(RNS) — Faith-based disaster relief teams are already working in several of the areas hardest hit by devastating tornadoes that tore through six states Friday (Dec. 10).
On Monday, 74 people were confirmed dead across eight counties in Kentucky, and another 13 died in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois. Dozens more are unaccounted for. President Biden is expected to travel to Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the damage.
The tornadoes hit mostly Southern states where Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams are well trained to respond.
Sam Porter, national director for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, said teams have begun working in seven locations, with headquarters in Trumann, Arkansas. Some of the teams will be setting up mobile kitchens to provide hot meals to people whose homes were destroyed or whose power is out.
But all the teams will be expected to work on clearing trees and debris away from homes. These volunteers are experts with chainsaws and can also bring in heavy construction equipment. They have years of experience assisting in all kinds of natural disasters, including ice storms, hurricanes and floods.
“We’re trying to spread out as far and wide as we can,” Porter said.
Samaritan’s Purse, the humanitarian relief organization based in Boone, North Carolina, is setting up three bases in Arkansas and Kentucky, with teams that will clear debris, lay tarps on salvageable homes and search through debris, said Kaitlyn Lahm, a spokesperson.
Lahm said there was already a team in Mayfield, Kentucky, where dozens died at a candle factory.
In addition, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has sent chaplains alongside the disaster response teams to provide emotional and spiritual support to families who have lost homes and family members. Both Samaritan’s Purse and the BGEA are headed by evangelist Franklin Graham.
Many other faith-based groups are responding, including Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries who brought winter clothing, blankets, food and bottled water to hard-hit areas in western Kentucky.
Many of the disaster relief teams are using churches and their parking lots as their bases. (Churches have not escaped the devastation; some were destroyed and others badly damaged.)
Porter said he expected teams of volunteers to be on the ground for weeks to come, including on Christmas Day.
He added that much of the work may involve sorting through debris with homeowners and helping them decide what to keep and pack and what to toss.
“When you’ve gone through a traumatic event like that, it really trips you up,” said Porter. “When we go in, we’re the hands and feet of the Lord. They just can’t do it themselves.”