JEFFERSON CITY—A one-two punch of tornadoes and floods in the waning days of April rocked Missouri even as Missouri Baptist relief workers rolled into action.
Good Friday brought an EF-4 tornado to St. Louis with winds topping out at 165 miles per hour. The National Weather Service confirmed four tornadoes in the area April 22 with Lambert Airport sustaining severe damage. At least 120 homes were completely destroyed and 750 damaged, but miraculously there were no fatalities and only minimal injuries. The education wing of one Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) church, First Baptist, Ferguson, took the brunt of the impact, sustaining as much as $1 million in losses. The Missouri Baptist Children’s Home, located in Bridgeton, lost only a few shingles and large limbs, even though homes just blocks away were destroyed.
Meanwhile, rising floodwaters in the southeast Missouri town of Poplar Bluff have forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 homes and created what emergency workers have said is a “crisis mode” level of functioning, according to Matthew Tanner, the local director of missions with Cane Creek Stoddard Baptist Association. Upwards of 15 inches of rain the last six days has saturated the ground and swelled the Black River to where it has breached the levee in several locations. And the weather remains uncooperative; rain fell again on April 27 and more is expected through the night.
In St. Louis the cleanup has been ongoing for five days. MBC Interim Executive Director Jay Hughes on April 26 was working alongside Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief crews. They consisted of approximately 85 volunteers who removed trees and debris from homes impacted by the tornadoes.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the tornadoes and potential flooding,” Hughes said. “Missouri Baptists stand ready to assist our neighbors in any way that we can. I am proud of our volunteers who are willing to assist their fellow Missourians in this time of loss and tragedy.”
Meanwhile, floodwaters swiftly threatened the town of Popular Bluff, population 17,000, causing it to become the focus of national newscasts. Ironically, the theme for 2011 for First Baptist Church, Poplar Bluff, is “Do Something.” Floodwaters are providing congregants with an opportunity to put their theme into action for a church fortuitously built on elevated ground.
Within an hour of determining that flooding was imminent, First Poplar Bluff quickly organized a Facebook collection drive for about 250 refugees at the downtown coliseum. Workers produced large amounts of hand sanitizer, towels, pillows, and socks. Members also were able to deliver several tubs of children’s supplies.
“Our church has kind of been in service mode, because it’s our theme this year,” said Steve Francis, pastor of music, media, and administration.
The flooding has displaced residents from homes in the south and east in Butler County. First Poplar Bluff, with a membership of about 1,500, sits on some of the higher land in town. For now it is on standby to evacuate a local nursing home and to make its considerable shelter space available should the flooding worsen. The church has a gymnasium on one level and a fellowship hall below, with showers close at hand.
On April 26, the MBC began mobilizing child care volunteers, mud out workers, and chaplains to the Poplar Bluff area. Feeding and shower units are on standby, according to Rick Seaton, MBC disaster relief coordinator. Seaton plans to be on site April 28.
Tanner, 34, has served as the DOM in Poplar Bluff for two years. He has been sensitive to the needs of the American Red Cross and AmeriCorps workers on the scene, connecting them with Living Word Baptist Church and giving them a much-needed respite from their around-the-clock labors.
“Living Word’s doing a phenomenal job taking care of them,” Tanner said.
Tanner said all 40 of the association’s churches stand ready to help, including providing their vans for shuttle service.
“Anytime I’ve called any of our churches and asked for a need, it’s not even thinking twice,” he said. “They don’t hesitate to be put on standby even if they’re not being used. I just can’t say enough about what our churches are doing.”
Another huge plus in the community right now is the presence of 200 Missouri National Guardsmen to help in the rescue efforts.
The hope is that assessors can begin doing their jobs by April 29, Tanner said, and that Missouri Baptist volunteers can then start to map out the long process of cleaning up homes. He has heard one unconfirmed report so far of a Missouri Baptist church with water damage, but he noted that news accounts that are being exchanged these days are much like the water that is running over the roads—in a word, fluid. The water needs to recede before more needs are known.
“The situations are still unfolding,” Tanner said. “Changes are still happening, basically moment by moment.”
Another moment-by-moment flood drama is playing out about 60 miles to the east of Poplar Bluff at the Bird’s Point levee on the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of Engineers wants to blow the levee to prevent flooding downstream in Cairo, Ill., but Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon wants to avoid that if possible to save about 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland and 100 homes in Mississippi County. The decision to blow the levee rests with Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission. Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore ordered a mandatory evacuation of the floodway land starting at 1 p.m. April 27, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
By comparison on April 27 in St. Louis, there is no prospect of epic flooding. The Mississippi River is not nearly as high as it is downstream, which leaves residents to concentrate on tornado cleanup. Less than a quarter-mile from the damaged Lambert Airport, volunteers continued to work in the neighborhoods and suburbs.
“It got pretty rough here,” said David Wells, the Disaster Relief coordinator for Jefferson Baptist Association and the point man for this disaster. “The type of damage is about average for tornadoes, but this was such a densely populated area. It’s amazing that no one was killed.”
By Allen Palmeri/associate editor and
Brian Koonce/staff writer