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Arkansans quickly begin survivor relief efforts

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, AK | January 26, 1999

As Arkansans emerge from the rubble, the Interfaith Disaster Recovery Team (IDRT) is emerging

from a state of readiness into quick action.

If the sheer quantity of tornadoes for one state is record-breaking -- the latest meteorological reports show 38 actually touched down here Jan.

21 -- then so is the speed of the interfaith response.

"Within 48 hours, we will have a publishable phone number, e-mail address, and website," said Bill Rose-Hein, IDRT board secretary and

associate regional minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Little Rock. "Though our mission is long-term response ö which

will start in about 40 days and last about 400 days -- we are also doing a lot of initial response."

Both emergency relief workers and long-term response teams are facing major challenges. The tornadoes killed eight people -- including an

infant blown from his grandmother's home -- and injured 46 more, according to state emergency services reports, but additional reports from

emergency rooms are still being tallied.

At least 1,356 homes are damaged or destroyed across the state, including 700 in the Little Rock area. President Clinton, who visited his home

state to survey damages Sunday, declared five counties federal disaster areas, while 16 counties were declared state disaster areas.

About 50,000 people are still without power, and shelters are opening in government facilities, churches, and local businesses throughout the

area. Survivors' emergency needs -- food, water, blankets, basic medical care -- are being met by the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United

Methodist Committee on Relief, Southern Baptist Conference, and other emergency relief organizations.

The Arkansas Rice Depot, a Little Rock-based food pantry supported by area churches of all faiths, is also distributing emergency food and

personal supplies. "Relief teams are used to going door-to-door," said Rice Depot Director Laura Rhea. "But here it's going lot-to-lot. We

talked to one middle- aged man who was clearing debris away from his ruined house, and asked him what he needed, and he said 'what I need

most is a blanket for my mom.' We looked up and there was an elderly woman just sitting on the front porch in a daze."

While IDRT is busy referring emergency needs to appropriate agencies, its primary goal is long-term recovery. "After the trucks have pulled

out and the press is gone, our congregations are really well set up to respond to lasting needs," said Rose-Hein.

IDRT, created in 1997 when tornadoes ripped through the same area, had already established itself as a separate non-profit organization. Now it

is meeting almost daily to retrofit itself to the current disaster: confirm personnel decisions, office space, and financing. "The former chair of

IDRT is acting as interim executive director," explained JoEllen Willis, IDRT vice chair and a Unitarian Universalist minister in Little Rock.

Yesterday IDRT moved its office into the Watershed Community Center in Little Rock, which has deep ties to the faith community.

Calling IDRT back into rapid action was easier because of both the permanent organizational structure and the sense of trust built throughout

the faith community. "We made a commitment to stay together, to keep the lines of communication open. An incredibly high level of trust has

come out of working across denominational lines. We work together, we socialize together," said Rose-Hein.

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

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

Bridging the faith community with government emergency response agencies and other organizations has also been vital, he said. "We are

partners with the emergency response officials, with the Red Cross, with the Salvation Army. That way we can help a lot with initial response

even if our goal is long-term recovery."

Rhea added that interdenominational response helps organizations like food pantries be more effective as well. "When churches respond in a

united way, then we can ask for specifically whatâs needed. We love that kind of cooperation."

Needs in smaller, outlying communities are still being identified, and damage assessments wonât be complete for several more days. Jane

Dennis, editor of the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper, said that the damage seems incomprehensible. "We are still touching base with

church leaders, and a lot of reports are still coming out of the rural areas outside of Little Rock," she said.

Trauma counseling will be a definite need, especially for those who lost loved ones to sudden death. Stories, still surfacing, are often painful: a

grocery store collapsing and killing an employee, a woman who was killed when a tree fell on her car as she picked up her children.

Among the hardest hit of the outlying towns was Beebe, population 4,400. More than half the homes there were damaged, every school except

one destroyed, three churches completely lost, and one church sustaining heavy damage.

The Rev. Kevin Lyon, pastor at the Beebe First United Methodist Church, was in the parsonage when the tornadoes struck. All the windows in

the two-story home were shattered, and a large tree pierced the roof all the way to the ground floor.

Lyon said he thinks the parsonage will have to be destroyed. "But right now when you look at it you can at least see it's a house. That's not true

for most people here."

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