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‘Looking at the promise’ in Ark.

Faith-based organizations help farmers, homeowners begin to pick up the pieces.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | February 17, 2008

As Arkansas gets past the initial clean up phase following the deadly tornadoes that hit the state earlier this month, the full scope of the rebuilding challenge is beginning to come into focus.

According to preliminary reports, 80 percent of the residents of Stone County, Ark., who were impacted by last Tuesday’s tornado do not have insurance to cover their losses.

Dan Martinez, public information officer with the Arkansas branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said community relations personnel are still in the field gathering information, but so far, in that county alone, they have reported 1,188 single family dwellings that were damaged. Of those, 46 were completely destroyed and 50 to 60 received severe to moderate damage.

Martinez said FEMA hopes to house displaced Stone County residents in the many vacation cabins and lodges in the Mountain View area. In other parts of the state where housing isn’t available, they will be bringing in manufactured mobile homes.

“However, before we can do that we will first have to make sure that conditions are safe and sanitary – that hook-ups for things like power, sewage and water are back in place,” he said.

Atkins resident Bobby Boren who lost three houses in the storm said he wasn’t sure whether or not he would be applying for aid to rebuild.

While Boren had some insurance on the house he lived in, the other two houses he owned next door, which were also destroyed, were not covered. His daughter lived in one; the other was filled with his now-deceased parents’ belongs – numerous antiques and family mementos that he had kept to pass down to future generations.

Boren and his daughter planned to salvage what they could from his parents’ home. However, adding insult to injury, what was left of the house and its contents was destroyed by a fire late Saturday night that police are blaming on arsonists.

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said sadly, shaking his head. “It’s more than I can process right now.”

People weren’t the only ones suffering from the disaster. Last week, hundreds of chicks were running loose at a hatchery near Atkins after one of the barns where they had been housed was left a twisted, mangled mess. Volunteers had tried to round up as many as possible but help came too late for those hundreds more that lay dead on the ground.

Many reported family pets missing for hours – some even for days – before finally showing back up at home. Communities have rallied to assist displaced pet owners. Several kennels in the affected areas had signs posted offering free housing for pets of tornado victims and churches were requesting donations of pet food for their pantries.

The Rev. Vern Farmun, a project manager with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, said he had been working with the Arkansas Presbytery to help ranchers in northeast Arkansas who had lost more than 400 head of cattle.

“That’s a lot of cattle killed, so we’re exploring ways to help there. Disasters like this take so much more than houses. People lives are turned upside down and at times it can be overwhelming. That’s where our group comes in,” he said. “We help them ‘connect the dots,’ and try to hook them up with agencies already in place to help them get back on their feet.”

Farmun said he’s also been coordinating efforts to enable those who lost vehicles to find a way to get back and forth to work until they can replace those cars and trucks.

“Then of course, we’ve been providing spiritual guidance. Some of these folks are still pretty shook up,” he said.

Bill Harrelson, deacon at the tornado-ravaged Union Grove Baptist Church, said he believed the key to getting through the tragedy was to stop looking at the problem and start looking at the promise.

“As I sat in my chair last Tuesday night, pondering the damage that had been done not only to our church, but also to the house across the street where I was born and raised, I started feeling pretty sorry for myself. Then I remembered the words of a favorite hymn, ‘God on the mountain.’ It’s been hard to sing, but I’ve been singing,” he said choking back tears as he told parishioners the words:

"For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley.

When things go wrong, He’ll make them right.

And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times.

The God of the day is still God in the night."

“That tornado may have taken our building, but it didn’t touch this,” he said pounding on his heart. “We’ve all been affected by this in one way or another, but we can and we will overcome. We’ll work together. This will not take us down.”

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