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Disaster aftermath is daunting in Arkansas

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, AR | February 3, 1999

Like the 38 tornadoes that swept through

Arkansas Jan. 21, people's needs in the aftermath are unpredictable, intense, and

cropping up in daunting numbers.

"Sometimes when you help one person or one family, it feels like taking teaspoon

out of the ocean," confessed JoEllen Willis, vice chair of the Interfaith Disaster

Response Team (IDRT) and minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of

Little Rock. "Fortunately the interfaith community here is strong. We honor each

other and we cooperate with each other."

Such strength will be tested as Arkansans stop running on emergency-induced

adrenaline and face the reality of severe tornado damage. Only 272 of the 1,788

families who registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency

reported having insurance. Of the 444 historic properties in the Little Rock area,

19 are destroyed and 107 heavily damaged.

Funerals for the eight people killed in the storm are over, but their families

continue to grieve. Still others grieve for lost homes or simply for the loss of their

community's character - the oldest tree in Arkansas destroyed, more than 4,000

geese killed or crippled, landscapes permanently changed.

More than ever, residents are leaning on their church families -- even while their

church buildings are gone. In the town of Beebe, 30 miles northeast of Little Rock, three churches were all but destroyed and two were

damaged. Beebe Mayor Donald Ward and his family rode out the storm in their bathtub -- and after the tornado passed, the bathtub was all that

was left of the house. The town, population 4,400, faces $30 million in damages with an annual budget just shy of $2 million.

Leaders of IDRT and other faith-based organizations trying to plan long-term response find themselves still answering urgent calls for

immediate relief. "A few days after the storm, a city council member called to tell me about a city block with a concentration of single elderly

women," said Willis. "She just needed someone to pick up five hot meals and deliver them. Well, I zigged and zagged my way there - half the

roads were still closed -- and finally a police woman let me through."

Even though IDRT's goal -- like that of most interfaith response teams -- is to aid long-term recovery, "it's hard not to get out there and be part

of the rescue," she said.

Record numbers of tornadoes are being answered with record numbers of stories about personal effort. Volunteers at the Church of Christ in

Beebe served more than 3,000 meals every day for more than a week after the storm. But what brought them to tears was 20 knitted baby hats

in assorted colors sent by a blind woman from the Shady Grove Baptist Church in Clinton, Ark.

"I have seen the love of God through everything people have done this week," said the Rev. Larry Treadwell, pastor at the Beebe Church of

Christ. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life."

One-half mile away at the Beebe Assembly of God Church, Southern Baptist Convention volunteers have served a cumulative 14,100 meals --

so far. "If we can prepare a meal, we know we're doing some good," said Harold Johnson, supervisor, who good-naturedly insists that he

couldn't cook before retiring four years ago to travel to disaster sites.

Joyce Chapman, director of the Red Cross service center housed in the same church, said that finding temporary housing for survivors is one of

the biggest challenges, especially since there are few comparatively few rental properties in rural White County. "We are seeing the countryside

and houses at their worst, but the people and the churches are at their best," she said.

Laura Rhea, president and CEO of the Arkansas Rice Depot, which coordinates more than 250 church food pantries in the area, gave away

750,000 pounds of food and supplies last week alone. Normally the Rice Depot gives away four million pounds per year. "This caught us by

surprise. Our care kits are gone and we haven't even hit the real tornado season yet," said Rhea on Saturday.

But Tuesday, the United Methodist Committee on Relief arrived at the Rice Depot with a truckload of relief supplies - blankets and other linens,

household supplies, diapers, pots and pans. "We may be unfortunate to live in tornado alley," said Rhea. "But on the other hand if you're going

to get hit by a tornado this is the best place to be."

Tony Roark, code enforcement supervisor with the city of Little Rock, said he was coordinating relief efforts in downtown Little Rock when he

realized some survivors needed baby formula. "We called the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ and they had it there in a matter of minutes," he


Before the Jan. 21 tornadoes struck, interfaith response leaders had not yet closed the books on rebuilding from tornadoes that struck in March


The Rev. Buzz Yarborough, an Episcopal pastor and executive director of IDRT, said that the day before the recent storm struck, he attended a

meeting about a family still rebuilding from 1997. This time he thinks rebuilding will move faster even though the damage is worse. "Last time

we had to organize and respond to the disaster at the same time. This time around we can take care of more people more efficiently," he said.

This week, a 7-man team from the Mennonite Disaster Services in Manitoba, Canada, kept their scheduled commitment to rebuild four homes

destroyed in 1997. "Here we are on one side of town rebuilding from 1997, and other Mennonite teams are nearby helping with 1999 cleanup,"

said Henry Dueck, program coordinator.

Even while remembering the lessons learned in 1997, disaster response leaders are planning new ideas for the next few months. Willis said she

would like to see IDRT coordinate a community-wide walk though Little Rock in which neighbors could join neighbors to simply talk and hug.

"Sometimes people need to pat each other on the back. It's the kind of simplicity that people these days are writing books about," she said.

Yarborough said he would also like IDRT to expand its role in protecting disaster survivors from becoming victims of fraud.

Local United Methodist churches are considering adopting families stricken by the storm so they can exactly answer their needs. Many months

from now, when the damage is less visible, faith-based response leaders say their bonds will remain. Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the

Arkansas Area United Methodist Church described the interfaith relationship in Arkansas as "a trust among us that will carry over into times

when we aren't struggling with a disaster."

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