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Prayers, volunteers sustain storm survivors


3:00 P.M. EST April 29, 2011

The death toll throughout the southern United States continues to rise, along with offers of aid. A guitar rests amid rubble in Cullman, Ala. A web-only courtesy of flickr creative commons/southerntabita.
The death toll throughout the southern United States continues to rise, along with offers of aid. A guitar rests amid rubble in Cullman, Ala. A web-only courtesy of flickr creative commons/southerntabita.

Less than 48 hours after dozens of tornadoes tore through the U.S. South, United Methodists are gearing up for both immediate and long-term recovery.

The death toll in Alabama alone stood at 210 as of the morning of April 29. The Rev. Matt Lacey, director of mission and advocacy for the denomination’s North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference, was “overwhelmed” by hundreds of phone calls and emails offering help during the recovery process.

“God truly moves through and with us during these times,” he said. “Today we have begun to distribute relief through the various districts, and we are making some great progress in evaluating everything. We are currently establishing a network of ‘home base’ churches in affected areas to assist in storing supplies, staging volunteers and housing those affected.”

Congregations interested in assisting should email him at mlacey@northalabamaumc.org.

He also encouraged people to follow the conference website http://northalabamaumc.org or find North Alabama missions on Facebook at www.facebook.com/missionsnal.

The North Alabama Conference website cautioned those interested in volunteering: “Because of potentially hazardous conditions following disasters, it is important for any volunteers to remember that you can only enter areas if you have been invited. The conference disaster-response team is expecting to begin deploying trained emergency-response team volunteers early next week.”

Gathering supplies, volunteers

In the Alabama-West Florida Conference, communications director Mary Catherine Phillips said most of the four extensively damaged churches are part of a two- or three-point charge — a circuit of small churches served by one pastor — so they will “buddy up” with other congregations for Sunday worship and other activities.

Across the affected areas, many people are asking about donating supplies. “A lot of the local churches seem to be coordinating drop-off locations for donations of UMCOR health kits and cleaning buckets,” Phillips said. She mentioned three United Methodist churches — First, Pensacola, Fla.; Trinity, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; and St. Mark, Mobile, Ala. — that were seeking health kits, cleaning buckets, children’s and adult diapers and other personal hygiene items, and gift cards to national chain stores.

“We have tons of officially trained relief workers in Elmore City, north of Montgomery,” she noted. The Rev. Christopher Perry, pastor of Robinson Springs United Methodist Church, Millbrook, Ala., is heading the response team.

For now, only trained volunteers with badges are allowed into the area. Volunteers with proper credentials should contact their United Methodist district disaster-response coordinators. This category includes shelter workers, crisis workers, emergency personnel and skilled contractors.

Capitol Heights United Methodist Church, Montgomery, hosted a noon community prayer service April 29, cosponsored by Capital Heights Dalraida, and St. Luke United Methodist churches.

“We are encouraging all churches to offer a time of prayer for survivors and volunteers,” Phillips said.

‘Care ministers’ offer comfort

Mike Yoder coordinates disaster response in the North Georgia Conference. He said it is still difficult to travel to the affected areas, but volunteers will be needed May 2 as recovery work gets under way.

“Thank goodness, we’ve been inundated with trained volunteers in our local area,” he added. “We’ve been training for a long time.” The conference has about 800 trained volunteers.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., this house was spared, but the elementary school a few blocks away was leveled. A web-only photo courtesy of Jolene Mills.
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., this house was spared, but the elementary school a few blocks away was leveled. A web-only photo courtesy of Jolene Mills.

More than 100 lay and clergy “care ministers” will also play an important role in the conference’s response, according to Yoder.

“They’re just listeners,” he explained. “They are trained holistically to care for body and soul, not to take care of damaged houses.” They refer people, as needed, for psychological help and other assistance.

In Tennessee’s Holston Conference, which lost several United Methodists in the tornadoes, the disaster-response team is preparing to assist storm survivors. In news releases sent to local media, Bishop James Swanson offered the team’s services throughout Holston’s 899-church region. Several churches opened their doors to displaced residents.

The Rev. Mark Wills, pastor at Carter’s Valley Circuit, Greeneville, Tenn., said his friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School were reviving a 2010 fundraising campaign to give home-repair gift cards.

"They want to bless east Tennessee after all they did for Nashville last year," Wills said. Last May 1 and 2, torrential rains in Tennessee’s capital city caused deaths and widespread damage.

UMCOR reaches out

The United Methodist Committee on Relief website reported that at the start of the 2011 spring storm season, an unprecedented number of severe storms, including tornadoes, hail and high winds, have raced across the United States, provoking widespread damage and flooding in the South and Central regions.

The month of April alone has seen more than 7,000 such storms, which produced hundreds of tornadoes. Rivers, including the Mississippi, are at record 100-year-flood levels. The cleanup and recovery from this series of events will take years.

UMCOR is working with bishops and disaster-response personnel to determine the next steps to assist the affected communities. It is accepting donations for 2011 Spring Storms UMCOR Advance #3021326. Gifts may be made online, through local churches or by credit card with a call to (888) 252-6174.

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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