Donations and volunteers swarm devastated community in Laurel

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 5, 2012 

EAST BERNSTADT — Norm Brock, pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, has a sign over his office door:

"The soul is awakened through service."

A lot of souls have been awakened in Laurel County since a deadly tornado roared through the area Friday night.

Local authorities and storm victims said they have been overwhelmed by the avalanche of donations from individuals, churches and businesses, and by the hundreds of people who pitched in to serve food, staff relief stations, deliver aid and clear the debris from splintered homes and trees, or who provided a shoulder for stunned victims to lean on.

"This disaster has brought out the best that Laurel County has to offer, and that's neighbors helping neighbors," said Deputy Gilbert Acciardo Jr., spokesman for the Laurel County Sheriff's Office.

The tornado touched down just after 7 p.m. Friday and ground out a path of destruction more than six miles long, killing five people, sending more than 40 others to the hospital and destroying or damaging more than 100 homes.

The five people who died were Sherman Dewayne Allen and his wife, Debbie Allen, who were both 49; Wilburn Pitman, 81, and his wife, Virginia, 73; and Ethel Pruitt, 64, Laurel County Coroner Doug Bowling said.

At least two other victims remained hospitalized: Eric Allen, son of the Allens, was in fair condition and Mary Pruitt, Ethel Pruitt's daughter, remained in critical condition.

Donations quickly poured in to churches, fire stations and other locations.

Within hours Saturday, the multi-purpose building at First Baptist in East Bernstadt was swamped with clothing, food, hygiene products and other goods.

Donations continued to come Monday. The church distributed items to needy people, serving food, and took donated items to other places.

The family-life center looked something like a retail store that included a restaurant, but it had no price tags.

"People have just showed up with their trunks full," Brock said. "It's remarkable how people have cared through this."

Mequeil Storm helped with deliveries from the church over the weekend and on Monday. In addition to food, there was a need for gloves to use during cleanup, totes to store belongings salvaged from wrecked homes, and tarps to cover damaged roofs, she said.

Storm said the disaster had deeply affected people. In this small town, many people know someone who was killed or hurt by the tornado, or who lost their home.

The grandmother of her son's best friend was one of those killed, Storm said.

"To me, this is like my 9-11," Storm said.

Johnny Napier, a deacon at Philpot Chapel United Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, said people had come from several other counties to donate goods.

By midday Monday, volunteers from the church had made four trips to the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department to pick up more goods.

The hallway at the church was piled with clothes. Bottled water was stacked in the women's bathroom.

"They're just coming from everywhere," Napier said of people making donations.

Ruby Desurne, a church member who delivered food and other aid to victims, volunteers and workers in the storm-damaged area, said she and many others were moved to help out of compassion for the victims.

"They've lost everything they've got and you just want to do something for them," she said. "You want to ease their pain. You can see in their faces, they're heartbroken."

Kacie Allen, whose family's mobile home was damaged so badly in the storm that it will have to be torn down, said there had been a constant stream of people bringing food, gloves and other items.

Standing in the cold outside her home Monday, Allen was wearing a donated coat.

Volunteers helped load the furniture that Allen and her husband, Shane, could salvage. They helped clear trees and debris. They covered the roof on her grandparents' home across the road to protect their belongings from rain.

"Just complete strangers coming to help," Allen said. "It means a lot."

Lisa Hayes, a teacher from Jackson County, came Monday with another school employee and five high school students to help. They brought peanut-butter sandwiches and 80 bags of trail mix, then they pitched in to move debris at the Allens' home.

As to why, she said, "They need people to help."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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