Volunteers from Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, mobilize for tornado clean-up in 2011. The church is mobilizing teams again this week. (CBF Arkansas photo)
Volunteers from Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, mobilize for tornado clean-up in 2011. The church is mobilizing teams again this week. (CBF Arkansas photo)

Baptists survey 'hurricane like' tornado damage

Leaders of national Baptist disaster-relief efforts say recent twisters and other storms have created damage more common to hurricanes that require a wide distribution of volunteers, equipment and money.

By Jeff Brumley

In 2013, Roy Peterson led a team to the Oklahoma City area immediately after a massive tornado roared through the city of Moore and other neighboring communities. They were there when more twisters ravaged the state.

“We were on the ground while the storms were still going on,” said Peterson, a deacon at Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock. “They had to pull us out of the field one day.”

Peterson and his group of traveling disaster responders would likely be in Alabama, Tennessee or Mississippi right now if it weren’t for the fact their own state has been pounded by twisters that killed nearly 40 this week.

So he’ll be leading teams Thursday, Friday and Saturday instead to Vilonia, a town about 50 miles north of Little Rock that sustained horrific damage and where many of the week’s tornado-related deaths occurred. It’s the same city where four were killed by a tornado in 2011.

“We’re going to go where we can best serve the need,” said Peterson, who also serves as disaster response coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas. “It seems silly to drive a long distance and do the same thing we can do here at home.”

‘Like a massive hurricane’

While that makes sense for local- and state-based responders, the geographic scope of this week’s storms — covering vast portions of the South and Midwest — leaves those on the national level with quite a huge task on their hands. North Carolina has been largely overlooked by media outlets but also is reeling from twisters last week.

Nor is the timing any better for organizations still active in long-term response projects from events like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the 2013 Oklahoma tornadoes and the Colorado floods.

tommydealBut the immediate challenge is geography, said Tommy Deal, U.S. disaster response coordinator for CBF.

“Tornadoes are usually confined to one area and unfortunately this week has given us multi-state hits,” Deal said. “It’s more like a massive hurricane ... where you’ve got to look at multiple areas in which resources will be needed.”

Knowing where to go

Baptist state groups and other faith-based organizations are responding to tornado damage from Alabama to Missouri and several states in between. Complicating matters was a series of violent storms that rolled through Florida’s panhandle Tuesday night, reportedly killing at least one person.

With so many states affected, potential volunteers in those areas are unable to respond to neighbors who are in need, Deal said. That limits how much coordinating national disaster planners can do.

While the tornadoes that hit Moore and other communities last year were tragic, the overwhelming response from around the country was made possible by its geographical limits.

“Everybody knew to go to Oklahoma, where this one you can go anywhere from Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama,” Deal said.

Help on the way

Still, help already is on the way, especially to Arkansas, which was hardest hit in the most recent spate of storms.

North Carolina Baptists are deploying teams to Arkansas even as they help some of their own communities hit by tornadoes last week, Deal said.

“The only organized work we have as of today is in Arkansas — they are way ahead of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee in being able to get out,” he said.

Texas Baptists also are mobilizing teams to send to Arkansas “in the next few days,” said Marla Bearden, disaster response specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Meanwhile, other areas may have to wait longer for outside help until they can dig out from the rubble themselves and make assessments. Until then, most organizations won’t mobilize until they get specific requests from groups in impacted areas.

Duplication of services

miller-dean“We do not cross state lines to respond without an invitation from a partnering agency in an affected state,” Dean Miller, disaster relief coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, said in an email.

North Carolina Baptist Men recently asked the mission board for volunteers and equipment, which are now being organized to send, Miller said.

“If we get a request from another location, then we will respond as we are able.”

Doing otherwise, Miller added, would only add confusion to already chaotic disaster zones.

“Too many times, organizations respond to disasters and actually create more headaches than they solve,” Miller said. “They create logistical problems, traffic issues, safety concerns and duplication of services.”

Responders ‘spread thin’

While also waiting for requests for help from this week’s storms, American Baptist Churches USA are still busy with long-term response to a number of previous disasters, said Victoria Goff, the denomination’s national coordinator of volunteer and disaster response ministries.

And the wait for requests is a good thing, Goff added.

 VictoriaGoff“We’re working the mudslide in Washington (state), and we are still working in Moore, Sandy and Katrina,” Goff said. “We have all these spots out there where we are trying to respond and we are really thin.”

Fortunately for those on the denominational level, some individual congregations with disaster-relief know-how are already on the way at the invitation of congregations in affected areas.

‘Why wouldn’t we go?’

First Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., has a team of eight to 10 volunteers preparing for a visit in May to an Arkansas church that specifically asked for them to come.

The congregation will also hold a collection during worship on Sunday for storm victims, said Wade Smith, senior pastor at First Baptist, Norman.

Smith said the church would have done all these things anyway, but this year there is more urgency because Baptists from Arkansas helped Oklahomans recover from last year’s twisters.

“It’s a new perspective,” Smith said. “ You always try to go, but now that you have been the recipient of that help — why wouldn’t we go?”