Many homes destroyed in poor TN county

BY KD MCINTOSH | BYRDSTOWN, Tenn. | May 21, 1998

BYRDSTOWN, Tenn. (May 21, 1998) -- Loyd Key was concerned about the wind picking up as he

glanced across the road. What he saw nearly froze him to the spot, but he

knew he had to act fast to protect his family.

A dark mass of swirling wind was coming straight for them. He ran to pull

family members to his basement, all the while yelling that a tornado was

just across the road and closing in fast. Once he got them down, he had to

convince them not to hide under the stairs. The corner in the direction of

the twister was actually a much better idea, he said.

As it turned out, he was absolutely right. The tornado not only took the

house, it took the basement -- all but the one corner everyone was huddled


His daughter, Shelia Lowhorn, wasn't there at the time but tells the story,

saying, "When it hit, it picked him up when it picked up the house. He held

onto Grandma's legs, and when the tornado actually took the house, it

dropped him back.

"The amazing thing is, the wind blew up this big piece of plywood that flew

against all of them, and they were covered with it." That board kept them

from being pummeled by flying debris, she said.

It was the day of the Nashville tornado. April 16. But this wasn't in

Nashville. This was further north in Tennessee, in Pickett County, in a

tiny town called Byrdstown.

Of all the injuries in the area, her father's was the worst. His ankle was

twisted and bruised, and he had stitches in his fingers and one hand.

Loyd and Joyce Kay lived in a small house next to Shelia's aunt and uncle's

trailer to the one side and her grandmother's trailer to the other. Had

anyone been in those mobile homes, they wouldn't have lived through the

assault, she says now. "We were told the tornado hit my daddy's house head

on, and it just exploded, taking the trailers with it."

Because of the miracle of life amidst all the loss, Shelia felt compelled

to help other disaster victims any way she could. "I went down to the

community center to help the Red Cross. I helped people fill out

applications for assistance."

Shelia is an adult education teacher full-time, specializing in beginning

readers to eighth-grade level. Helping with the applications just feels

like part of her work, she said.

When local church leaders and city officials met to discuss an interfaith

agency to coordinate relief efforts, she primarily attended out of

curiosity, she said. "I was blessed to be given the coordinator's job," she

adds with a small laugh. She even chose the name for the group --

Christians Assisting in Response to Emergency, or C.A.R.E. "The name was

just 'given' to me'," she said.

Byrdstown is a small community of 4500 to 5000 people, a tourist area in

the summer and farming community the rest of the year. Most year-round

residents are older and the unemployment rate is approximately 20 percent.

Pickett County is one of the poorest counties in the state.

Forty-four houses were destroyed down to their foundations and 22 mobile

homes were blown apart. Fifty-one other homes and 19 mobile homes were

seriously damaged. Most injuries were minor, and there were no deaths. Only

a few farm animals were killed.

The First Christian Reformed Church and the Byrdstown Community Center were

immediately used as shelters, Lowhorn said. "The Starpoint Church of Christ

was destroyed. The First United Methodist had a lot of damage, but they

still had services that Sunday." The Edgefield Church was also destroyed,

but hadn't been open to services for several months, she added.

"We got an abundance of items when it first happened. And then we got a lot

of calls from groups and people who wanted to come in to help."

Larry Reeder, Director of Pickett County Disaster Response and Recovery,

said the amount of donated goods and services was phenomenal. "We had to

set up different buildings for different things. We set up a furniture bank

in one, a clothes bank in another, and a food bank in another.

"We named a furniture director, food director ..." he paused. "We named a

debris director, a roads director...there's just so much to do, we had at

least eight areas of responsibility."

A local farmer, he is also a Pickett County Commissioner, president of the

Adult Education Council and member of many local task forces, boards and


Lowhorn said the help and supplies have filled some needs, but not all.

"The people here still need help with rebuilding, but what we really need

to give them is hope. They are still hurting so badly, it's just heart

breaking. They have to make decisions they just can't make right now."

A large number of elderly were hit, most over 70, "and they don't want to

have to rebuild at their ages," she said.

The Rev. Clay Hall, a disaster coordinator with the Tennessee Conference of

The United Methodist Church, has taken an active role in the disaster in

the small community.

"Many had insurance, but some did not. Even of those that did, many didn't

have enough," he said. While some of the residents are qualifying for

grants from FEMA, he said, temporary housing will not be available. "FEMA

won't be bringing any trailers in to help out (as temporary housing for

victims) as they do in other areas," he lamented. "They said it's too


As CARE identifies other needs growing out the disaster, other faith-based

organizations will also be responding. The Emergency Response Office of

Church World Service has provided an initial grant to help in the formation

of the organization.

Posted May 21, 1998

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