'Forgotten disaster' challenges TN town


PICKETT COUNTY, TN (July 31, 1998) -- Howard Groce and his wife were coming home to rural Pickett County, TN from

Virginia on April 16 when their car threw a rod. "It was a brand new vehicle,"

said Howard. "That never should have happened."

The ensuing delay was just long enough that Groce and his family missed being

in the fury of a tornado that blew trees onto their home and destroyed their


The same day in Pickett County, Phyllis Ford watched the twister approach her

home, trying desperately to shut the garage door. Suddenly a dove flew in and

out of the garage, and afterward she could shut the door. The tornado took her

entire home but left her uninjured.

Less than a mile away, Debbie and Rob Cross also lost their split-level home

with its newly remodeled kitchen. But as Debbie stood next door at her

mother's house the same week, she counted 15 vehicles in her yard -- full of

volunteers who had arrived to help clean up debris and help her family save

precious possessions. "You always hear about people who help during disasters

-- the Red Cross, local churches -- but we've never had to use them

before," she said.

The First United Methodist Church in Pickett County, only a year and a half

old, was destroyed. But the congregation's 31 members have rallied to rebuild

the 1,600-square-foot building. Their new sanctuary is nearly complete. "We

started with zero dollars and zero people," said the Rev. Gerald Taylor. "But

God is working and we are working."

The Starpoint Church of Christ also lost its 50-by-28-foot sanctuary. Now its

20 members face rebuilding the $75,000 structure with only $30,000 in

insurance. They're currently worshipping in the Byrdstown Memorial Funeral

Home and in the Union Brothers Bank.

These are the stories residents in Pickett County are only beginning to share

with outsiders 14 weeks after a tornado destroyed 64 homes and damaged 124

more in their rural farming community. Tennessee's second poorest county is

rich in personal accounts that all show this community's rugged determination

to endure.

"Each family's story is completely different," said Shelia Lowhorn, an adult

education teacher who chairs Pickett County's interfaith disaster response

agency, Christians Assisting in Response to Emergency (CARE). "Now I'm

starting to tell people to write them down. We're going to bind them and store

them in the library so our children can read them."

Pickett County sustained more than $10 million in damages but received little

media coverage and delayed disaster response assistance when metropolitan

Nashville was hit by the same storm. Both Pickett County schools were

condemned and had to be reroofed. Just as that $400,000 job was complete,

another storm with high winds destroyed both roofs again in mid-June. High

schoolers will start school one month late and elementary students will attend

class in portable trailers while repairs resume around them.

As calm tries to steal back over the county, Larry Reeder, director of Pickett

County disaster response, said that he is only now starting to see signs of

stress among residents. "People I've known all my life are short-tempered, and

it's out of character. They have a shorter fuse than normal. At first when we

try to help them, they usually say 'Give it to someone who needs it worse.'"

Residents who are reluctant to seek counseling, relieve stress by telling their

stories to CARE members, local pastors, and others who will listen. "In this

area, going to counseling is almost taboo. There is a stigma attached to it,"

said Taylor. "Mentally, this is the old frontier. Everybody is independent."

Fiercely independent they may be, but Pickett Countians quickly united in the

face of disaster in an ecumenical effort that has mobilized residents and

attracted volunteers from across the country.

"They've done miraculous work

with what they have," said Clay Hall, coordinator for disaster response with

the Tennessee United Methodist Conference. "They are self-sufficient people

and they've taken the bull by the horns. Their damages got lost in all the

press about Nashville. This is the forgotten disaster."

Lack of press coverage has not detered volunteers from six different states who

traveled to Pickett County with Volunteers In Mission (VIM). VIM teams from

Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Indiana, and Florida all spent time in

Pickett County repairing homes, rebuilding churches -- and of course hearing

residents' stories. "Their love for their community shows through," said

Beverly Beckwith, a volunteer VIM coordinator. "We not only helped them

rebuild. We built relationships and shared our faith. Our teams will be back."

Pickett County is also receiving funds and volunteer assistance from the

Church World Service, the American Red Cross, the TN United Methodist

Conference, and Mennonite Disaster Services to keep the momentum in its

ongoing recovery. "We are an out-of-the-way place, but our integrity is

high and strong," added Taylor.

Posted July 31, 1998

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