doesn’t go any higher,” said Tommy Jackson, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. “We’re still in the search and rescue mode and still have about 10 people unaccounted for, but because the tornado stayed on the ground for more than an hour, we’re relieved that the numbers aren’t any higher.”

In all, 50 people were killed as a series of tornadoes swept through the south Tuesday evening. Hardest hit was Tennessee where 26 died. Seven more were killed in Kentucky and four in Alabama died.

While figures are still coming in, Jackson said it appears that more than 200 homes in the state were totally destroyed said scores of homes were leveled – “flattened down to the slab. Hundreds more sustained varying degrees of damage.”

Martha Taylor, the communications director for the Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church, said her organization is still getting reports from district superintendents, but so far, the news isn’t good.

“It appears that there’s damage spread all the way across a good portion of the state’s northern tier. Many people lost everything. Homes, businesses and a few churches are just gone,” she said.

Taylor said trained emergency response teams are in the area, assisting with immediate needs. Other volunteers are helping churches in the affected areas set up food distribution spots and emergency shelters for those affected by the storms.

“We’ve also sent volunteers in to two local churches – Wesley United Methodist in Cotter, a town north of Little Rock, and the First United Methodist in Atkins – to help serve meals to volunteers, police and firefighters as well as those who have lost their homes,” she said.

The Rev. Joe Kitchens, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Atkins, said he is thanking God that his church is still standing and able to help the community.

As tornado sirens blared yesterday evening, Kitchens and a few parishioners stood and watched as a half-mile wide tornado headed directly toward them.

“About 20 of us were gathered for a Shrove Tuesday service. We were getting ready to fix a pancake supper before church when the sirens started. I walked outside with three or four other men to look up at the sky,” he said. “We saw something alright! We saw this huge twister come out of the sky to the west of us and start bouncing around off the mountain tops! First it hit the mountain top by Lake Dardanelle, and then it bounced over to Petit Jean, then Pottsville. It dipped down three or four times as we stood there.”

Kitchens said although they were scared, the group decided to stay outside to see if the tornado, only a few miles away, was going to head in their direction.

“And sure enough, it did! It was traveling in a straight line directly toward us. It goes without saying, we started praying mighty hard,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, right before it got to us it turned and went directly south.”

Kitchens said flying debris was visible as the twister roared through town, and then headed towards Lucky Landing Marina, down Highway 105 and then to Union Grove Road where it swept up and then scattered mobile homes and 18-wheelers like they were miniature replicas of the real thing. The twister kept going until it was out of sight, Kitchens said.

“Then all of a sudden we realized that we were okay – and that we needed to get busy helping those who weren’t,” he said.

He said the group that had gathered to worship began contacting the sheriff’s department and other emergency response groups to tell them the doors were open and the coffee was on. Some joined groups searching for survivors. Others huddled together to pray. Still more began setting up for anyone who needed a place to spend the night. And the food that had been brought in for the Tuesday dinner was set aside for Wednesday morning.

“We decided that because we still had power, we would make breakfast for the town. We raided the deep freeze and like He has done so many other times, the Good Lord provided because we had enough to feed around 200 people this morning,” Kitchens said. “When Tyson Foods heard what had happened, all of a sudden they showed up here with a truck full of chicken, so tonight we’re feeding everyone barbecue.”

Kitchen said neighbors have been streaming in all day, bringing arms full of food.

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