Messenger Staff Reporter
Practically overnight, Jim Cook of Bolivar went from manning a chainsaw in Union City to feeding hungry linemen in Bardwell, Ky.
In his line of work, flexibility is an asset. As a veteran member of Hardeman County Crisis Team, he does a variety of chores.
The crisis team, an all-volunteer group that assists hard-hit areas recover from natural and man-made disasters, is part of an outreach project sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention.
Cook said in his 20 years of service with the team, he’s been “just about everywhere” and encountered some painful lives and landscapes.
“We were at New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast (2005) and New York City after the Twin Towers were hit (2001),” he said.
The occasion that brought Cook and the Hardeman County crew to northwest Tennessee was an ice storm that hit on Jan. 26, leaving a wide path of icy destruction from the Missouri boothill to eastern Kentucky and from southern Illinois to northwest Tennessee. Hundreds of thousands of power outages were reported as ice accumulations brought down power poles and lines on a massive scale, requiring an army of utility linemen to repair.
In response to local needs during the recovery phase, some communities such as Union City and Bardwell established shelters and warming centers.
Union City mission
Cook and the crew arrived in Union City two days after the storm hit, reporting to the the Rev. Eddie Mallonee and Dwayne Ervin at Second Baptist Church, which had opened a shelter.
Ervin said chainsaw teams from Knoxville, Murfreesboro, Grand Junction, Dyersburg and Martin provided their services free of charge.
“These teams had from three to eight members each,” he said. “Their mission was to cut trees
and limbs and help clear driveways, places like that. It was a hectic week.”
Before the teams left town, they and other emergency responders — police, sheriff’s deputies, rescue squad and utility linemen — were treated to a turkey dinner at the church.
Cook said his team left Union City Jan. 30 and returned to Bolivar. But they didn’t stay long.
“I had enough time to get a good night’s sleep and get up and go to church the next morning,” he said.
Meanwhile, another call for help had come in.
“I went home from church, packed my bags and went to Bardwell,” he said.
Storm damage in northwest Tennessee pales in comparison to what Cook saw in western Kentucky.
A few words from the Rev. David Hardy, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bardwell captured the essence of the Kentucky plight. “It looks as if God took a weedeater and chopped all the tops out of the trees,” he said.
In Bardwell, the Bolivar team reported to Bethlehem Baptist Church, where they were welcomed by Hardy and a group of church members. The church was to be their home away from home for almost two weeks.
Arriving in pickup trucks and towing trailers loaded with equipment, the team set up shop and went to work. They had their work cut out for them. Not only had the church established a warming center, it also initiated a project to feed visiting linemen who’d come to help the county recover.
Part of the team would work the kitchen-dining room; others would work in their mobile laundry service, washing and drying clothes. There was also a mobile shower facility for anyone, including those “right off the street.” Both services were provided free of charge.
Hardy said the church dining room fed at least two and sometimes three hot meals a day to 175 linemen for a total of about 3,500 meals in a 12-day period.
Cook said the days were long but well worth it. Team members slept on cots in Sunday school rooms or on pallets on floors and would get up at 3:30 a.m. to get breakfast started. They typically got back to bed about 10:30 p.m.
A typical breakfast was comprised of bacon and eggs, sausage, biscuit and gravy, potatoes and juice and coffee. Lunch and dinner consisted of such favorites as cheeseburgers and baked beans. One day, the main course was barbecue donated by Martha’s Vineyard in Paducah, Ky.
Cook said the team usually gets assistance from the American Red Cross, but such was not the case in the Bardwell expedition. “We brought some food with us, and we went to Paducah and spent $600 for more,” he said. “When that ran out, we received some from shelters that were closing down. Food started arriving and that kept us in business.”
Saturday, Cook and his team were busily loading their trailers with their equipment in preparation for returning to Bolivar. Team leader Charles Manley was not available for interview for this story.
“This program is an outreach of the Southern Baptist Convention and we are all members of the Hardeman County Baptist Association, which has about 31 churches,” Cook said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve seen things much worse than this (ice storm). You get kind of ... I hesitate to say, ‘Used to it.’ There’s nothing here to compare with what we saw during Katrina and the Twin Towers, of course, but it’s all bad. You see pain and hurt and you never get used to that. But you have a job to do and you have to go on.”
What motivates these people to leave their private lives and work in crisis circumstances? Not only do they not receive salaries, they also provide their own vehicles and buy their own gas.
Cook said that sometimes there’s enough money in “our little account” to partially pay gas expenses but, otherwise, team members pay their own way.
“Some churches in the association may send money to the office specified for disaster relief,” he said. “Sometimes someone in the community hears about what we do and writes us a check with a note, ‘I want to do this for you.’ We don’t have a clue where it came from or who did it.
“But I’ll tell you this: All help is appreciated.”
Yes, but why do it at all? That is the question.
“Because it was Jesus who said, ‘If you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.’ And that’s good enough for me,” he said.
Church is thankful
Hardy said the Hardeman County group and the many linemen who came to help Carlisle County recover were “an answer to our prayers. We thank God for them.”
“We extend our thanks and appreciation to each and every one of them,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 2.18.09