The Slow Road to Normal

September 1, 2011 | By More

The devastating May 25th tornado that leveled portions of Johnson and Franklin County was a disaster of epic proportion for families impacted by the deadly twisters. Yet the resiliency and determination of the people of the Arkansas River Valley, coupled with the generosity of thousands of volunteers, has allowed residents to move beyond the tragedy and start rebuilding their homes and lives.

According to Josh Johnston, coordinator of the Johnson County Department of Emergency Management, the tornado brought out more than 1,000 volunteers and close to 10,000 hours of volunteer work in Johnson County.

“We were blessed to have a number of organizations who assisted from faith- based to Red Cross to businesses and schools, said Johnston. There were over 5,000 meals served in the aftermath to workers and victims and we had volunteers from Arkansas as well as several other states,” said Johnston.

One volunteer from Louisiana told Johnston he wanted to repay a favor to Arkansans.

“Hurricane Katrina devastated us and the people of Arkansas did so much to help us. When we had the opportunity to help the people of Arkansas we could not pass it up.”

Mike Jacobs, Johnson County Judge, also praised the massive clean-up effort.

“Words just can’t describe how much assistance the community received, not only from individuals, but from organized groups like the Volunteer Fire Departments, religious groups, State Forestry, and U.S. Forestry. The rain had not stopped falling when these groups were out in full force to open roads and clear debris off houses.

“The moral support from people not only from Johnson County but from neighboring counties and other states says volumes about the character of our moral fiber. County, State, and political boundaries come down when people are in need,” said Jacobs. The folks in Johnson County are a very resilient, caring, and volunteering group – neighbors helping neighbors, looking out for each other. I am very proud of our counties cooperative efforts in time of need,” said Jacobs.

According to Johnston, there were approximately 280 homes in Johnson damaged with approximately 100 major losses or destroyed.

“The rebuilding effort is an ongoing process and the recovery effort will take years to return to normal and in some cases lives will never be normal again,” said Johnston.

“Johnson County will be involved for some time in the education and rebuilding process. The Department of Emergency Management takes more of a back-seat effort in the later stages of recovery and will look at Mitigation projects and measures that can be implemented to reduce the threat in future disasters,” Johnston explained.

With FEMA’s approval for aid to uninsured or significantly underinsured residents and businesses affected by the storm in Johnson and Franklin Counties, people are beginning to rebuild. However, the process is slow and some families are still living in tents or somewhere besides their damaged homes.

The recent heat wave also caused a slow- down of rebuilding efforts as temperatures soared into the triple digits, but resolve is high to complete necessary repairs and get victims into their homes as soon as possible, said Johnston.

Volunteer Groups

Johnson and Franklin County tornado victims were blessed to have several volunteer organizations come to their aid including the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and various Southern Baptist volunteer crews along with many other groups and individuals.

Rev. Howard Kisor, White Cap and local coordinator for Southern Baptist response, said the main mission of Southern Baptist relief was to assist private home and home owners in the recovery process.

In a five-day period after the tornado, the Arkansas Valley Baptist Association located in Russellville brought in 383 trained volunteers from around the state. Kisor said Baptist crews cooked and served 5,420 meals in a five-day period to residents and volunteer crews in the Clarksville and Denning area.

“Our feeding units are under contract with the Red Cross to assist in this process. We do 90% of the cooking that is needed for the Red Cross in disaster situation,” said Kisor. The Baptist Association also brought in crews of chain-saw wielding volunteers to assist homeowners in the recovery operation and recovery units were able to assist 50 families that were affected by the storm, said Kisor.

“I remember one such family well since it was our last job after five days of work. An 80-year-old man with a small chain saw in his hand was looking at 12 large trees that had come close to destroying his home. One very large tree fell right next to his house and its roots had destroyed the wheelchair ramp that had been used to assist his ailing wife into the car for her doctor’s appointments. As I approached him I asked if he would like for us to help him clean up this mess and he said, ‘I was praying for someone to come and you all showed up’.”

It is experiences like this that keeps us on alert to intervene in the lives of those who are in need of our help.

“The Denning/Clarksville event would have generated a cost of several hundred thousand dollars when you consider man hours and material, but for this service we never ask for or charge any price, it is a love gift from Southern Baptist to our communities,” said Kisor. The cost of the service is supported by our churches in cooperation with our National, State and Local organizations, he added.

“We feel that this allows us to show the love of Christ in a special way to those we encounter during a disaster. It’s what drives our nationwide organization,” said Kisor.

The Salvation Army located in Russellville was also very active in the early disaster recovery process and had a mobile kitchen and donation and first-aid station in hard-hit Etna.

According Lt. Josh Robinett, Commanding Officer of the Salvation Army Corps Community Center in Russellville, he and seven volunteers from the Russellville Corps served 2,366 meals, thousands of drinks and snacks, and helped manage the donation center that was set up at the Church of Christ in Etna.

“Without these selfless and benevolent volunteers giving of their time we would not have been able to do the work that had such a wonderful impact on the people of Etna, AR,” said Robinett.

“We were not there just to feed and to supply drinks for hydration; we were there for spiritual support and to give hope in a time when there seemed to be very little. To see such devastation was heartbreaking, but to see the Lord manifest himself and His love in such a time was very encouraging to see,” said Robinett.

The American Red Cross oversaw the recovery operation. According to Jeff Patrick, the Northwest Arkansas Red Cross Community Relations Manager, the Red Cross is a charitable organization – not a government agency – and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission.

“As with any disaster the American Red Cross was on the scene moments after the storm to ensure that all in need have their immediate needs met,” said Patrick.

Immediately following the tornadoes that struck during the night in Johnson and Franklin counties, the Northwest Arkansas Chapter began providing a safe place for those affected to stay and hot meals. Shelters were opened in Clarksville and Ozark, and Red Cross Disaster Teams deployed to begin assessing the damage and providing assistance to those in need.

Arthur Ashby and Travis Cooper, Disaster Zone Managers and Disaster Action Team Members, were in charge of the relief efforts and had over 75 staff and volunteer responders working the Denning, Etna and Clarksville disasters. The Red Cross served 2,364 meals, 3,187 snacks and opened 127 client cases involving 361 clients. We also provided mental health services to 228 clients during the response, said Patrick.

During this response, Red Cross disaster workers not only ensured that those affected had food and shelter, they provided a shoulder to lean on and a listening ear. Workers used Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) to go out in the affected areas to deliver meals, clean up supplies and water to clients and emergency workers, said Patrick.

Overwhelmingly, the victims themselves have been truly thankful for all the help they received.

In talking to survivors of this tragedy, every person interviewed expressed sincere gratitude to their neighbors, friends and community volunteers, as well as to the many organized rescue teams for their overwhelming support. The moral of this story? If you want to make a difference in someone’s life, just volunteer!

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