‘We want to give people hope’: Americans aid tornado victims

Severe Weather
Bill Lee

FILE – Gov. Bill Lee, right, greets Patrina and James Roy Pope as they give away food to people after a tornado caused heavy damage in Dresden, Tenn., Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Americans across the country are pitching in to help after last week’s tornadoes ravaged the South and Midwest, killing at least 90 people and displacing hundreds. Some are removing broken tree limbs from the ground, and others are preparing hot meals and shelters for those who have nowhere to turn. (George Walker IV/The Tennessean via AP, File)

Some remove broken tree limbs from the ground. Others prepare hot meals and shelters for those who have nowhere to turn. And many are collecting cash, toothpaste, soap, and other items for the countless who need them.

Americans across the country are pitching in to help after last week’s tornadoes ravaged the South and Midwest, killing at least 90 people and displacing hundreds.

More than $9 million has been raised for a state fund set up in Kentucky, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s office said, with the first expenditures expected to go towards funeral and burial costs for families who lost loved ones. A telethon hosted by University of Kentucky Athletics brought in another $3 million for The American Red Cross. And volunteers, backed by national and local aid groups, are lending a hand in the hardest-hit areas.

Glenn Hickey, 67, is one of them. Hours after the tornado, the retired funeral director received a call from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team in Kentucky asking him to help with recovery efforts in Mayfield, which saw some of the worst damage.

Hickey, a regular volunteer with Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief, has gotten used to these calls and stays “packed up.” So he kicked into high gear on Saturday and helped gather more volunteers. The next day, he drove four hours from his home in Monticello, Kentucky to Mayfield, where he and other volunteers have been removing tree branches from roads and driveways, and patching roofs that were damaged by the tornado.

More than 100 of them take time to rest and eat at the First Baptist Church in Murray, about 25 miles away from Mayfield. Barbecue, beans, pies and other meals are prepared for them at the church, and for first responders and storm victims in Mayfield, where there is currently no water or power.

“I have seen devastation as bad from tornadoes, but I have never seen such widespread damage,” said Karen Smith, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief’s feeding coordinator for Kentucky, who volunteers to organize and cook meals.

“It’s kinda overwhelming because it’s from one end of the state to the other,” she said. “With that kind of damage, sometimes you just don’t know where to start.”

President Joe Biden said on Wednesday the federal government would pay for the first 30 days of tornado recovery in Kentucky, the worst-hit state by far in a swarm of twisters that devastated entire communities. Beshear has said more than 100 people remain unaccounted for. Deaths were also reported in Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

Smith, 68, says she continues to do this work to help in whatever way she can. She is still recovering from COVID-19 herself, after contracting it in October of 2020. But she says she doesn’t feel its ill effects when she’s helping others.

“We want to give people hope,” she said. “You look at all of that, and it feels hopeless. I think If they have hope, then they can begin to heal.”

More Southern Baptist volunteers are slated to arrive in Kentucky this week. The American Red Cross, churches and other charities have also mobilized to set up shelters, and distribute meals, water and snacks in the affected areas. But some are choosing to help on their own.

Jim Finch, of Clarksville, Tennessee, went viral on social media this week after he hauled his meat smoker to Mayfield to cook for residents. Elsewhere, Abbigayle Rawls, a medical student at the University of Kentucky’s campus in hard-hit Bowling Green, has collected more than $130,000 through a GoFundMe fundraiser.

Not long after the emergency alerts blared on her phone and she emerged from taking shelter, Rawls says she and her fellow students realized the urgent need for help for people in the affected towns. Rawls herself was spared, but she said her grandmother was staying with her because her home across town lost power.

“Things on the ground are pretty bad, and we’re going to need some help and it’s going to take a while to rebuild,” she recalled saying to colleagues. Someone in her class suggested they find a way to help, which led them to launch the fundraiser.

Experts say Americans should practice caution when donating through crowdfunding sites since private fundraising organizers aren’t required to disclose how they spend the money.

Donations for Rawls’ appeal have come in as far away as the United Kingdom and Canada. The effort is entirely student run, but the university administration signed off on the medical students using the college’s name in the post.

“It’s been incredible to just watch the entire world come together and just help out,” Rawls said.

Requests for supplies are coming into her inbox about two to three times an hour, she estimated, and supplies have already gone out to people. Rawls’ peers, for example, cleared as much wound care and bandages from a store’s shelves as they could when a request for those items came in from Dawson Springs, Kentucky, another devastated town. Someone drove the supplies out to people who needed them, she said.

As for the bulk of the money, Rawls said she and her peers are putting a group together to determine how to best use it to help people in the long run.

In Missouri, Randi McCallian, 35, is collecting essential items, such as wipes, trash bags, soap, and pet food she can deliver to Hayti, a city that saw some damage about 200 miles away from her home in Newburg. The stay-at-home mom, who moved to Missouri with political aspirations after a failed bid for the Colorado State Senate last year, said four people have given her $190 to get more stuff.

Kevin Cotton, the mayor of Madisonville, Kentucky, said that while donated supplies are great, it’s overwhelming to a small area to find a place to temporarily store them. Most of his town went unscathed by the tornado, but nearby Dawson Springs was hit hard, so he pitched in to help.

“What we need the most right now is a lot of prayer for this community,” Cotton said. “We have a lot of volunteers. We have a lot of supplies that are coming in. We have donations from all over the country. The big thing that we need is for people to be patient with us.”

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Associated Press writers John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey and Glenn Gamboa in New York contributed to this report.

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