Volunteers prepare to help VA survivors

May 5, 2008

Eight tornadoes damage nearly 500 homes in Southeastern Virginia. United Church of Christ disaster response coordinators indicate no damages to UCC families’ homes or to UCC churches.

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Initial reports from Cheri Lovell and Don Flick, disaster response coordinators for the UCC Southern Conference indicate no damages to UCC families' homes or to UCC churches.  As clean up begins, it is anticipated that numbers of people will need assistance with repairing their homes.  The United Church of Christ hopes to be part of the ecumenical efforts that will restore lives by assisting people back into their homes.  The United Church of Christ, National Disaster Ministries is seeking $50,000 for the long term recovery efforts.  Following is current information as of this date.

Two days after tornadoes touched down in southeastern Virginia, ripping a 10 mile swath of destruction between Suffolk and Norfolk, volunteers are waiting to help.  While some have rolled up their sleeves to cook and serve meals, others are waiting on the sidelines, oiling their chainsaws, checking their relief kits and studying maps of the area so that they'll be ready to head in as soon as local law enforcement gives them the go-ahead to start their work.

Suffolk Fire Chief Mark Outlaw said his city was "blessed" to have had relatively few injuries and no fatalities in the wake of such a strong storm. Reports that his department has compiled so far show that 120 of the city's 80,000 residents were injured in the storm. Of those, only six were considered serious injuries. Most, he said, were cuts and bruises from flying debris.

Volunteers may have a lot of rebuilding to do, but for some time they will help find food and shelter for those displaced by the storm.

The National Weather Service said eight tornadoes touched down across the state Monday. The Suffolk tornado, with winds approaching 160 mph, may have been the strongest to hit the state since 1993. Damaging twisters were also reported in Colonial Heights, Gloucester and Mathews Counties, Halifax County, Isle of Wright County, Surry County and Brunswick County.

Laura Southard, Public Affairs Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said the damage in the south central part of the state was "significant", but that it could be some time before full assessments will be made. She said the focus is still on making sure all residents in the area are accounted for and that the injured receive the care they need.

Shortly after the storms subsided, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency. Southard said that declaration will allow emergency agencies to "cut through the red tape" and get money to those areas that were hardest hit.  The governor visited the damaged areas Tuesday to determine what additional actions might be possible to speed recovery to those in need. After his tour of the area, Southard said, the governor will probably ask for a federal disaster declaration.

According to Outlaw, however, structures did not fare as well as their occupants. The fire department tallied 125 houses and 15 commercial buildings so far to be complete losses. He said some of the homes were literally ripped from their foundations and tossed across streets like toys. Another 360 homes were damaged in Suffolk. Statewide initial estimates suggest that nearly 500 homes were damaged in the severe weather outbreak.

Southard said there was damage to Santara Obici Hospital in Suffolk that was caused by debris flying off of a shopping mall across the street, but the hospital was able to continue operating. Many of the injured were brought there for treatment.

Trees and power lines across the region were reported to be snapped and torn apart.

According to the Rev. Tom Hazelwood of UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief), groups of volunteers from the Virginia Annual Conference have organized and are ready to move into the damaged areas as soon as they get clearance from the local law enforcement agencies. For now, emergency officials are saying it is still unsafe to enter those areas.

The volunteers, under the direction of coordinator Frank Jennings, will move into Suffolk and other areas to assess the damage, meet with those who were affected by the storm and begin to clean up the debris as soon as they can move into the areas.  Jennings said he already has a few dozen volunteers working with Mercy Chefs and Operation Blessing, two VOAD partners, to feed those who have been displaced by the storms. Hundreds of people have been fed at several locations in the Suffolk area.

The Salvation Army has opened three canteens.  Other volunteers have been doing what they can to make sure the chain saws and other equipment is ready to go as soon as they are given the go-ahead. Jennings said he has many volunteers who live in Suffolk and the surrounding areas so they can be ready at a moment's notice.

"I have one volunteer who was leaving the hospital (Santara Obici) right before the storm hit and she felt her car being lifted off the road by the winds," he said. "Her mother is in the hospital, but she is signed up to help out when we're ready."

Jennings said there are plenty of volunteers from his organization and others on the waiting list to help. The work will be hard and will take some time to complete so he said he doesn't want to burn out the help all at once. Volunteers will be used for short periods of time to help with shelters, to feed those who have been displaced, to clean up debris and to help those affected by the storm to get started on the path to recovery.  "We're ready and we're still making plans," he said. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

HOW YOU CAN HELP

1. Pray for people who live in communities affected by tornadoes.

2.  To help those affected by disasters you may, send gifts payable to your congregation marked for "Emergency USA" with the request they be sent through your Conference office on to Wider Church Ministries.

OR

3. Send gifts, made out to Wider Church Ministries and marked in the memo portion "Emergency USA" to the Office for Global Sharing of Resources; Wider Church  Ministries; 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115.

OR

4. Make a secure on-line donation.

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