Tornado Response:

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Virginia Conference volunteers aid victims of Feb. 24 tornadoes


Map shows track of Feb. 24 storms across Virginia with four circles designating areas where tornadoes struck communities causing damage.

March 3, 2016 - On Wednesday, Feb. 24, a deadly storm system spawned multiple tornadoes that swept from southern Virginia across the state and into the Northern Neck.

The Rev. Bob Pihlcrantz, Virginia Conference Disaster Response coordinator, reported that the tornadoes caused loss of life, personal injuries and severe property damage in communities in three districts of the conference.

Farmville District:

In Appomattox, more than 50 structures were destroyed and more than 100 were damaged. Evergreen UMC sustained significant damage to its roof, and teams were called in immediately to install tarps and strengthen the structure to prevent further damage.

The Rev. Bob Parks, Farmville District superintendent, reported that one of Evergreen's faithful members, Keith Harris, died in the tornado. “Unfortunately, his wife was traveling back home on 460 when her car was struck by a tree,” Parks said. “She was taken to the hospital.”

Evergreen UMC in Appomattox sustained damage to its roof.

Parks reported that eight to 10 people were transported to either Central Lynchburg General Hospital or Central Southside Hospital in Farmville.

James River District:

In Waverly, two houses and a mobile home were completely destroyed. Three people – two men and a two-year-old child – were killed.

Fredericksburg District:

In Tappahannock, at least 50 structures were damaged.

Virginia Conference responds

Within hours after the storms struck, Virginia Conference Early Response Teams (ERT) were called into action under the direction of Pihlcrantz and the Rev. Kirk Culpepper, Virginia Conference ERT coordinator.

Responding to a request from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Early Response Teams from St. Luke’s UMC on the York River District and Nimmo UMC on the Elizabeth River District were deployed to the Tappahannock area. Early Response Teams from the Lynchburg, Roanoke and Farmville Districts were deployed to the Evergreen area. Debris removal in Waverly was coordinated by local congregations in that community, and Waverly UMC hosted a community prayer service the day following the tornadoes.

Bishop Young Jin Cho and Farmville District Superintendent Bob Parks visit with members of the Evergreen UMC congregation as they work to clean up damage caused by a tornado.

“The Conference Disaster Response Team is working hard in support of the districts affected and is working closely with the district superintendents and district disaster coordinators,” Pihlcrantz said.

On Friday following the storms, Parks and Bishop Young Jin Cho visited Evergreen UMC to meet with the Rev. Herndon Jeffreys, pastor, and members of the congregation.

Prayers, funds requested

Bishop Cho also sent a letter to clergy and laity in the Virginia Conference asking for prayers for victims and for responders. And he asked for donations to the Virginia Conference Disaster Response fund.

Funds are needed to help coordinate preparation, response and recovery in the conference during times of disaster – including providing personnel needed, equipment required and Christian witness that is desired in such situations.

Pihlcrantz noted that the conference shower trailer roof needs to be replaced and all the batteries for power tools on the conference disaster trailer are dead and need to be replaced.

To contribute to Virginia Conference disaster response and recovery efforts, you can make a gift through your local church. Or, make your check payable to “Virginia United Methodist Conference” and send it to the Virginia Conference Treasurer, P.O. Box 5605, Glen Allen, VA 23058. Designate “Conference Advance #5037 – Disaster Response” on your check or apportionment statement. Or CLICK HERE to donate online using a credit card.

Long-term recovery begins

Bishop Young Jin Cho; the Rev. Herndon Jeffreys, pastor of Evergreen UMC; the Rev. Bob Parks, Farmville District superintendent; and the Rev. Bob Pihlcrantz, Virginia Conference Disaster Response coordinator, stand in front of three crosses that remained standing across from Evergreen UMC even after tornadoes ripped down everything around them.

Most ERT volunteers completed their tasks within a week after the storms, Pihlcrantz said. Communities in Appomattox (Farmville District) and Rappahannock and Tappahannock in Essex County (Fredericksburg District) are ending the relief phase of disaster response and getting ready to start transition to long-term recovery.

So Pihlcrantz said his focus is now on establishing a list of potential United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) teams that can begin long-term recovery work in late April or during May.

“In the weeks and months to come, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission teams will be offered opportunities to assist in recovery efforts,” Pihlcrantz said. “We’re going to be doing long-term recovery stuff. It won’t happen right away.”

But he added that a lot of work will need to be done between now and the end of April. “Just because we are not deploying teams right now,” he said, “doesn’t mean we aren’t working. We are getting ready for the long haul. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon and based upon current information, it is probably a two- to three-year recovery process.”

First begins the process of requesting a FEMA Disaster Declaration which, in turn, allows for funding assistance to go to states and survivors following a disaster, Pihlcrantz said. The process takes some time to complete. Approval of the declaration request really signals the start of long-term recovery because of funding availability. Other avenues of financial assistance to homeowners can come from Small Business Administration loans, the Virginia Governors Fund and United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) grant monies.

In Tappahannock, homeowners survived after being buried in this debris when a tornado destroyed their house.

“There is a sifting process that determines whether or not a client can have their homes rebuilt or worked on by voluntary agencies,” Pihlcrantz said. “First, insurance is key. If the homeowner is insured we will not work on the home. If the homeowner is not insured or is under-insured then that opens the door for further sifting. Second, it must be a primary residence. We do not rebuild vacation homes, second homes or rental properties. This also starts the process called Case Management and the forming of a Long-Term Recovery Committee within the affected community. I say that these are steps, but in reality this is all happening at once.”

Funds, prayers needed now

The decision to move into long-term recovery drives other issues, Pihlcrantz said. “First, the conference disaster plan calls for hiring a Long-Term Recovery Manager, Construction Manager and a Case Manager." he said. "Funding for these positions would be made by applying for an initial grant from UMCOR for $100,000 as soon as possible. In addition, we must start the grant process for asking UMCOR for grant monies for rebuild projects.”

But Pihlcrantz emphasized the importance of raising funds within the conference to help with immediate needs. “It’s donations we receive from churches in the Virginia Conference that will get the recovery projects started,” he said.

Pihlcrantz noted that the Virginia Conference has not experienced a disaster of this magnitude requiring long-term recovery since Hurricane Floyd devastated Franklin in 1999.

“I will be asking for training assistance from UMCOR,” Pihlcrantz said, “and for the North Carolina Conference Disaster Response Team to come to Virginia to assist us in setting up our recovery operation. This is a great example of our connection at work.”

“Please also continue to pray, pray and then pray again,” Pihlcrantz said. “Your conference team and all the ERTs are volunteers. There has been and will continue to be extreme self-sacrifice in order to help our communities heal from these tragic events. We are in mission and ministry, the hands and feet of Christ.”



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Background photos courtesy of VDOT.

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