JACKSON, Tenn. (ABP) — Baptist churches and organizations are both suffering and helping in the wake of deadly tornadoes that devastated the Mid-South Feb. 5-6.
According to initial National Weather Service reports, more than 60 tornadoes struck Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama. The storms killed at least 56, making the event the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States in more than 20 years.
Among those killed was Fountaine Bayer, a member of First Baptist Church of Clinton, Ark., when a massive tornado laid waste to the Ozark town. Her son and daughter-in-law, John and Brenda Bayer, are International Mission Board missionaries in Mexico.
Another twister slashed through Jackson, Tenn., devastating the campus of Union University. Officials at the Tennessee Baptist Convention-related school said it suffered an estimated $30 million in damages.
Union was struck by another tornado in 2002, causing $2.6 million in damage. But the school's president, David Dockery, said the most recent storm was "15 times worse."
It destroyed much of the school's residential complex. Dockery confirmed that 51 students had been hospitalized immediately following the storm, and nine suffered serious injuries. Thirteen students were trapped in the rubble of destroyed dormitories, but freed after a five-hour emergency effort, according to a special blog set up to inform students, parents and staff about the situation at Union. The school's regular website was knocked offline by the storm.
No students were killed, and none of those seriously injured had sustained life-threatening injuries, according to school officials.
Seventeen buildings on the campus were damaged, Dockery said in a letter posted on the site. Roughly 40 percent of the dorms were destroyed, and another 40 percent were severely damaged. Additional damage occurred to other academic and administrative buildings, he said. Classes are canceled at least until Feb. 18.
"'Amazed' is not quite even a strong enough word," he said about the destruction. "I look around here in utter astonishment that dozens of people weren't killed."
Sarah Logan, a student at Union said on NBC's Today show that God protected her from the storm.
"When you look at the desolation and destruction on our campus and realize there were 1,200 students here and not one single fatality, you can't help but say that is a miracle and God was here protecting us," she said.
Tim Ellsworth, a spokesman for the university, told CNN that students are working with the Tennessee National Guard to salvage personal items and retrieve cars. Local churches and university staff and faculty members have offered space to house students, he said.
Several of Union's peer institutions have also offered their resources to the stricken campus.
Elsewhere in Tennessee, one of the strongest of the tornadoes destroyed Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah and the Christian school it houses. According to the Jackson Sun, rescuers had to dig a pregnant woman and her husband out of the church's rubble. The couple and their unborn child survived, the paper reported.
Two Arkansas Baptist churches received minor damage: First Baptist Church of Clinton lost its church sign and playground equipment, while two vehicles in the church parking lot were damaged. The storm also knocked three large pine trees onto the roof of Pee Dee Baptist Church in Clinton.
Pee Dee Pastor Kyle Blanton lost his home to the tornado. He and his wife, Amy, and four children were in the house during the storm but did not suffer serious injuries. A tree also fell into the home of Jim Box, director of missions for the North Central Baptist Association in Clinton.
President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have told officials in the affected states they can count on federal help with the clean-up process.
The Arkansas Baptist State Convention and several other Baptist associations have also deployed feeding and chainsaw units to seven locations that were hit strongly.
Officials from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowships disaster-response team said Feb. 7 they are still assessing how best to assist the storm victims. Charles Ray, CBF's disaster-response coordinator, said no CBF partner churches had been damaged, and it could be a week before he knows how to help in that area.
Current CBF plans are to work alongside American Baptist Association responders, who are coordinating responses from bases at affiliated churches in Atkins, Ark., Ray said. The two groups have previously worked together in disaster-relief projects.