Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church served as overnight shelter July 5 for 38 people shut out from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after a severe storm downed trees, trapped visitors, blocked roadways, and caused two deaths.
The Maryville District church was one of at least two Holston congregations discovering a hospitality opportunity during the recent wave of storms, high temperatures, and power outages.
Visitors were not allowed back into the Great Smoky park to retrieve belonging for several hours after the storm caused a crisis situation with emergency crews, said the Rev. Kristie Banes, Tuckaleechee pastor.
“They had left the park to get groceries or ice cream or to eat,” she said. Several Tuckaleechee members work for the Townsend Volunteer Fire Department, and Banes was asked to open the church as a Red Cross shelter.
The 38 overnight visitors included 12 children as well as 15 people who were part of a larger hiking group with missing members. “For them it was a nervous and tense time of waiting,” Banes said.
Tuckaleechee members provided coffee and lemonade, the local Church of God provided snacks, and the Red Cross provided sandwiches
Church member Lisa Shelton served as volunteer support coordinator, working with park police and other area rescue squads to find shelter for visitors, provide food and water for emergency workers, and coordinate chaplains called to the area. About eight to 10 church members are firefighters who were involved in chain-sawing downed trees to free roadways, searches for and rescuing trapped individuals.
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that the violent storm swept through the Tennessee side of the 500,000-acre national park, killing a swimmer and motorcyclist. Several others were injured.
“The worst part was dealing with a lot of upset family members without having any answers for them,” Shelton said.
Officials allowed the stranded visitors to return to the park about 2 p.m. Friday to retrieve belongings. The church stayed opened for the rest of the day as a shelter for residents experiencing power outages, Banes said. The park remained closed until the following Monday.
“Really, what we provided was hospitality, to allow people to come in out of the storm and heat,” Banes said.
See related United Methodist News Service story
Elsewhere in Holston, Mount Olivet UMC in Galax, Va., provided free lunches July 2-3 for neighbors experiencing prolonged storm-related power failures.
“Our Outreach Team chair, Tami Bowman, felt the need to do something for our neighbors,” said the Rev. John Grimm. Bowman began rallying volunteers at 10:30 p.m. and had a hot-dog meal ready the next day at 4 p.m.
Church members used Facebook, texting, the church sign, and word of mouth to spread the word. With the help of an unexpected financial donation, Mt. Olivet served meals to 70 on the first day, 60 on the next day. “It has been good to serve our neighbors,” Grimm said.