GRIFFIN, Ga. – The Rev. Sandra Fendley makes daily trips to what’s left of Vaughan United Methodist Church after a tornado blew off its roof and punched holes in its walls, essentially destroying the 107-year-old frame structure.
She’s the church’s pastor, but at age 70, she’s not taking the lead on debris removal. Instead, she’s been cheering on the many volunteers who have arrived unbeckoned to help, learning their names and churches, providing effusive thanks and spontaneous hugs, and noticing with specificity their daily progress.
“Oh my goodness, we’ve got a driveway!” Fendley exclaimed on Sunday afternoon, May 1, during a visit after she led worship at the other church she serves as local pastor. “There was nothing here but big, old oak trees!”
This has been a treacherously busy season for natural disasters across the Southern states, and the toll includes the destruction of a handful of UMC church buildings, with many more being damaged.
There also has, at scene after scene, been an outpouring of help. That’s certainly been the case at Vaughan UMC.
“Honey, you can’t believe the amount of volunteers,” Fendley said. “Methodist church teams from all over have been here and cleaned things up.”
A wide swath
The April 27 storm cut a wide swath through seven states – Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia – and left a million people without electrical power. Tuscaloosa, Ala., was among the hardest hit.
Federal officials noted the April 27 storm as the biggest on record for a single 24-hour period. Preliminary estimates counted 312 tornadoes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, well above the previous record of 148 twisters in 1974.
The death toll stands at 340, with more than 200 still missing, making this the second deadliest day due to a twister in U.S. history.
That storm followed on the heels of another system that stampeded through eight southern states. It particularly impacted parts of North Carolina, when 92 tornadoes tore through that state on a single day.
The series of storms is straining the resources of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the denomination’s disaster relief agency. After years of relatively mild spring storm seasons and heightened priorities provoked by “super disasters” elsewhere in the world, funds destined for UMCOR’s U.S. Disaster Response ministry were perilously low.
The Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, UMCOR head, reported that the agency delved into a small reserve in order to respond to the spring storms emergency, with the approval of the organization’s board of directors grant committee.
UMCOR has made 12 emergency grants to 10 annual conferences: North Alabama, Alabama-West Florida, Holston, Memphis, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia. The agency also responded to requests from six of those conferences for immediate training in early response to disasters and the spiritual and emotional care of those affected.
UMCOR had received about $100,000 in online donations as of May 2. Donations by way of local churches have not yet been tallied.
“Right now, we don’t have enough money to get help beyond these emergency grants, so we’re counting on the connection to dig deeper,” said James Rollins, UMCOR’s director of marketing and communications. “Church members have always come through in the past and I’m sure they will come through again.”
The tornadoes cut through an area populated by a large number of United Methodists. The 11 annual conferences affected include more than 2.1 million United Methodist members, about 28 percent of U.S. church membership.
Many United Methodist churches were destroyed or severely damaged. In the North Alabama conference, Bishop Will Willimon estimated that 15 churches had been destroyed, and 15 left unusable for the near future. All were insured.
The death toll included a number of United Methodists, including three members of Jackson Chapel United Methodist in Sawyerville, Ala., and three members of Mount Tabor United Methodist near Greeneville, Tenn., but no total figures were available at press time.
In some of the small rural communities affected by the tornadoes, United Methodist churches were virtually the only community buildings. Those that were still standing after the storm – even those without power or partially damaged by the storm – soon became centers of helping, providing meals, shelter and supplies. Some served as staging areas for supplies; others hosted volunteers who traveled into the area to help. One church in North Alabama, Holly Pond UMC, opened its doors to people who wanted to charge their cell phones so that they could contact friends and families.
United Methodists arrived on the scene “before the National Guard got there” in a number of places, according to Bishop Willimon. Church members in the conference were feeding more than 10,000 people daily, and had dispatched five relief trailers.
Bishop Willimon, who noted that he’s been a critic of the denomination’s bureaucracy at times, said he was grateful for the denomination’s connectional system.
“I’m real thankful we didn’t wait for a storm to get organized,” he said. “How wonderful it is to have a structure in place and a means of responding.”
The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, assistant general secretary for UMCOR’s U.S. disaster response, traveled to Alabama to assist in training volunteers as emergency responders. He watched in fascination as a group of United Methodist men served up hot food in the parking lot of a Wendy’s restaurant in Tuscaloosa. Group members were able to feed thousands, even though they’d spent only about $700.
“They were using Facebook,” he said. “They’d post a request, and within half an hour, someone would deliver it.” One request went out for coolers, to allow the group to carry meals to people in the community; within hours, a van pulled into the parking lot with boxes of nylon coolers donated by a local business.
Because many churches now have Facebook pages, linking them to millions of Facebook users, social media played a key role in the disaster response.
Sam Hodges serves as managing editor and Mary Jacobs as staff writer of the United Methodist Reporter in Dallas, Texas. This story was used by permission. United Methodist Reporter © 2011
Residents view the remains of a home destroyed by a tornado in Griffin, Ga.
“Right now, we don’t have enough money to get help beyond these emergency grants, so we’re counting on the connection to dig deeper.”
– UMCOR’s James Rollins
The Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster, pastor of Ford’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Harvest, Ala., greets member Roger Carter with a hug as he arrives for the Sunday service. Carter’s home was destroyed by the April 27 tornado.
How to help others during disasters
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is urgently in need of monetary donations for UMCOR Emergency Advance #3021326. To donate, visit www.umcor.org, call toll-free 800-554-8583, or mail UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Make checks payable to UMCOR and specify “Spring Storms 2011” in the memo line. With all donations to UMCOR’s Advance, 100 percent of donations go directly to the designated emergency. Donations also can be made through any United Methodist Church.
Trained ERT (Emergency Response Teams) volunteers are needed, but, as always, volunteers should call ahead before they go to a disaster site.
North Alabama’s website has details here. There is also a call center for those interested in volunteering: 855-862-8657.
Alabama West Florida Conference’s website will post regular updates with needs for volunteers and supplies here.
The North Georgia Conference established a call center to match cleanup and repair needs with volunteer teams. The number: 678-533-1443.
Cleaning buckets are in low supply at UMCOR’s Midwest Mission Distribution Center in Chatham, Illinois near Springfield. For details, visit www.midwestmissiondc.org. Click on KITS in the left column.