Editor’s note: This article was written by Harold Johnson, RRBA DR Senior Unit Leader, with congratulatory quotes added by ABN staff.
ARKADELPHIA, AR – This week on June 10 will be the 25th anniversary of the organizational meeting of the Red River Baptist Association (RRBA) Disaster Relief Team. Plans are underway to honor this event on Saturday June 11 at their building on Hwy 67 South in Arkadelphia.
There will be a training event during the morning, followed by lunch prepared by local volunteers. The afternoon will be devoted to a session concerning how the organization came to be and what they have accomplished over the years. Attendees will hear from Maurice Hitt, who was the Red River Association’s Director of Missions before and after they organized. Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief (DR) Director Randy Garrett is scheduled to speak along with Sam Roberts, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention Missions Team Leader.
Pictures and stories from the past highlighting major events and honoring some who were with them in their early years will be on display.
According to Senior Unit Leader Harold Johnson, “We claim to have been born out of the March 1, 1997, tornado.”
In February of 1997, a retired men’s work group was meeting at First Baptist Church in Arkadelphia. Someone mentioned that Disaster Relief training was to be offered at the church on two nights in late February. After some discussion almost everyone present agreed to attend the sessions. We did so along with others from the Red River Association.
Nine days after the second training session, on March 1, 1997, a F4 tornado did catastrophic damage to a large part of the city of Arkadelphia. Some of those who did not have any damage joined the Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief kitchen that was sent here and helped feed those who were affected by the tornado. About 1,500 meals per day were prepared for delivery by the Red Cross, and for a large number of people who were eating at the church. First Baptist Church, which had only minor damage, became the center of activity, hosting not only the feeding team but also the American Red Cross, chain saw teams from Texas and Louisiana, chaplains from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and the staff of Red River Association, whose building sustained considerable damaged. This activity continued for about two weeks.
Johnson described the process of forming the unit, “During a work session at the church someone mentioned that we now know what it is like to suffer through a disaster and have caring people come to our rescue. It was decided to request that the association call a meeting to discuss what should be done. That meeting was held on June 10 with about fifteen interested people present. It was decided to organize, begin raising money, and design a kitchen trailer. Johnson became the unit director and has held that position for the entire life of the unit. The owner of a welding shop in Prescott was given the task of building the basic trailer. Once it was delivered the team did the finish work and outfitted it for use. The team’s first response was for a three-day drowning recovery operation at Lake DeGray.”
Over the next 25 years the team has responded to more than forty actual disasters and several times that many non-disaster events. Surprisingly, the majority of the disaster responses have been outside of Arkansas. The team has been eight times to Louisiana, four times to Texas, three times to New York, twice to Colorado, Oklahoma, and Florida, and once to North Carolina, Alabama, and North Dakota. Some of the in-state responses have been tornado responses at Manila, Beebe, Cabot, and Mena, plus several ice and flooding events. The team also stays busy doing non-disaster feeding events for Arkansas Baptists.
The team is composed of 165 volunteer members from all over southwest Arkansas. All have had six hours of training, and many have had advanced training. The team has three trucks, three trailers and a bus. They carry the necessary equipment to prepare up to 12,000 meals per day. They work in accordance with agreements with the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army. Basically, the agreements provide that Arkansas Baptist teams provide the mobile kitchens and the necessary personnel to staff them, they (Red Cross and Salvation Army) provide the bulk food and the necessary services (fuel, water, ice, garbage service, forklifts, steps, food storage trailers, etc.). Arkansas Baptists prepare the meals, and jointly they are delivered by mobile routes and/or served at the preparation location which is usually a Baptist church where the team is staying.
The team operates from a building adjacent to the Red River Association office building in south Arkadelphia. It was constructed in 2009 through funding provided by The Olds Foundation and by the churches and their members of Red River Baptist Association.
The team is actually one unit with two kitchens. Over time the unit had grown so large that it became difficult to respond to small requirements. It was decided to build a small concession type kitchen trailer that only required about four people to operate it, could move on short notice, had all the necessary cooking equipment, and could carry the required food on board. It was intended that it would be used primarily to support first responders who were responding to events lasting long enough that food and drink would be required. Thus, the designation First Responder Support Unit, (aka quick response trailer). While they have only been used in that capacity twice, both times for missing person searches, they have supported first responder training on multiple occasions. They have fed the bomb squads of Arkansas, central Arkansas SWAT teams, and regularly support an annual search and rescue training event at nearby Lake DeGray. Also, on two weekends during the July 2020 demonstrations in downtown Little Rock they fed the law enforcement and national guard personnel who were involved.
“The team stands ready to move on short notice to bring hope and healing to those who have had their lives interrupted by a disaster,” said Johnson.”
Joe Burt currently serves as the Associational Missionary for Red River Association and is an active member of the Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief Team. He joined the RRBA DR team in November of 2005 just after Hurricane Katrina had devastated areas of the Gulf Coast and volunteer teams were being sent to New Orleans on a regular basis.
Looking back on the past 17 years, Burt said, “Our team has been very active. During my time of service here we have built a building to house equipment or to be used to cook from in times of disaster. We have built an equipment trailer with two showers for the team to use. We have built a quick response trailer for smaller feeding needs.”
Burt went on to say, “Harold has definitely been one of our outstanding leaders in building a great team for Disaster Relief in Arkansas.”
Randy Garrett spoke of his appreciation for the dedication of the RRBA DR team, “Over the years, the Red River Feeding Unit has always been available and ready to go, whether it be to serve first responders or with their full kitchen. It has been an honor and joy to serve with these volunteers in the seven years I have been director.”