‘The number of deaths has touched people deeply’: Disaster relief efforts wrapping up in Lee County as community turns to long-term recovery

‘The number of deaths has touched people deeply’: Disaster relief efforts wrapping up in Lee County as community turns to long-term recovery

By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist

As volunteers and donations poured into Lee County following a deadly tornado outbreak on March 3, Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief (ABDR) teams joined volunteers from several agencies in the cleanup and recovery effort.

“I’ve seen a tremendous number of volunteers out here helping from the community and from far away,” said Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief strategist Mark Wakefield. “That’s not uncommon after a storm, but the number of deaths has touched people deeply, and they’ve rallied from many places to help.”

Wakefield said the destruction in the Beauregard community of Lee County is “as bad as anything I’ve ever seen.” Preliminary data from the National Weather Service (NWS) indicates six tornadoes struck on March 3: the EF-4 tornado that hit Beauregard/Smiths Station with winds up to 170 mph; an EF-2 tornado in Macon/Lee counties with winds up to 115 mph; two EF-2 tornado touchdowns in Barbour County; and EF-0 tornadoes that touched down briefly in Autauga and Bullock counties.

Twenty-three people were killed in Beauregard, and 91 were injured, the NWS reported. Alabama Power reported on March that crews had restored power to all homes that could receive it, but an official estimated that at least 116 homes were destroyed or so severely damaged that crews cannot restore power until they are repaired or replaced.

Disaster relief teams from the local area worked throughout the week, Wakefield said. Chainsaw units cleared trees and tarped roofs in Lee and Barbour counties, and volunteers assisted March 4-5 with feeding units set up by the Salvation Army. Chaplains were embedded with various teams and at the family reunification center and temporary morgue. And when local emergency management officials realized the great need for laundry services, ABDR set up laundry units and got to work washing clothes.

“This community is like most in Alabama,” Wakefield said. “Everyone has rallied to help each other.”
Wakefield praised the efforts of Providence Baptist Church, where ABDR set up headquarters for the week.

“[Providence’s pastor] Brother Rusty Sowell and that church have done a phenomenal job of supporting the community through the receiving and giving of donations, providing meals and getting other recovery agents in,” Wakefield said.

Due to the multiple-agency disaster response in the area, a statewide callout of disaster relief teams was not necessary, but Wakefield said he was grateful for the willingness of volunteers throughout the state to come to the area.

He also noted that some associational teams were being asked to aid Colbert Lauderdale Baptist Association in mudout and flood recovery work following heavy rains throughout North Alabama that led to flooding in neighborhoods in Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals.

As the immediate disaster relief response in Lee County winds down, Tuskegee-Lee Baptist Association director of missions Bill King said the next phase is uncertain.

“Honestly, we’ve not been able to think that far down the road,” he said.

King said donations to the association have allowed them to help displaced families, including the family of A.J. Hernandez, the youngest victim of the tornado. Donated gift cards have been handed out to families at the relief center at Providence Baptist Church and by chaplains as they go out into the neighborhoods with chainsaw teams.

Gift cards are especially helpful in disaster relief situations because they allow families to buy for their specific needs. Gift cards for Lee County disaster relief may be sent Tuskegee-Lee Baptist Association, 2110 Gateway Drive, Opelika, Alabama 36801.

Donations for disaster relief efforts in Lee and Barbour counties, as well as work in Colbert and Lauderdale counties and other disaster-affected areas, may be sent to the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, Attn: Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief, P.O. Box 681970, Prattville, Alabama 36068-1970. Online donations may be made at https://sbdr.org/donate/. 100 percent of gifts through Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief go directly to disaster relief efforts.

In addition, Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief has several upcoming training opportunities for volunteers wishing to become credentialed.

Training for those interested in administrative, communications or childcare work will be held March 9. Training for those interested in chaplaincy, mass feeding, chainsaw and mudout work will be held April 4-6. Shower and laundry unit training will be held April 13. All trainings will be held at the Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief Center, 118 Jesse Samuel Hunt Blvd., Prattville.

For more information or to register, go to www.sbdr.org.