Church provides food, shelter in wake of devastating tornado

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comApril 30, 2014 

Pastor Steve Williamson said a recent addition to Crawford Baptist Church was built to serve members of the community, but he never envisioned it being used the way it is this week.

The church on U.S. Highway 80 in Crawford, Ala., is serving as an emergency shelter for those who lost their homes from the severe weather.

National Weather Service officials said a tornado definitely touched down Tuesday in Salem and Crawford.

"Based on their preliminary findings, they found EF2 damage near Salem," said Birmingham's NWS Office Meteorologist Matt Anderson. "Those are preliminary findings, though. They haven't determined maximum winds or the path it took."

A tornado falls under the EF2 classification if its wind speeds fall between 111 and 135 mph. It is considered a significant weather event, often damaging roofs and sometimes destroying weakly-built structures, such as mobile homes.

According to Mary Wood Littleton, the executive director of the East Alabama Chapter of the American Red Cross, the latest count shows 32 homes in Lee and Russell counties were completely destroyed. Another 29 suffered major damage, which makes them uninhabitable at this time. She said 27 suffered minor damage, in which case the damage might be significant but the home is habitable. Forty other homes were affected, meaning there was some damage.

The addition to the church will be a year old in July. It contains a gymnasium, a large kitchen and some classrooms.

"We built this place for the community, just a place to come play basketball and hold meetings," pastor Williamson said. "I guess God had other plans. It is now a place for people to sleep and eat, a place of refuge. The building is more than a blessing."

Fifty cots have been set up in the gym, but fewer than 10 people spent the night Tuesday.

Wilbert Payne, a Red Cross worker who is a shelter manager, said some people have gone to hotels.

"A lot of people in this community have family and many have gone to stay with them," Payne said. "Those who need help, we've got showers to get clean and a place to rest."

The church will be open 24 hours.

Donations were pouring in Wednesday. People brought clothes, toys, food and diapers.

Williamson said the personal hygiene products, such as toothpaste and toothbrushes, are in big demand and the church could use more of that donated.

Since the church plans to be a resource center for possibly months, it will continue to need nonperishable food items.

"We will need clothes, and we are asking people to bring something new or gently used and not something dug up from the bottom of the closet. Some of these people will have to wear these clothes for a year," Williamson said. "This is a rural area with a lot of poor. I would guess that many of these people lost everything and some don't have any insurance."

Williamson is proud of the way his church members have contributed.

Church members were making breakfast for victims and workers the morning of the storm.

Barbara Long has been working in the kitchen

"If you are hungry, we will feed you," Long said.

A big pot of vegetable soup was cooking on the stove Wednesday afternoon. Canned goods were stacked on a table. Cakes sat on a nearby counter.

"We have got plenty, but we'll still need more food donated," Long said.

Peachtree NWS officials determined an EF2 tornado also moved through Troup County Monday, snapping or uprooting hundreds of trees and damaging between four and six homes. That tornado cut a 5.5 mile-long path, with wind speeds topping 120 mph.

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