Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 23.
By Lonnie Wilkey
Baptist and Reflector
CHATTANOOGA — Baptist disaster relief volunteers are providing help to those affected by EF-3 tornado and severe storms that struck southeast Tennessee and particularly Hamilton, Bradley and Marion counties.
According to local news reports, at least three people were killed and several others were injured and hospitalized. Authorities estimate damage could be up $300 million dollars with over 11,000 structures damaged, including 344 totally destroyed.
DR volunteers have been in action since April 14, providing assistance across the region, including some of the hardest hit areas, such as the Brainerd and East Ridge communities of Chattanooga and Ooltewah and Cleveland.
The Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief response is headquartered at Concord Baptist Church in Chattanooga, where out of town teams are being housed, teams dispatched and fed, and assistance requests are being processed.
As of April 22, more than 1,400 volunteers had worked in Bradley County and completed over 180 projects. In Hamilton County, more than 1,000 volunteers have provided assistance and have completed approximately 250 of the 325 jobs requests.
“Both Associations, along with the local churches and their volunteers, are to be commended for all the work they have been putting into helping their friends and neighbors,” said Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
Brainard Baptist has been cooking up to 1,100 meals a day for The Salvation Army, who then distributes the meals in the community.
Social distancing guidelines have presented an added challenge for those trying to help, but the volunteers are not allowing the unusual circumstances to prevent their work.
“The volunteers have had a great attitude in working in difficult situations and have a huge heart for the suffering home owners,” said Doyle Pittman, DR director for Hamilton County. “We have had a lot of volunteers from local churches turning out to help. They all have been cooperative in complying with our COVID-19 guidelines.”
According to the National Weather Service, the tornado touched down at 11:19 pm on April 12th and stayed on the ground for about 15 minutes. Peak winds were estimated at 145 mph, which is an EF3 tornado. The estimated length was 14.5 miles.
“Even though the damage is extensive, many residents are grateful for escaping with their life in the midst of trees falling on their homes,” said Pittman. “There are very appreciative of the assistance the volunteers are giving and for providing a listening ear to their situation.”
Dennis Culbreth, director of missions for Hamilton County Baptist Association, said chain saw teams were going into communities during the afternoon of April 14. “We have not been able to get into the area because of severe damage. Roads were closed,” he reported.
“As we go in and assess, I’m sure we will find other needs,” Culbreth said.
Culbreth only knew of one Tennessee Baptist church that received damage – Ooltewah Baptist in Ooltewah, located between Chattanooga and Cleveland.
The church received extensive damage to its roof and steeple, said pastor Jeremy Colloms. In addition, the homes of the church’s associate pastor and youth pastor and a few members were damaged as well by the tornado.
Colloms said the church has come together to serve each other and the community. Members worked at homes throughout the day April 14 and the church hosted a block party at the church in the evening to feed those in the community who needed food. Women in the church also prepared food kits for those to take home. A similar event will be head in a nearby mobile home park on April 15, he added.
“Our church has come together and given like never before. It’s been amazing,” Colloms said, adding that those who could not physically serve have been praying and giving so others could.
“We are being cautious,” he added, “but we have hungry people whose homes have been demolished. That comes to the forefront.”
Morris Hill Baptist Church is located in one of the hardest hit areas of Chattanooga, said co-pastor Bill Mason. The church was without power on April 14 but was not damaged, he reported. Morris noted that his home had the roof blown off the top floor but he and his family were not harmed. His home also received major water damage, forcing the family to move temporarily to a hotel.
Mason noted that more than 20 families in his church had damage to their homes and property. The church also had teams out in the community, along with many other churches from the association.
“I’m proud of the churches in our association,” Culbreth said. “All are pitching in as needed.” He noted Silverdale Baptist is serving as a hub for first responders.
In addition, Concord Baptist Church in Chattanooga will house Tennessee Baptist DR teams, according to Jones.
In nearby Bradley County, director of missions Phil Taylor of CrossNet Baptist Association reported 400 volunteers were working April 14 in communities hardest hit by the tornado.
Taylor said the county’s Emergency Management Agency has been complimentary of the association’s DR response in the past and has called on them again for assistance. “We are grateful for our partnering churches that are providing food and boots on ground,” he said,
Taylor said the teams are complying with COVID-19 guidelines as best as possible under the circumstances. “They are being cautious and are using good common sense, but their goal is to be the hands and feet of Jesus as they meet the needs of their neighbors,” he noted.
Jones said all volunteers are encouraged to wear masks and observe distancing guidelines as much as possible. He added that anyone who has had a fever within the past seven days should not volunteer.
For information on how to volunteer in Hamilton County, contact incident commander Doyle Pittman at 615-306-8989.
In Bradley County, call CrossNet Baptist Association at 423-476-5493.