An ice-cold catastrophe
MBC Disaster Relief responds to hard-hit southwest Missouri
SPRINGFIELD – Evelyn Creek rarely leaves her house on the best of days, except maybe on Sundays to attend First Baptist Church. She prefers to stay inside and care for her ailing husband who suffered a major stroke 10 years ago.
But after the Jan. 12-14 ice storms knocked out power and downed trees across most of southwest Missouri, she couldn’t go out even if she wanted to. What had once been a prized shade tree was now a maze of splinters and ice-coated timber that covered her front yard. Her van was blocked in by the remains of a pine tree that once stood next to the garage.
And it would have remained that way for weeks if a chainsaw unit from Wright-Douglas-Ozark (WDO) Baptist Association hadn’t weaved its way through the debris to clear her front yard. That was just one of the 1,005 chainsaw clean-up jobs finished as of press time, and the WDO unit was just one of more than 40 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams from not only Missouri but 22 other states, including teams from as far away as New York and California.
More than 2,700 Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers are helping northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri recover from the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. The Red Cross has rated this disaster a four on a scale of five. Hurricane Katrina was a five.
“This reminds me a lot of Katrina except with ice,” Danny Decker, coordinator of Disaster Relief for the Missouri Baptist Convention, said. “All across this part of the state it looks like a tornado came at tree top level and traveled all the way up the I-44 corridor, and about an hour’s drive on both sides.”
The sidewalks of every residential street in Springfield are piled high with tree limbs. In the outlying smaller communities like Everton, a tiny town about 35 minutes north of Springfield, every street is impassable due to downed trees in the road. Nearly two weeks after the first of the storms hit, Decker was still scrambling to get assessors into the town to help assign jobs for chainsaw crews.
About 10,000 homes were still without power as of press time in the Springfield area, down from a high of 260,000, and it may be weeks before all power is restored. Many Missouri Baptists – including The Pathway staff – planning to attend the annual State Evangelism Conference Jan. 22-23 at Ridgecrest Baptist cancelled their hotel rooms after the hotels called begging them to let southwest Missourians without power have a warm place to spend the night.
At least 14 Missourians have died because of the storm. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt and President George W. Bush both declared Springfield and 20 surrounding areas disaster areas, freeing up state and federal funds to aid local governments in their recovery. Thousands of homes suffered roof damage and burst pipes. At least one church, First Baptist in Webb City, collapsed under the weight of the ice. The Baptist Student Union at Missouri State University in Springfield experienced flooding in its basement.
A national command incident center has been set up in Nixa, as the most experienced disaster relief coordinators in the United States lend their services to the recovery efforts and help coordinate operations with the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Chainsaw/recovery units, shower units, mass care (feeding), assessment teams and chaplains from the Baptist conventions in South Carolina, Ohio, New York, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Tennessee, Utah-Idaho, Mississippi, New Mexico, Alabama, Iowa, Florida, California, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and Louisiana have hauled their trailers and crews in, bunking in churches. In all, they represent 1,736 work days. It can be hard to tell what is a more common sight in the Springfield area: the bright yellow hats of the Southern Baptist volunteers or the workers from power companies struggling to restore power.
Teams from Texas and Oklahoma are spearheading the recovery efforts in Oklahoma, where nearly 125,000 people were without power at some point.
Ron Crow is pastor of First Baptist Church in Diamond, which is housing close to 80 volunteers from Minnesota-Wisconsin, Tennessee and Arkansas. Their feeding, shower and chainsaw crews are working in Diamond, Sarcoxie, Gramby and Wentworth. He said the cooperation of the crews has opened doors for his church’s future ministry.
“We’ve been trying to connect with city leaders and this has really opened up the doors wide open,” he said. “We are really connecting with our community and we are on people’s radar screen. People are blown away by strangers from Minnesota showing up offering to do work and help out. It’s phenomenal.”
The chainsaw crews based there completed more than 300 jobs in one week with 400 job orders in the works.
Since the first ice began to fall Jan. 7, disaster relief crews have served 45,000 meals, completed 1,005 chainsaw jobs, provided 393 showers to other relief workers, washed 53 loads of laundry, presented the Gospel 196 times, and witnessed at least 16 professions of faith.
“At first our goals were to feed as many people as possible while we helped clear roads for the local governments,” Decker said. “Now we’re feeding less and focused almost entirely on recovery and clean up.”
The WDO team had been on the job eight days by the time they got to the Creek household. The team’s Blue Hat (leader), Roger Flint, said the work is rough, but rewarding. Some of the jobs they’re doing for free would run $7,000 if a commercial company or contractor was running the show.
“Yesterday we pulled a tree off a house of a man and his wife who had just been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor,” Flint said. “When we left there we presented them with a Bible signed by the crew and prayed with them. By the end we were all crying.”
Decker said the recovery will take at least two months. Even though the ice originally hit more than two weeks ago, he is still pleading for volunteers to help man the exhausted relief crews. Financial assistance is needed as well.
A generator at Round Grove Baptist Church in Miller used to house chainsaw and feeding units consumes two gallons of fuel an hour. Even at the cheapest gas prices available, that’s $675 a week just for power at one site.
Donations designated for disaster relief can be sent to the Baptist Building at 400 E. High, Jefferson City, MO 65101. To volunteer, call Gwen Martin at (573) 636-0400 ext. 631 or 1-800-736-6227 ext. 631.