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Volunteers work in storm ravaged towns

Response efforts continue in AL and VA as news focus moves elsewhere


The news cameras have moved on and the devastation has faded from national headlines, but recovery is far from complete for survivors of the massive tornado outbreak in April.

Residents in Virginia and northern Alabama continue to struggle to repair, rebuild and recover from storms that caused millions of dollars of damage and took the lives of dozens of family members, friends and neighbors.

In both areas, faith-based relief organizations are playing key roles in the recovery.


Residents across large parts of Virginia continue to recover from two separate tornado outbreaks in April.

The rebuilding is under way in the western Virginia community of Pulaski after a pair of tornadoes struck in and around the city on April 8, destroying 31 homes. In addition, 267 homes were damaged, 77 of those severely.

According to FEMA, the twisters one an EF-2 and the other “a strong EF-1” caused an estimated $8.5 million in damage in the city of less than 10,000 residents.

Fortunately, no fatalities were reported, but eight Pulaski residents were hospitalized with storm-related injuries.

Less than three weeks later, Virginia was again hit by an outbreak of tornadoes triggered by the same storm system that spawned killer storms across the Deep South. A total of 15 confirmed tornadoes cut across Augusta, Dinwiddie, Gloucester, Halifax, Isle of Wight, Loudoun, Lunenburg, Middlesex, Rockbridge and Shenandoah counties.

Some two months later, the tornado-stricken communities still show scars from the storms, but also signs of recovery, with a number of faith-based organizations leading the way in the rebuilding process.

The Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, a fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, sent three disaster relief teams into the Pulaski area to help tarp damaged roofs. The teams then assisted in making more permanent repairs, aided in tree and debris removal and helped with damage assessments.

Virginia VOAD member organizations also provided immediate disaster response to the affected areas, including damage assessment, feeding kitchens, emergency sheltering, debris removal and shower and laundry units. They also provided individual assistance such as financial help, food, clothing, temporary housing, furniture and emotional and spiritual care.

Many Virginia VOAD members continue to remain on-site providing long-term recovery assistance, helping storm victims to rebuild homes and lives. Volunteer laborers are assisting in the rebuilding or even replacing of lost homes, typically using donated building materials.

Treva Williams’ rural northwest Virginia home lost much of its roof to one of the twisters. Her elderly mother’s home nearby was all but destroyed. Neither home carried insurance needed to repair the damage.

Williams said after the storm the family was “making do” in the three rooms of her home that still had a roof, wondering how they would be able to make repairs.

“We were trying to figure out how to get by, hoping we could put together enough money to at least fix one house so it was livable. My mom pretty much lost everything and we lost a lot; we just didn’t see how we were going to do it we were living day-to-day,” Williams said. “Then the man from the Mormon Church came by and said there were volunteer groups that could help us. That’s when we started seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”

The person who contacted Williams was an LDS VOAD volunteer, working from a list of storm victims provided through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and local assessment teams.

“He was an angel on Earth, a real-life angel. He helped us with some paperwork and then got things rolling for us,” Williams said. “Thank God for all of (the volunteer groups) who are helping us. They’re God’s blessing, that’s for sure.”

Williams also said volunteers added an extra-special touch when they found a treasured photo album belonging to her mother.

“A lot of the photos were her with my father; he passed almost 20 years ago. They were irreplaceable,” Williams said. “A clean-up crew found the album in some debris over across the road. When they looked through it, they figured out who it belonged to and brought it to her. She hugged it like it was the most precious thing in the world.”


The same storm system that triggered the April 27 tornadoes in Virginia also spawned one of the most destructive and deadly tornado outbreaks to ever hit the Deep South. Ground zero was Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Just after 5 p.m., a massive wedge tornado tracked across Tuscaloosa County, including the southern and eastern portions of the city of Tuscaloosa. The storm killed 41 people and injured more than 1,000 in the Tuscaloosa area alone. Six of those who died in the city were University of Alabama students. Overall, the twister claimed a total of 63 lives.

According to the National Weather Service, the EF-4 tornado’s winds reached 190 mph along what was eventually determined to be an 80-mile track across northern Alabama.

On April 29, President Barack Obama toured the crippled city, saying he had “never seen devastation like this.”

Since then, a host of faith-based organizations including the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, The United Methodist Committee on Relief, Samaritan’s Purse and others have worked to help storm victims recover.

Texas Baptist Men brought a group of nearly 200 volunteers to help the stricken city, staying through the month of May to do everything from clearing debris to damage assessment and making repairs.

In an interview with the Baptist Press, group coordinator Duane Bechtold said the goal was to help those in need while spreading the message of the Lord.

“We didn’t come here to cut trees but to tell people Jesus loves them,” Bechtold said. “The chainsaws give us the tools to share that message.”

Another group of Texas Baptists brought a mobile feeding unit and laundry and shower facilities. Volunteer Chad Barnes said his group had been washing “about 60 loads of clothing each day.”

Tuscaloosa’s East McFarland Baptist Church, North River Baptist Church and Emmanuel Baptist Church provided housing for the Texas volunteers.

In addition, a team of a dozen volunteers from Alabama’s Baldwin Baptist Association assisted the Texas group manage the feeding unit.

This month, a group of 200 young people from the World Challengers organization is arriving in Tuscaloosa to help with the continuing cleanup and recovery work.

Teams of volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse are also on-site in Tuscaloosa, as well as in Birmingham, repairing storm-damaged homes.

In addition to the faith-based recovery efforts, Tuscaloosa officials have established the Rebuild Tuscaloosa Task Force. Mayor Walt Maddox has given the group a July 1 deadline to come up with a comprehensive recovery plan that can be brought to city council by August.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who hails from Tuscaloosa, praised the city’s ongoing recovery, saying the effort should serve as an example for other tornado-ravaged communities.

“I have seen more progress here than I have seen in any of the other areas I have visited,” Bentley said during a recent stop in Tuscaloosa. “I want to say to the people across the state that they need to come to Tuscaloosa and see what is being done here.”

Bentley praised the local business community, city leaders and the faith-based organizations working to return the city to normal.

“I am very impressed to see all the work going on, but I knew it would happen because of the leadership,” Bentley said.

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