BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - The call for help came the morning after a killer tornado pulverized a section of Birmingham 10 days ago. Gordon Smelley and his “chainsaw gang” of 11 from the First Baptist Church in Clanton, Alabama started their trailer and headed out.
“I don’t have a lot of money to give, but I can give a few hours work to help people the best way I can,” said Smelley, 72, a retired electrician for the Alabama Power Company.
Calls like the one to Smelley were repeated across the ravaged Deep South of the United States, dubbed the “Bible Belt” for its strong religious tradition. Churches led the cleanup and comfort after dozens of tornadoes left more than 300 people dead and some communities little more than piles of rubble.
These are not naive, disorganized do-gooders. They are professional volunteers with first class equipment and meticulous training.
Smelley’s crew maintains a trailer filled with chainsaws, safety glasses, chaps, gloves, extra chains and chainsaw repair tools. It is parked at a church member’s home for fast access. Similar trailers dot the parking lots of churches from nearly every religious denomination in Alabama.
Some trailers open out into “feeding units,” such as one maintained by the Baptist denomination that is a 53-foot semi-truck and can issue 25,000 meals a day.
Other units include a shower and laundry truck, emergency child-care trucks, supply trucks, and tool trucks like the chainsaw trailers, according to Keith Hinson, spokesperson for Baptist Disaster Relief. Several warehouses store the trailers packed with supplies and equipment.
“Katrina was the catalyst for us to become more prepared for emergencies,” Danette Clifton, spokeswoman for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, said of the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans and other parts of the South.
Religion is more deeply rooted in the American South than any other region of the country. The two states hardest hit by the recent tornadoes, Mississippi and Alabama, ranked No. 1 and 2 among the states in the importance of religion to residents, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research center.
Some 82 percent of people in Mississippi said religion was very important to their lives and 74 percent in Alabama.
While the South is known for white Evangelical Christians such as the Baptists, it also has a diverse range of churches from mainstream Protestants and black Protestant churches to a growing number of Catholics and even non-Christian religions.
Volunteers such as Smelley train extensively for their roles in emergencies. He spent several days in classes at the Alabama Baptist Board of Missions State Conference.
Training courses include victim sensitivity, safety, first aid, food preparation, chainsaw operation and “mud out” for flooded homes. He was certified and issued an official badge enabling him to enter disaster areas. More than 2.500 volunteers have completed the training, according to Hinson.
Many of these church-sponsored trailers dotted dozens of sites in the affected areas. In Phil Campbell, a community badly hit by a twister, chickens from a damaged poultry farm were roasted on the grill, feeding victims and the 800 volunteers who came last Saturday to help with the cleanup.
Dozens of churches in the affected areas morphed into emergency rooms, shelters, command centers, child-care facilities, and donation sites for receiving and giving.
On Sunday, religious leaders are planning what they call a “Super Sunday,” when preachers will ask from the pulpit for a massive outpouring of volunteers across the state.
“People were mighty gracious and glad to see us,” said Smelley, who worked 12 hour days last weekend in Pratt City near Birmingham.
At the tiny town of Phil Campbell, the Spanish Seventh Day Adventist Church showed up with 35 people — every teenager and adult member of the congregation — with chain saws, gloves and willing hearts.
“This is what Jesus taught us to do,” said a volunteer for the Spanish church, Carlos Baltazar.
Editing by Greg McCune