Communities, groups rally to help tornado survivors

Posted November 16, 2008 6:39 a.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2008 1:53 p.m. EST

— Neighbors and strangers Sunday reached out to help survivors as they began to clean up and count their losses from the tornadoes that ripped through several counties a day before.

Tornadoes destroyed 13 houses and damaged 43 homes and businesses early Saturday. Johnston and Wilson counties were the hardest hit

The twisters killed Maryland Gomez, 61, of Scott Road in Kenly, and Joshua Wiggins, 11, of London Church Road in Elm City.

Volunteers helped Joshua's grandparents look through the wreckage of their home Sunday.

“I found a couple of things that I know belong to Joshua, the little boy who died. A couple of toys and some CDs and stuff that I’m sure were his. It just breaks your heart,” volunteer Carol Gaissert said.

The N.C Baptist Men's disaster recovery team and a group from a Methodist church in Virginia also helped families clean up.

In Johnston County, where two tornadoes struck within a half-hour, a church hosting a Red Cross shelter also offered emotional and spiritual support.

While a morning service went on at Freewill Baptist Church, more than 50 volunteers with the Mormon Helping Hands organization from Rocky Mount and beyond organized in the parking lot.

Volunteers helped feed 200 people before they headed out with chainsaws and gloves to help clean up. The day before, the church at 107 E. Edgerton St. sheltered those stricken by the tornadoes.

Pastor Harold Swinson said his church is well-equipped to help out; year-round. Its members prepare emergency kits to send to places where disaster strikes, such as Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, but were being put to use in the church's own community.

“This is my family, this community. These people, they're my family and when they're touched, I’m touched,” Swinson said.

The church hosted dinner for families and volunteers Sunday afternoon, with Wal-Mart and groups in Clayton groups donating the necessities.

The American Red Cross has put up the Batten family and other survivors in hotels.

"Thank God every day you're alive and your kids and family are still alive," Teresa Batten said.

“As devastated as our community is and with the loss of life, that doesn't lessen the impact of it, but we still have a lot to give thanks for,” Swinson said.

If you would like to help the tornado victims, you can send donations to:

American Red Cross
801 S. Third St.
Smithfield, N.C. 27577

Checks should include "Wilson-Johnston tornado" in the memo line to make sure the donation goes directly to the relief effort.