News Archives

United Methodists rush to help in wake of storms


By United Methodist News Service*

United Methodists are helping pick up the pieces, clean up debris and cope with devastating losses that occurred in a weeklong series of tornadoes and severe storms that began May 4.

Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief emergency services office in Washington visited affected areas of Missouri and Kansas May 8 and 9. UMCOR volunteers Bob and Cherri Baer are working with the Kansas East Conference disaster response coordinator, Julie Pohl, and Missouri disaster response coordinator, Joe Bartlesmeyer.

The tornadoes killed at least 18 people in Missouri, 13 in Tennessee and seven in Kansas. Two people were killed and at least seven injured May 6 in southern Illinois in a second round of severe storms. Flooding took at least two lives in Tennessee.

The Oklahoma City area's evening rush hour May 8 became another setting of devastation as at least one tornado did widespread damage and injured 118 people.

The continuing volatility of the weather brought tornado warnings in several of the hardest-hit states again and again during the week. Torrential rains led to widespread flooding, and hail caused additional damage.

Volunteers in Mission teams in Dyersburg, Tenn., ducked for cover when funnel clouds disrupted cleanup efforts.

Church members killed

In southeast Kansas, Julie Gay Green, 50, of rural Columbus, died when a tornado struck her home May 4. She was a member of First United Methodist Church of Columbus and a nurse at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo. Her husband and two of her five children were seriously injured. Rescuers said the tornado had apparently dropped the family members in a field a quarter of a mile from home.

Besides Green, two other residents of Cherokee County were killed. In adjacent Crawford County, the four fatalities included Josephine Maghe, 87, of Franklin, Kan. A member of Arma (Kan.) United Methodist Church, Maghe was the one who organized expressions of sympathy when a death occurred in her community. She would ask the postmaster to put up a notice when someone died. Now the post office and dozens of homes are gone.

Wyandotte County in the Kansas City, Kan., area reported 88 homes destroyed and nearly 500 more damaged. The Rev. Rob Schmutz of Wyandotte United Methodist Church spent the first three days of the week loading the back of his pickup truck with beverages, food and cleaning supplies and delivering them to residents and workers in the damaged areas.

Stockton (Mo.) United Methodist Church canceled youth group meetings and bell choir practice when warnings were sounded, and everyone was sent home. When the Rev. Russell Maggard checked on the church building, he found two walls of the sanctuary were knocked out, and the family life center looked as if it had been under artillery fire. Despite that, people who lost their homes were able to take temporary shelter in the church.

"The church basement was leaking like a sieve due to damage to the roof and walls, but we still kept people down there until about midnight," Maggard said. By then, roads had been cleared enough that the people could be evacuated to a nursing home for the rest of the night.

John Cassel, a church member, was killed when his home was destroyed. His funeral was held May 8 at the Assembly of God church.

In Pierce City, Mo., the Rev. Crystal Wicks, 72, and her husband Jim, 76, lived in a downtown loft apartment above an antique shop and percussion museum they owned. When the tornado hit, they were in a small area between two 19th-century buildings. Both structures were blown away.

"With all of the glass and everything flying around, we came out of it without a scratch on us," Crystal Wicks said. The couple lost everything they had except the clothes they were wearing. "We just thank God we're alive," she said.

Others from the 35-member United Methodist church also lost their homes, but no one was seriously injured. The 134-year-old church survived with damage to the roof, siding and a window. A metal cross atop the steeple was twisted and bent over.

At Carl Junction (Mo.) United Methodist Church, near Joplin, about 20 people who were in the church for various events took shelter in the bathrooms. When they emerged, they discovered the roof of the 7-year-old building was gone.

"About every church in the district called to offer us their facilities and support," said the Rev. Bob Simon, 70, interim pastor. "Methodist churches and their pastors really responded quickly."

The next day, the Rev. Tony Blevins and his wife, Frieda, saw the damage. Blevins expects to be appointed to the church this summer. He and the district superintendent met with about 50 of the church members that night to begin planning the reconstruction. "Everyone was very positive and forward looking," Tony Blevins said.

In Monett, Mo., Alma Villagrana, the United Methodist missionary for the Hispanic Mission of Barry County, said a church family had lost its home, as had others.

"We're doing what we can to help everyone in the community," Villagrana said. The church is cooperating with others to channel aid, and it is providing shelter to those in need.

Several other states experienced weather-related problems. Tornadoes destroyed homes in Arkansas on May 4. At least three tornadoes touched down in South Dakota, and one damaged homes in Mississippi on May 5. Nebraska also had scattered damage from several tornadoes.

Parts of Kentucky saw minor damage from tornadoes that touched down May 4, and severe thunderstorms caused 24,000 homes and businesses to lose electric power the next day during the morning rush hour. Iowa was one of several states that had flooding.

Historic CME church hit

In Jackson, Tenn., the historic Mother Liberty CME Church was destroyed, but members and friends took heart that the façade remained standing. They hope to incorporate that in rebuilding.

Mother Liberty is home to the original congregation of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. African-Americans who attended nearby First Methodist Church were among the first CME members. The CME congregation conducted its early services and meetings in the basement of what is now First United Methodist Church.

First United Methodist Church sustained damage that one member estimated may cost more than $1 million to repair. Northside United Methodist Church in Jackson had extensive hail and water damage. The Keys Chapel (Tenn.) United Methodist parsonage was destroyed.

Volunteer teams, including workers organized through UMCOR, are helping throughout the affected states. United Methodists have been present, too, through their dollars. Past donations to UMCOR made possible the two emergency grants already awarded to the Memphis and Missouri annual conferences by May 8. Other grants are expected. Cleaning supplies were being shipped to Missouri from the Illinois-Great Rivers Conference Warehouse in Springfield, Ill.

United Methodists can give to the newly created Advance Special No. 901690, "Spring Storms 2003." Checks may be put in collection plates or sent to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Credit-card contributions are accepted at (800) 554-8583.
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* Fred Koenig, editor of the Missouri Review; Karen Robertson, editor of the Kansas East Connection; and the Rev. Joe Moseley and Cathy Farmer of the Memphis Annual Conference, contributed to this story.

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