By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
WALNUT – Gene Williamson’s blue cap signified that he was the senior man on the crew, and Wednesday morning, all around him, Southern Baptist volunteers moved like bees in a hive.
“This is a joint effort, and the Red Cross has been great,” said Williamson, a Maben native, as he directed volunteers who stirred huge vats of beef stew in the parking lot of Harmony Baptist Church in Walnut.
Williamson’s crew had gathered from throughout the state and arrived Monday in north-central Tippah County, one of the many Northeast Mississippi counties humbled by Sunday’s tornadoes.
They laid out sleeping bags in New Harmony’s Sunday school classrooms and set to work alongside the Red Cross of Northeast Mississippi.
Volunteers from across the South had come to feed, to comfort and to do whatever else they could to help those affected by the weekend’s storms.
By midmorning the parking lot was humming like an Army base.
The Baptists cooked under a canopy stretched from the side of their 18-wheel mobile feeding unit, and the Red Cross prepared its fleet of 10 emergency response vehicles, or ERVs, to deliver the meals.
“We brought up five more ERVs from the Jackson-Yazoo area last night,” said Patty Tucker, who directs the Tupelo office of the Red Cross.
The April 24 deadly tornadoes in central Mississippi combined with last weekend’s storms have created a formidable one-two punch, and the Red Cross has been reeling, essentially fighting a battle on two fronts, and it badly needs to replenish its stores.
As Tucker spoke, volunteers loaded loaves of white bread and cases of bottled water into the ERVs. They stacked steaming plates of stew and rice inside insulated boxes and put them on palates, ready to be delivered.
Just as things got rolling, Neely Wood, a Vietnam veteran, rolled up in his little pickup and asked for some help with his leaking roof.
After listening for a minute, Harmony’s pastor, the Rev. Brian Tatum, sent Wood on his way with a couple of new tarps, free of charge.
“I can’t say enough good things about all the work they’re doing here,” said Wood, who headed back to the community of Three Forks, just west of Walnut, well satisfied.
As Wood drove away, Williamson said the Baptists plan to remain on site at least until Saturday.
Just before midday the ERVs fanned out through the community, driving down state Highway 15, where trees were blown over and twisted into nightmarish shapes, and every other house seemed to be missing shingles or windows.
Small, county roads were jammed with debris and utility trucks. Almon Poss, a volunteer from Augusta, Ga., moved at a snail’s pace, maneuvering his ERV down Road 126.
In the community of Brownfield, Robert Sailliez and his brother-in-law, Vinnie Riggs, sorted through the remains of their small engine repair shop.
The men were sweating through their clothing as they stepped cautiously through bricks and twisted metal with cigarettes hanging from their lips.
“This building has been here since 1949,” said Riggs. “Maybe these bricks here are worth some money. Thank goodness – you know – nobody got hurt.”
Riggs said the storm got on top of them so fast Sunday morning they didn’t have time to flee their trailer. Wednesday afternoon, just a few yards from their back porch, the path the tornado cut through the grass and trees was as clear and visible as the nearby highway.
At the “Burgers and Stuff” restaurant, just a few miles southwest of the Harmony church on U.S. Highway 72, the dining room was crowded with crews of utility workers.
They held old-fashioned cheeseburgers with dirty hands and drank gallons of sweet tea before heading back out to the work site.
As the men paid their bills and climbed back in their trucks, Doug Stanley, who works with the Tippah County EPA, said the electric power associations from several counties have converged to get things back online, and it hasn’t been easy.
“I love to see it come together like this,” he said. A few minutes later, and a little way down the road, the ERVs started returning to Harmony Baptist, ready to be loaded up with supper.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.