Neighbors respond after GA twisters

Neighbors respond after GA twisters

BY SUSAN KIM | ALBANY, GA | February 19, 2000

The Rev. Tommy Lowery has a saying he likes to apply to disaster response: "When you put your pennies together, you can have something."

The pastor and his 94-member congregation at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Albany have put this philosophy in action by helping their neighboring town of Camilla begin to recover from tornadoes that destroyed more than 200 homes and damaged up to 800.

There are many larger-scale faith-based efforts already underway in Camilla -- the same day the tornadoes struck, the Baptist Men's Convention began feeding up to 2,000 people daily and Adventist Community Services (ASC) opened an 18,000-square-foot relief warehouse.

But the efforts of Lowery's church show how a single church's efforts can fit into the wider faith-based response network. When Lowery heard about the tornadoes, he activated his church's hotline though which church elders call the membership.

Donations started pouring in. So did money. After announcing on Tuesday that the church was collecting funds, by Thursday Lowery presented an $800 check to the ecumenical Camilla Ministerial Alliance to help tornado survivors with unmet needs.

Besides the check, the church also sent a pickup truck and a vanload of supplies to the ACS collection and distribution warehouse. Lowery's 20-year-old son Gannon donated $30 worth of brooms and mops he purchased from ACE Hardware, where he works.

On Thursday, in uncommonly warm temperatures approaching 80 degrees, Faye Cooper, the church board chair, gathered with Lowery, his son, deacon Bill Cooper, and Paul Neese, a church elder, to load up the groceries, cleaning items, clothes, plastic bags, toys, drapes, coffee, curtains, blankets, and cooking utensils.

"There's a little bit of everything in there," said Faye Cooper.

But their response was really planned to suit survivors' needs. Before starting to collect donations, Lowery called the Camilla Ministerial Alliance and the Chamber of Commerce to ask what was needed.

After that, people's compassion took over. On Thursday, Betty Tankersley, who has been the church secretary for 31 years, said "yesterday we only had two little bags. I came in this morning and the back was full."

Lowery's denomination is also responding on a national level through a giving program called Week of Compassion, in which congregations can donate funds to aid disaster survivors. Like other denominations, Week of Compassion issues financial appeals in the wake of disasters.

People in Albany are reaching out to their neighboring town, some 25 miles away, because so many of them remember the terrible flood of '94, when the Flint River overflowed its banks, taking houses, businesses and personal belongings with it. Then, the church housed a volunteer team.

Lowery said he sees post-disaster bonds that are strong and lasting. "Out here, this is small town America -- small enough so that almost everyone will know your personal business. On the other hand, it's a bonding. It's so strong that, even if you don't know a person, you treat them like they're your neighbor."

Albany has a warning system. Camilla doesn't. "They just couldn't hear the tornado coming until it was too late," said Lowery, who is also a certified firefighter. The tornadoes resulted in a high number of deaths -- 19 people died and more than 100 were injured -- compared to other tornadoes of the same or greater magnitude across the country.

He said that a disaster of this magnitude changes a town forever, like the flood of '94 changed Albany forever. "Back then we used to have a baseball team but everybody had to spend their money on rebuilding their homes and didn't go to baseball games anymore."

And many businesses just never reopened, he added, fearing the same for Camilla. "Most businesses can't afford to close for two weeks."

He also vividly remembers a past tornado that touched down near his home, about six miles from Albany, killing his paper boy when it wrapped a double wide mobile home around a tree. He recalls another tornado that destroyed a Winn Dixie grocery store.

But he also remembers the rewards that come with responding to such disasters and that, once people respond to one, they often feel called to keep responding.

People want to help, he added, but don't always know what to do.

He traveled to Guatemala in 1976 to help rebuild homes after an earthquake. There, he was head of a carpentry team -- even learning some Spanish on the spot. "Hand signals and nods will carry a lot. Even people's expressions tell you a lot."

He also volunteered when Hurricane Hugo struck. "We were near Sumter, SC, and we asked people if they could use some help. They started crying and said they were out in the boonies and thought people didn't care about them."

Vendors were charging $10 for a bag of ice, Lowery remembers.

Then some businesses started donating ice. "They told us to give each person two bags," said Lowery. "A man came in whose mother was diabetic, and he also had a child on medication that had to be refrigerated."

Lowery simply gave him four bags of ice. "Tears started flowing down that man's chin. That was a feeling I wasn't prepared for."

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