‘We have seen the good side of people,’ says DOM Phil Mitchell
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
DRESDEN — Friday, Dec. 10, is a day that most residents of Dresden and Weakley County are not likely to forget. A tornado, one of about 14 that occurred throughout other parts of northwest and middle Tennessee and Kentucky that night, swept through the county causing massive damage and destruction.
Phil Mitchell, director of missions for Weakley County Baptist Association, went to his office early on Saturday morning not knowing what to expect. The tornado was not predicted to hit Dresden, he recalled, but it veered and went through the city. Though buildings were destroyed within view of the association’s office, the association’s facilities were spared, Mitchell said.
Later that morning, the association had disaster relief and other volunteers working all day Saturday and Sunday to clear roads so people could get to those who had lost their homes and businesses, Mitchell continued. “We have been working ever since.”
Since the tornado, Mitchell estimated there have been hundreds of volunteers, including Tennessee Baptist and Southern Baptist teams, and volunteers from all walks of life and faiths and beliefs. In addition, money began to pour into the Weakley County association to aid those families who had lost everything they owned, Mitchell said, noting that the association set up a special account for that effort in order to help residents with both immediate and long-term needs.
Stories of people offering help have been overwhelming, Mitchell said. He told of a pastor from Missouri who drove six hours with an RV loaded with supplies. He gave the RV to the association along with a check for $2,500 that his church had collected. Later, that pastor’s son and some friends drove the six hours to help with cleanup efforts and slept in their truck.
“We have seen the good side of people,” Mitchell affirmed.
Wilsons coordinate relief efforts
Tommy and Karen Wilson, members of First Baptist Church, Dresden, have been long-time Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief trained volunteers. At the time of the tornado they were actually working alongside John and Kaye Thomas in Waverly to learn how to operate and run an incident command post which involves coordinating volunteer teams and assessing and assigning jobs.
“It shows God’s Provision that we were training with John and Kaye,” Karen Wilson said.
“God knew what was going to happen and that we needed to know how to help people get through it. He put us in the right place at the right time,” she affirmed.
Her husband agreed. “Karen and I have been planning to do this.” Though he’s not at that point yet, “there will be a day when I can no longer physically do the hands-on work,” he said.
Getting the assessments and assigning tasks “is an important need,” Wilson affirmed. “I am glad we could do it. It has been a blessing for me and Karen.”
The role evolved quickly for the Wilsons. Not only were they coordinating Baptist volunteers, they soon were coordinating and assigning jobs for all volunteers at the request of city and county leaders. “That took a load off the city and county so they could manage other recovery efforts,” she said.
Karen noted that within the first four weeks after the tornado, volunteers logged 4,000 hours. “We had 150 and 200 volunteers a day who went through First Baptist Church, Dresden, which fed the volunteers each day,” she said.
As of Jan. 25, the Wilsons had 252 work orders for tasks such as cutting trees, tarping roofs and removing debris from homes and yards. “Everybody came together to make it work,” she added.
Karen said that there is still a lot of cleanup work to complete because some homeowners are waiting to hear from FEMA or their insurance companies before they begin clearing out debris.
Mitchell expressed his appreciation for the Wilsons. “We could not have done what we have done without Tommy and Karen,” he stressed.
Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, also expressed his appreciation for the Wilsons, who were learning how to be incident command leaders, but took on the challenge immediately when needed in their local community. “They have done an excellent job,” he said.
City, county leaders appreciative
The Wilsons are appreciative of the confidence and support they have received from city and county leaders. It probably does not hurt that the city and county mayors are both Baptist and knew the Wilsons personally.
“Baptists were among the first on the scene (after the tornado) and have been with us ever since,” said Dresden Mayor Jeff Washburn, a member of Bible Union Missionary Baptist Church in Martin.
“They have done a fabulous job of helping to clean up the city and assist the residents of our city and town affected by the tornado,” said Washburn, who also serves as Bible Union’s worship/music minister.
Dresden was devastated by the tornado, the mayor noted. The city hall and fire department were both destroyed and hundreds of homes and businesses on the south side of the city square received extensive damage or were demolished, he said. The estimated damage is in the millions of dollars, the mayor added. The Methodist and Presbyterian churches, both located on the square, were demolished.
Washburn has lived in the community for 50 years and has seen other tornadoes in the area. “This is the worst disaster I have ever seen,” he affirmed.
County Mayor Jake Bynum said he was not surprised by the response of Baptists to the disaster. He is a deacon at First Baptist Church, Dresden, and a trustee at Union University in Jackson. He knows of the work and reputation of Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief. “It was not a question of if they would help, it was more of how much we could be involved with them,” he said.
Bynum was appreciative of the help given by the association and the Wilsons. “Knowing you have those resources in your community is valuable,” he said. “We had not taken advantage of those resources until we were in the middle of it,” Bynum added.
Physical and spiritual needs
Karen Wilson said cleanup efforts will continue probably through the end of February as residents continue to come in to request help. Neither Mitchell or the Wilsons are sure of how much the association will be able to assist in rebuilding efforts, but they will be available as needed, Mitchell affirmed.
“We will be involved until the last home is rebuilt,” he pledged. In addition to meeting the physical needs of the tornado victims, volunteers have been able to share Jesus when they could, Wilson said.
Through Jan. 25, there have been nine professions of faith, eight rededications and several people have returned to church, she shared. “That’s what it is all about.”
Tennessee Baptists interested in being involved in relief efforts in Dresden can call Karen Wilson at 731-514-0741 or Tommy Wilson at 731-415-6934.
Individuals interested in making a donation can contact the Weakley County Baptist Association at 731-364-3739 or visit tndisasterrelief.org and click the Give Now button. B&R