Relief is quick to Ark. survivors

BY GEORGE PIPER | LITTLE ROCK, AK | January 23, 1999

Arkansas interfaith officials are already formulating plans to deal with disaster recovery resulting from

tornadoes that tore across the state on Thursday.

At least seven people died and up to 400 homes were damaged when an as many as 30 tornadoes touched down in the late afternoon and

evening hours, according to a statement from the Arkansas Office of Emergency Management. Sixteen counties reported damage, and the state

called out the National Guard to supply water and cleanup crews.

The same storm system also spawned more tornadoes in Clarksville, Tenn., where an emergency management official said the downtown

resembled a bombed out area. One person also died in Tennessee, where disaster relief officials are still tallying the damage from a series of

tornadoes on Jan. 17. More than 100,000 people in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi lost electrical power.

Spearheading the recovery effort around Little Rock is the Interfaith Disaster Recovery Team (IDRT), which formed in 1997 after twisters cut a

similar path through Arkansas in March of that year. The organization primarily covers Pulaski and Saline counties, but is slowly building

toward a statewide presence.

According to assessment reports during Friday's two-hour meeting, IDRT estimated more than 50 houses were destroyed in Little Rock; and

more than 100 homes were destroyed or have serious damage in the Sardis Road-Royal Oaks section of Saline County.

Reports also suggest that the tiny town of McRae, population 669, will need to be rebuilt, while Pleasant Plains saw 40 homes destroyed and

the town of Wheatley lost nine homes.

Perhaps nowhere was the damage felt more than in Beebe, a town of 4,400 some 30 miles northeast of Little Rock. More than half of the homes

in Beebe was destroyed, along with a church, the fire station and school buildings. Arkansas State University also sustained damage.

"In comparison with (tornadoes in) 1997, this is worse," said Bill Rose-Heim, associate regional minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of

Christ) in Arkansas, where IDRT's office is located. "We have more folks who have homes to rebuild."

Faith-based and government disaster relief organization are meeting much of the survivor's immediate needs, said Rose-Heim, adding that

denominations are working together well, which was also the case two years ago.

By Monday, IDRT hopes to hire a temporary coordinator and will be moving its office to the Watershed Community Center, which has deep

ties to the Little Rock faith community, Rose-Heim said. The coordinator's primary responsibility will be fostering communication among the

faith groups so that services are supported and not duplicated.

In 1997, IDRT helped rebuild 70 house and aided 400 families between March 1997 and June 1998. This time, said Rose-Heim. "We know

what to do now."

Faxes were scheduled to go out Friday from IDRT to area churches to encourage collection of goods and cash donations and to recruit


Also, pastors are being told to refer survivors to the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and to ask their

congregations to make casual contact with survivors to offer encouragement. Flyers will be distributed to survivors with information about

needs and services. "In two hours, we accomplished what took two weeks to do the last time," Rose-Heim said.

IDRT members include representatives of Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Muslim, Disciples of Christ, Southern Baptist Convention,

Episcopalian, Lutheran, Reformed Judaism, United Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist and Unitarian Universalists faith communities.

Shelters opened in Little Rock, Independence County and White County. Southern Baptist Conference disaster officials and the United

Methodist Committee on Relief are working with the American Red Cross to feed tornado survivors in Arkansas, said Roger Elliot, president of

the Arkansas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and a Red Cross official. Adventist Community Services has been contacted to help

distribute clothing and other items.

The widespread damage will make it difficult to reach people in sparsely populated counties, Elliot said. Red Cross lacks local chapters in 10 of

the 18 counties where the VOAD is assisting, so the organization relies on emergency management, human services and ham radio operators to

find people with need.

In Clarksville, a United Methodist Church official reported lots of residential damage as local pastors surveyed the storm's path.

"There are a lot of neighborhoods that have been hurt, but people haven't been to them yet," said Clay Hall, coordinator for disaster response

and communications for the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He added that the tornadoes destroyed the

Madison Street United Methodist Church, the largest church in the conference. The turn-of-the-century building had recently undergone some

$1 million in renovations.

The Clarksville area sustained more property damage than did Jackson, said Kurt Pickering, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency

Management Agency. Both storm systems struck Montgomery County, which houses Clarksville. "The downtown looks liked a bombed out

area in some places," said Pickering, adding that state officials are still compiling building damage totals.

Severe weather also pounded parts of Mississippi and Louisiana late Thursday, but there were no reports of serious injuries. In Alexandria, La.,

an apparent tornado ripped apart businesses and downed electrical lines, cutting power to hundreds of residents. Mobile homes, trees and

power lines were also damaged by high winds in Mississippi.

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