April 30, 2014 10:51:47 AM
A couple of miles down Lee-Stokes Road, where Pleasant Hill Baptist Church sits on a hill above a cluster of modest brick homes where Lacy Road runs into Pleasant Hill Road, church pastor Bill Hurt wearily tended his flock, scattered but unharmed after a pair of Monday tornadoes plowed through East Columbus.
"The flock is safe, the shepherd is ... tired," Hurt said Tuesday afternoon, as he slumped wearily into the seat of an ATV parked in the debris-riddled yard of the church's minister of music. It was 2 in the afternoon, and Hurt had been helped the folks in the little neighborhood -- most of whom are his congregants -- clean up.
He was hardly a gang of one, though. Men, women and children of all ages swarmed around the handful of houses that had received the most damage. A crew dispatched by the Mississippi Baptist Convention Disaster Relief team, operating from a mobile trailer near the road in front of the church, passed out equipment. The crew came at Hurt's request. Otherwise, it was neighbor helping neighbor.
The good thing about life in a rural area such as this is that almost everybody has the kind of stuff you need in this situations -- chainsaws, ATVs, generators.
But not everybody has a massive excavator, which is what made Jerry Nickoles, who lives nearby, a most prominent person among the little swarm of do-gooders.
Nickoles, who owns Jerry Nickoles Dirt Construction, was giving directions on the ground as one of his employers operated the enormous machinery. By 1:30 p.m., the excavator was making quick work of a massive oak that had fallen in the storm, snapping off a large pine tree before descending with a sickening crash onto the southwest corner of Lonny Nickoles' house.
The two Nickoles are distantly related, if related at all. Disasters seem to make close relations of even strangers, though, and Lonny Nickoles watched appreciatively as the excavator pulled the oak's car-sized root-ball from the earth, dumped it on the pile of debris near the road, then pushed the rich brown earth over the cavernous hole and smoothed it over with the tracks of the excavator.
"Man," Lonny said, smiling. "When I got here this morning, I was thinking, 'how in the world am I gonna fix this?' I got my chainsaw, climbed up on the roof and started cutting the smaller limbs on the house. Then, people started showing up.
"James Blair..." Nickoles said, choking up and pausing for a couple of seconds as he fought to keep his composure. "James Blair, he was the first to come. We are old friends, used to work together. He was the first one to show up. It was just me and him, then....Well, just look."
A handful of people, some he didn't know, were busy turning the debris from the big oak and pine tree into firewood.
"It's something, huh?" Nickoles said.
Next door, Sybil Prather was trying to hold down a blue tarp as her husband and other family members tried to secure it a portion of the house missing a roof, some of which dangled high above them in the limbs of a big oak that marks the boundary between her house on Lonny Nickoles' house.
The damage was not done by a falling tree, however.
"The wind just came and picked up it," Prather said. "We were all in the bathroom, six of us, when it hit. After a little while, my son peeked out and said, 'mom, the roof is gone.'"
The storm jerked out the utility box from the home's exterior. It also swept an old storage building behind the house onto Nickoles' property, replacing it with Nickoles' trampoline.
"I'm not sure who got the best of the deal," Prather said. "We were going to replace the building anyway, my son said, but I said, 'yeah, but this isn't what we had in mind."'
By 2 o'clock, the excavator had left Nickoles' house and moved across the street to the minister of music's house, where another large oak had smashed the roof on the back half of the house and punched through a big bay window.
The family, along with Pastor Hurt and several other volunteers, had been cutting limbs and dragging debris to a big pile near the road for hours. The excavator would do in an hour what all those folks could not do in a week.
Normally, Jerry Nickoles charges $125 per hour for this kind of work.
He wasn't making any money Tuesday, though.
"I'm a deacon at the church. I go to church with most of these people and know pretty much everybody else," Jerry Nickoles said. "This is what you do. I'm happy I can help."
The scene in this little corner of east Columbus is both remarkable and typical -- remarkable in the sense that a small army of people simply turned out to help each other, typical in the sense that this scene played out everywhere along the tornado's path.
The tornado hit early in the evening Monday, but neither Lonny Nickoles or Sybil Prather said they got much sleep Monday night. It may have been a moment's terror, but it was a long, sleepless night of worrying how they would manage to recover.
"You almost feel like giving up," Lonny Nickoles said.
"You feel helpless," Prather admitted.
By Tuesday morning, though, the helplessness have given way to a determination and there is something empowering about it. Little by little, tree limb by tree limb, Tuesday was a day of recovery. Monday's despair was losing the fight against Tuesday's grim resolve.
"The storm was overwhelming," Pastor Hurt said, watching a couple of little giggling girls tugging at a tree limb, dragging into the growing pile of debris. "The response is more overwhelming."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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