Churches Respond as Storms Pummel Southeast

May 06, 2010

By United Methodist News Service*
May 3, 2010

United Methodist churches across the U.S. Southeast opened their hearts and their doors to people stranded by weekend storms that killed at least 20 people in Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas.
In Nashville, Tennessee, Interstates were closed, thousands displaced from their homes, and hotels and nursing homes evacuated. Streets and parking lots were transformed into raging rivers. Parts of the state received as much as 20 inches of rain over the weekend.  
Damage to United Methodist churches and property throughout the region is being assessed. Even after the record-breaking rains stopped and clean-up began, rivers and creeks continued to crest. On Monday, May 3 the Cumberland River in Nashville was 11 feet above flood stage. It was not expected to fall below that until Tuesday evening (May 4).
The United Methodist boards and agencies in Nashville struggled to do business as usual. The United Methodist Publishing House opened an hour late to allow employees time to find alternate routes to work. United Methodist Communications staff arrived to find telephones down but computers connecting them to the rest of the world.
The storms began Friday night, spawning at least 12 tornadoes in Arkansas. Thunderstorms producing tornadoes and heavy rains moved into Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee on Saturday. The slow-moving system soaked north Georgia on Monday as it continued leaving thousands of people displaced or stranded.
Tennessee Conference
On Saturday afternoon, May 1, extensive flash flooding began in Antioch, a suburb southeast of Nashville. Antioch United Methodist Church opened temporarily as a shelter for its neighbors but closed after losing power.
"We were open to anyone who had a need," said the Rev. Jay Vorhees. "We lost power, but we gave them towels and were able to get them cleaned up a bit before" sending them to a more permanent shelter.
"We are now in the evaluation mode," he continued. "The scope is so overwhelming to try to figure out what to do." Many church members had water in their basement from the torrential rains, he said, but the flood response "has more to do with the neighbors" who live down the hill from the church property.
Bellevue United Methodist Church provided a place for about 20 people to sleep, shower, and wash clothes Sunday night.
Throughout the afternoon, "we had people, and in some cases, people with their dogs and cats, coming and going," the Rev. David Rainey, senior pastor, said. "We had some people here for two or three hours and some overnight."
Shock characterized many of the evacuees, he said. "The water rose much more quickly than anyone ever imagined. There was some disbelief, but most were relatively calm in the middle of all of this.
"Many arrived very wet, but very appreciative."
Monday opened with prayer and breakfast for the overnight guests. As people left, some offered Rainey money – which he did not accept – or said, "'Call me when you need to clean this up.' They wanted to be generous back as they could," he said. "That touched me."
"It's hard to comprehend all of it at this point," Rainey said. "I'm grateful we had this facility in the middle of all this. To share, in a sense, sanctuary, is an honor."
Monday morning found the Rev. John Collett, Nashville District superintendent, delivering flood buckets. As he and Lynn Taylor, district secretary, continued to identify churches with damage, they also were "compiling a list of outposts to host people overnight, provide meals and be staging areas for relief workers and supplies," Taylor said. The Nashville District staff will work closely with Jason Brock, Tennessee Conference director of mercy, mission and justice, and follow his direction.
"We are continuing to gather information, make connections, and set up our ability to connect volunteers," Brock said in his blog on the Tennessee Conference website.
"The first groups we will be using, except for churches in impacted areas, will be trained (United Methodist Committee on Relief) Early Response Teams from within the conference and neighboring conferences. In many locations, conditions are not safe for survivors or volunteers to work."
Brock said flood buckets are appreciated since they are easy to store and ship. The conference office is trying to connect the 250 flood buckets it has with Centerville, Antioch and other hard-hit Nashville-area locations. UMCOR is shipping 1,800 buckets and will provide more as needed. The North Georgia Conference is sending 350 buckets.
For those helping their neighbors clean up from floods, Brock said the conference soon would have a six-page guide advising "what to keep, throw away, and how to sort."
Memphis Conference
Near Memphis, the Mississippi River was cresting on Monday morning, May 3, and south Dyersburg was being evacuated. First United Methodist Church, Dyersburg, opened its 200-person-capacity Red Cross shelter to the evacuees.
"It's been a tough weekend," said Jan Cleveland, director of congregational care and spiritual formation at First United Methodist Church in Millington. At least 75 people were housed at the temporary Red Cross-sponsored shelter there.
Millington, north of Memphis, was flooded when a levee at the nearby naval base was breached, sending water into the southern part of the city of 10,000. "One trailer park was completely covered," Cleveland said, and "several businesses were damaged."
This was the second time the church's family life center was used as a shelter. "It was a good thing, because some folks didn't have any other place to go," Cleveland added.
First Church members helped shelter workers serve meals and ensured personal needs were met. Stephen Ministers from the congregation were available to listen to the survivors.
Conference communicator Cathy Farmer in Jackson, Tennessee, said a team was at UMCOR's Sager-Brown Depot in Baldwin, Lousiana, getting flood buckets to bring back to Tennessee. The conference issued a call for 200 flood buckets for use in Memphis. The conference's five VIM teams, which cancelled their out-of-state commitments, will work on flood recovery at home instead.
"Our Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Alamo, which is predominantly African-American, has sustained water damage," Farmer said. Conference disaster-recovery teams will work there.
"In Bells, houses are flooded," she added. "In Pocahontas, a woman was killed when a tree landed on her home. Around Selmer, there is much tornado damage as well as flooding. In Humboldt, roads are closed and trees are down. Brownsville has many flooded homes.
"In Jackson," Farmer continued, "we have huge sinkholes in major streets, bridges are down, the Forked Deer River has not yet crested, trees are down on church parking lots, and the water treatment plant in north Jackson has been compromised." Many people are without electricity.
Mississippi Conference
After 30 tornadoes cut a swath of destruction across Mississippi, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward reported that conference officials were working with affected communities to assess damage and identify places for recovery ministries.
Conference disaster-response leaders met with Ward and conference staff and began organizing the recovery effort. The conference office was establishing a call center in Jackson, Mississippi, to schedule volunteer support and receive requests for help.
The Rev. Wayne Napier, conference disaster-response coordinator, is contacting churches and volunteer crews to focus on clearing debris and to locate host sites for volunteers. Robert Sharp, Mississippi Katrina United Methodist recovery coordinator, will lead the recovery effort.
"We pray for those who have lost loved ones, for all who have lost their homes and possessions, for all whose livelihood is impacted by the loss of business, and for all who will be helping with the recovery and rebuilding efforts," Ward said.
Arkansas Conference
Gary Tobar believes God must have been watching over him Friday night, April 30, as he sped toward local pastors' licensing school at Mont Eagle Retreat Center near Clinton.
His car narrowly escaped being directly in the path of a tornado. "I really believe in miracles," said Tobar, who is training to become a licensed pastor. He serves River of Life United Methodist Church in West Memphis.
"I'm grateful." Had it not been for the difference of five minutes, "I wouldn't be having this conversation," he explained.
On Friday and Saturday nights, storms spawned at least a dozen tornadoes in central and northern Arkansas. The strongest twister left a woman dead and leveled several homes in Scotland.
But Tobar and others in the licensing school are relieved that they were spared when a tornado tore through the grounds of the 1,000-acre retreat center. Twenty-four students and four leaders were inside Kaetzell Lodge when the power went out.
The Rev. Lu Harding, center director, heard the telltale whistle of a train as the tornado came barreling onto the property. She herded the group together in the lodge's bathroom where they huddled and prayed.
While the storm left the lodge unscathed, it obliterated a mobile home and a barn near the camp's entrance. Fallen trees blocked the road. Candles and the center's 10-kilowatt generator provided light and power for the rest of the weekend.
The greatest blessing, Harding said, was the outpouring of help from neighbors over the following days.
Power crews and volunteers removed debris. A member of the nearby Lexington Baptist Church cooked dinner for the center Saturday night.
"She even made some apple- and chocolate-fried pies for us," Harding said.
First United Methodist Church in Scotland is providing vouchers for town residents to shop for clothing, linens and furniture at its thrift store.
Donations to UMCOR's "U.S. Disaster Response" relief efforts may be placed in local church offering plates or sent directly to UMCOR, P. O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Designate checks for UMCOR Advance #901670 and "U.S. Disaster Response." Online donations may be made at Those making credit card donations also may call 800.554.8583.
*Compiled by Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Heather Hahn, and Kathy Noble, United Methodist News Service.