HATTIESBURG, Miss. (CNS) — Just as they did following Hurricane Katrina and in response to other disasters, members of a Hattiesburg Catholic church joined together Feb. 16 and fanned out across the Hattiesburg area to help those impacted by the F-4 tornado that hit the area less than a week earlier.

Nearly 140 volunteers met at St. Thomas Aquinas Church that morning for equipment, instructions and directions and then split into groups to help residents in six sites in the city most heavily damaged by the storm.

More than 800 homes in the southern part of Mississippi were destroyed or damaged by winds that reached 170 mph Feb. 10. The National Weather Service said the tornado cut a path that was three-quarters of a mile wide. It cut right through Hattiesburg along a main street.

On Feb. 12, President Barack Obama declared it a disaster, allowing federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

“I’m kind of lost for words,” St. Thomas parishioner Bronagh Gallagher said of the work the volunteers have done for her after her home was heavily damaged in the storm.

“I’m just overwhelmed with the outpouring of support I’ve received. Everyone has been so giving,” she told the Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Biloxi.

Father Tommy Conway, the pastor, spent time with one crew.

“Good job folks,” he said to a couple of volunteer as he dragged a load of limbs to a large pile at the street curb. “Keep up the good work.”

Stopping to catch his breath, Father Conway reflected on the work that St. Thomas members and others across town did over the weekend, with churches of various faiths working together to bring relief to those left with little or nothing after the storm.

“I’m just absolutely delighted with the response. We’ve got groups all over town helping,” the priest said. “Praise the Lord.”

Volunteers returned to St. Thomas for lunch and to regroup, making plans to go back out later that day and in the coming days to help more people.

Parishioner and volunteer Nellie Alliston moved to Hattiesburg from the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Katrina, and was glad for the opportunity to help others just as she had been helped after the 2005 storm wiped out her home.

“We were nothing but a slab,” she said her coast home of the aftermath of Katrina at. “We had such an outpouring of support for us that we felt it only right to do something now after the tornado.”

She added that it felt “good to give back,” even years later.

Just a few houses down from Gallagher, Jim Vittetoe cleared debris and damaged possessions from his residence with the help of volunteers from St. Thomas. He hoped to make enough progress to put a trailer in his backyard to live in until he can make his home livable again.

“They have done a great job,” Vittetoe said of the volunteers. “I’m very impressed and thankful.”

***

Tisdale writes for the Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss.