LOUISVILLE, Mississippi (AP) — As Mississippi digs out from Monday’s tornadoes, officials are trying to manage a blessing — volunteers.
The state is encouraging people who want to help with recovery to register, so they can match skills with needs and make sure volunteers arrive at the right time.
Already in Winston County, volunteers are manning a collection point for donations inside the dirt-floored Louisville Coliseum, and the Christian group Samaritan’s Purse is helping to coordinate outside help.
Meanwhile, officials are hoping that help from the federal government will accelerate recovery. President Barack Obama declared seven counties federal disaster areas late Wednesday, which will also allow individuals and local governments to get aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for things like temporary housing and rebuilding Louisville’s hospital.
The needs of Winston County’s 19,000 residents are great, after a tornado killed at least nine people and flattened more than 300 buildings.
Robert Latham, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, believes volunteers can help. He’s encouraging those who want to help to register through the volunteermississippi.org website, to make sure people’s skills can be matched with the needs following the disaster. Without coordination, he said, volunteer contributions can be lost.
“If you don’t have a plan for those folks to register, check in and organize, then they’ll just move on,” Latham said. “When you bring volunteers in and you don’t give them something to do, they get frustrated.”
North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse has already set up a disaster response unit at the coliseum, a livestock arena on the north side of town. The group’s Tony McNeil said Samaritan’s Purse has worked out a plan to house 100 volunteers at Friendship Baptist Church in Sturgis, feeding them there and transporting them to Louisville. The group will also coordinate volunteers from the local area who just want to work for the day.
“We work with the homeowner,” McNeil said. “We’ll be helping them search through debris for personal property. We’ll tarp roofs, take debris out.”
McNeil said the group was scheduling for four weeks, but would stay “as long as we have the volunteers and the work available.”
Sean Greer, a pastor at Concord Baptist Church in Macon, Mississippi, is among those working with Samaritan’s Purse. He’s volunteered all over the South and Midwest, but this disaster is personal for him. He grew up in Louisville.
His wife was among the teachers in the Louisville school system who helped sort donated clothing and goods on Wednesday. Officials said Wednesday that people should stop bringing clothes because so many have been received already, but they need more canned goods.
“It’s diapers, it’s canned goods, it’s the biggest cans of tuna I’ve ever seen,” Greer said, surveying a coliseum half-filled with goods stacked on tarps. “We’ve had semi-trucks of water come in here.”
Louisville residents Levarski Haynes and Darius Brown dropped off food and plastic plates donated by two barber shops and a car wash. “We all put together and just decided to cook,” Haynes said. “We were fortunate that we didn’t get hit by that storm.”
The disaster was also attracting a corporate response.
NRG Energy, which owns a power plant in nearby French Camp, Mississippi, set up a relief trailer that provides charging stations for cellphones and other electrical gadgets, as well as 40 people to help with relief efforts. The company’s Scott McQueen said that although the power was mostly on in Louisville, the New Jersey-based company wanted to test out the vehicle, which is designed to provide power from solar panels. He also said it would be a good base for volunteers from other groups being staged in the parking lot.