Spring tornadoes spin volunteers into action

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MDS volunteers respond to damage in record tornado season

By Emily Will for Mennonite Disaster Service

Tornados have struck with unusual frequency and ferocity this spring. From the office of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), in Lititz, PA, Executive Director Kevin King tracks the “dizzying array of storm reports that came in almost daily in April and May.”

By June 7, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative (NOAA) reported 525 fatalities nationwide, the highest death toll from tornados since the NOAA began gathering statistics in 1950 and well above the annual average of 80 tornado-related deaths.

While overwhelmed by the devastation, King also received “quiet assurance that our volunteers on the ground were faithfully responding,” with support from binational staff. MDS Units and Regions report on faith-inspired responses, both work completed and future plans.

April 8, Pulaksi, Va.—The stirred kettle

Tornados in western Virginia April 8 caused seven deaths and millions of dollars of damage.

“They’ve never before heard of a tornado that came down a mountainside, but that’s what one did in Pulaski; it came down and kept knocking over houses,” says Bernard Martin, chair of the MDS Shenandoah Valley Unit.

Two tornados swooped through Pulaski, a town of about 9,000 in the Appalachian foothills. “They have no idea why it came down the mountain but it did so and got stuck in a low area between ridges and swept around like it was in a kettle,” Martin says.

Pulaski’s downtown business district was spared, but more than 500 houses elsewhere in the city took the brunt of the damage—82 demolished, 190 with major damage, 190 with minor damage.

The Shenandoah MDS unit has set up shop in a local Church of God facility, Martin says. With clean up completed, MDS volunteers are now in recovery mode, which includes repairs to roofs, windows and siding.

Martin anticipates they’ll start building new homes by late June. County officials have identified homeowners most in need of help, those lacking insurance and personal finances, and have established a fund to help them, he said.

“I suspect at least six months,” Martin predicts about the duration of MDS work in Pulaski. The local Church of God is willing to host the unit for as long as it takes, he says.

While most of the volunteers have been from the Harrisonburg area, where Martin lives, he expects volunteers from other states as well.

April 14, Tushka, Okla—Awaiting construction green light 
The small southeastern Oklahoma town of Tushka took a direct tornado hit on April 14. Two people died and many buildings were demolished, including five schools. 

MDS volunteers helped with clean up and are awaiting the “all clear” signal from the town’s recovery committee to begin building replacement houses, says Bill Mast, MDS Oklahoma Unit Area Coordinator from Memorial Road MB Church of Edmond, Okla.

Mast describes Tushka as one of the state’s poorest communities. About a fourth of the 200 destroyed homes were owned by low-income families who had no insurance, he says.

Tushka has a well-organized recovery committee and Mast has shown the committee floor plans of the two- and three-bedroom homes that the MDS Oklahoma Unit is ready to build. If given the local go-ahead, expected by June 17, he anticipates an MDS project in Tushka for a year or so, constructing three to five homes.

April 16 Bertie County, NC—No long-term response

Two funnel clouds, a few miles apart, ran parallel to one another for five miles along a farming corridor encompassing the towns of Askewville, Colerain and Harrellsville in North Carolina’s northeast Bertie County on April 16. Twelve county residents were killed.

Ray Zimmerman, MDS Region I director, and his wife, Martha Zimmerman, of Turbotville, PA, arrived on the scene two days later and dug into clean up efforts based in Colerain, soon joined by two Mennonite groups from Pennsylvania. 

Because renters lived in many of the 50 houses affected—landlords usually have insurance and resources making them ineligible for MDS aid—MDS will not undertake further work in Bertie County, Zimmerman said. 

April 27, Birmingham, Ala.—Years of house rebuilds

Over 100 tornados cut massive swaths of ruin through Alabama on April 27, slashing through the Birmingham suburbs of Pratt City and Pleasant Grove. 

By April 29, Reuben Miller of the MDS Alabama Unit had rolled up his sleeves to help clear the wreckage. He’s been in the area since, finishing a six-week volunteer term as MDS Project Director in mid-June and turning over the reins to Phil Maneikis, of Schoolcraft, Mich.

MDS has focused its response in the less affluent Pratt City, where 75 percent of the buildings were destroyed, Miller saysa.

Miller, of Atmore, Ala., expects a two- to three-year MDS response in Pratt City, focusing on house rebuilds.

April 27, Hackleburg and Phil Campbell, Ala—90 percent rubble

The April 27 tornados churned 90 percent of Hackleburg’s buildings into rubble. The town suffered one of the highest per capita casualties of this spring’s tornados; 29 of the town’s 1,500 residents were killed.

Half the buildings in the town of Phil Campbell were similarly destroyed, says J.D. Landis, interim chair of the MDS Alabama Unit. Twenty-six people were killed.

A second MDS Alabama project site will help rebuild houses in these two small towns, located a few miles from one another and some 100 miles northwest of Birmingham.

Because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is deploying Operation Clean Sweep, a new debris-clearing program, MDS is already rebuilding in parts of Phil Campbell. MDS anticipates working in Hackleburg and Phil Campbell through the coming winter, if not longer.

For Landis, used to working with hurricane recovery, this year’s tornados have been a “learning lesson.” 

“We’ve never had near so many tornados nor has the extent of damage been so wide,” says Landis, of Mobile, Ala.

Comparing the two, Landis says tornados strike a limited corridor but with such force that they “tear strong structures and anything else in their path to pieces.” In contrast, “Everyone has some damage in a hurricane but it’s not so extreme,” he says.

May 21, Reading, Kan.—A community ripped apart

“Just a few houses were left standing,” Gordon Unruh says of the small town of Reading, Kan., after a tornado, along with baseball-size hail, ripped into it  May 21, killing one person.

Unruh, a wheat farmer from McPherson, Kan., and coordinator of the MDS Kansas Unit, says that he and other volunteers helped pick up small debris—a tedious chore—left behind after backhoes excavated large debris. With chainsaws they also felled trees and helped repair damaged cattle pens on a couple of farms.

The MDS Kansas Unit will do some reshingling while awaiting word about longer-term rebuilding plans.

May 22, Joplin, Mo.— In for the long haul

Leland Hostetler, MDS Volunteer Coordinator for the MDS Missouri unit was in Joplin  May 23, the day after parts of the city were flattened and 132 people killed by the single deadliest tornado since the NOAA started keeping statistics in 1950. He helped manage the efforts of whomever showed up to help.

“We just dug in and did it,” he says of the clean up work.

Hostetler was welcomed into the city’s tornado response coordinating committee and he’s been in Joplin ever since, now increasingly focusing his efforts on Mennonite volunteers, rather than those from the general public. 

“Today we had 140 Mennonite and Amish volunteers who came from all over—Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri,” he said June 7, on the eve of transitioning from clean up to repairs. “Tomorrow we’re putting new rafters in a house,” Hostetler said.

Of the 9,127 houses affected, from minor damage to total destruction, 3,359 were uninsured, their owners often elderly and/or disabled.

Hostetler says MDS will be in a Joplin “for the long haul—at least a year.” Until on-site project directors are found, Hostetler will continue juggling two jobs—coordinating MDS volunteers and running his animal feed business, by phone. 

“My phone rings from early morning to late evening,” he says. That’s okay with Hostetler. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing.”

May 24, Oklahoma City Metro Area—Exchanging combines for chainsaws

Seven funnel clouds touched down in central Oklahoma May 24. They thundered along a semi-circular path southwest to southeast of Oklahoma City, skirting the major metropolitan area but striking the outer suburbs of Piedmont and El Reno. In addition, the communities of Chickasha, Newcastle, Canton, Dibble, Goldsby and Shawnee were blasted; ten people were killed.

MDS volunteers helped clear debris in Newcastle and Dibble, a rural area of small homes and mobile homes, which are highly susceptible to tornado damage. Joe Wenger, a Wooster, Ohio, farmer, brought a combine crew of 12 with a large service truck. “The crew exchanged its 35-foot combines for 18-inch chainsaws and cut trees instead of wheat for a week,” says Bill Mast, MDS Oklahoma area coordinator.

Mast is waiting for a local long-term recovery committee to form to see if there will be a role for MDS in the next phase.

The clean up and repair will continue, quietly and without fanfare, throughout the summer and fall in many of these locations. Volunteers will give up a week or more of their time, giving to neighbors they never met, helping to put lives back together after the record breaking year of tornados.

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