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Finding hope in Arkansas town

Once a destination on a scenic highway tour, Clinton has become a destination for volunteers helping residents pick up pieces of their lives.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | Clinton, Arkansas | February 11, 2008

"The response has been tremendous. I cant even begin to say how thankful we are for all of them. . .Every church in the area has helped in one way or another"

—Brian Tatum, Van Burean County Rescue Squad

This small town is nestled along one of the state’s recommended scenic driving tours and until last Tuesday, the town was surrounded by lush Ozark mountain forests.

Saturday Clinton was a destination but none of it was scenic.

Last Tuesday, a half-mile wide EF-4 tornado, barreled through Clinton, stripping away most of the forest and flattening many houses in its path.

This weekend, with help from dozens of volunteers, Clinton residents were clearing what’s left of the trees, and were trying to find what they could of their lives. Some of the volunteers are part of organized response teams from Arkansas and surrounding states that have been trained by faith-based organizations, others like Darrell Sansom of Conway drove to Clinton the day after the storm and has been helping every day since.

Clinton resident Jean Miller’s yard, which was once filled with flower gardens, shrubs and more than 50 trees, now has one lone, branchless trunk poking up from the mud. However, she said she’s not complaining because, even though she carried no insurance on her paid-off home, she and her husband, Charles survived the ordeal something she initially didn’t believe was possible.

“When we heard that a tornado was heading this way, we started watching out the windows. All of a sudden, this huge funnel cloud came over the horizon and all you could see was a wall of black heading towards us. The tornado was so wide there was only a little sliver of white sky on each side of it. We were scared to death,” she said.

The couple ran for the hallway and dove to the floor. Winds shook the house so hard that the windows nearly rattled from their frames, however the house stayed intact. When they finally got up and looked outside, all they could see was a wall of limbs.

“We couldn’t even see the road right in front of our house. I thought we were trapped,” Jean said, adding that after they finally made their way outside, they found that their 100-square-foot deck and detached garage had disappeared, and the electric power lines had been yanked completely out of the home’s breaker box.

Sixty nine year old Charles Grimes also lost all his trees as well as two houses and two pick-up trucks. He too is just thankful that he didn’t lose his life.

“I had gone to the grocery store for a few things while my wife worked the polls but when I got home the sky was looking real bad,” he recalled. “I threw the bags inside the door, and then ran for the storm cellar. I could barely pry the door open the wind was blowing so hard.”

After climbing inside and slamming the door shut, Grimes said he could hear “all hell breaking loose.”

“People say tornadoes sound like a train. I used to live up in the northeast part of the state and trains used to run by my door all the time I’m very well acquainted with the sound of trains. This sounded like three trains! All I could hear was my house breaking up and debris piling up on the top of the cellar door,” he said.

When the noise finally ended, Grimes tried to open the hatch but found he was trapped inside. He spent the next half hour alternating between banging on the door with his pocket knife, yelling for help and shoving with all his might. Finally, he was able to inch it open but quickly became drenched in the downpour. He climbed out but when he found that his house had been demolished, he grabbed his dog and got back in the storm cellar. Soon after, a nearby neighbor and police officer, who had heard his cries for help, came to his assistance.

Just down the road from Grimes, Kathy Hill came home from town to find her family’s home in shambles. They had just moved into the home a few months ago and weren’t even finished with remodeling.

“I was just sick, although I’m thankful that we weren’t here because if we had been, we would have been in the basement,” she said, pointing to a pile of concrete blocks shattered under the weight of a fallen tree.

Hill said she was also thanking God that Conway resident Darrell Sansom had come to their rescue.

Brian Tatum, head of the Van Burean County Rescue Squad, said it was volunteers like Sansom that was making it possible for the community to see a way back from the destruction.

“The response has been tremendous. I can’t even begin to say how thankful we are for all of them,” Tatum said. “Every church in the area has helped in one way or another and we’ve had numerous 18-wheeler loads come in with food and water and other needed supplies, not only from groups inside Arkansas but from other states as well.”

He said the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Clinton, as well as two other facilities in nearby towns quickly sprang into action and opened their doors to the more than 60 families whose homes were completely destroyed.

Teams of volunteers sent to the area by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and by members of the local Church of Christ began sawing trees and clearing debris. The local United Methodist Church joined with several other churches to prepare meals not only for the homeless but also for the hundreds of volunteers that came to the area to lend a hand.

In addition, Church World Service sent blankets and personal hygiene kits to Clinton’s Adventist Community Services for distribution to residents and Samaritan’s Purse brought in a Disaster Relief Unit, a tractor-trailer fully equipped for emergency operations.

“It’s been pretty amazing. Everyone has done more than we even expected them to do and they’ve done it graciously. We couldn’t have asked for more,” Tatum said.

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