Local News

FEMA Director Tours Stoneville

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STONEVILLE — In the aftermath of a tornado that virtually flattened the town, Stoneville has received a lot of high profile attention. Gov. Jim Hunt visited Saturday, FEMA chief James Lee Witt toured the devastation Sunday, and President Clinton has declared tornado-ravaged Rockingham County a federal disaster area.

The declaration will speed up federal funds to help people rebuild.

Two people died as a result of the storm and at least 27 were injured when a tornado ripped through Mayodan and Stoneville on Friday. The storms caused $4.3 million in damage to 49 Stoneville businesses.

``I've seen this time and time again,'' Witt said at Stoneville Elementary School, which was closed today as emergency officials use it as a home base. ``There's one thing people here need to know. They will rebuild, and they will rebuild better.''

The disaster declaration means victims can receive federal help in the form of temporary housing checks, grants of up to $10,000 to rebuild homes or low-interest loans. Unemployment payments also are available for nearly 50 people who lost their jobs because of the storm.

Federal officials also must decide whether help is needed for local governments to pay for overtime, the use of public equipment and utilities.

Witt said he would ask U.S. Department of Labor officials today about grants that would allow local governments to hire those out of work to help clean up. Grants from the National Preservation Society also could help Stoneville rebuild its historic downtown, where brick buildings dating from the turn of the century were destroyed.

``It opens up the pocketbook for us,'' Mayor Rex Tuggle said.

As Witt toured the downtown, he stopped and pointed at the clock at Rex & Julia's Antiques, which stopped at 3:35 p.m., just when the storm hit. Witt turned to Tuggle, who owns the shop, which is mostly leveled.

``Are you going to leave the clock sitting there?'' Witt asked Tuggle.

``I don't want any reminder,'' Tuggle said.

Witt visited Rockingham County a few hours after congregations at churches damaged by the storm gathered to pray, sing and ask God why.

Others have learned not to ask.

``The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,'' said the Rev. Paul Sisk of West Side Baptist Church in Mayodan, one of a few buildings in the town destroyed. ``I don't know why, but I don't even question why.''

West Side, which met in a local funeral home for Sunday morning worship, asked his congregation to pray Mayodan United Methodist Church, which also was destroyed.

The Mayodan Methodist congregation met in what was left of the church fellowship hall - a floor bordered by low walls of ragged brick. The Rev. Doug Miller stood by a pulpit and cross salvaged from the gutted sanctuary and the audience of about 200 people sat in folding chairs and stood on the mud-streaked tile floor.

Miller challenged the crowd to see the good in the loss of the two churches: the buildings were destroyed instead of homes surrounding the church.

``In a strange kind of way, I believe it was a blessing that this building was destroyed and that West Side Baptist was destroyed,'' Miller said. ``Our churches, I know, were literally sacrificed for our community.

``... These little stick homes that were built by our mills, they're still standing.''

Tom Ditt, a spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said cleanup efforts in Rockingham County were progressing well Sunday, but that Stoneville remained closed to visitors because of potential structural problems in some of the buildings.

``Things are getting better,'' Ditt said.

The Red Cross scheduled today to open a disaster assistance service center at the Madison-Mayodan Recreation Center. The Red Cross has already opened a shelter at the center. At least 20 people used a high school for a shelter Saturday night.

Duke Power Co. said that power has been restored to nearly all of the 10,000 people who lost electricity Friday.