Locals at the ready for disaster relief

Franklin residents Michael Willis and Lee Willis help people from all walks of life in all areas of the country through Baptists on Mission when there is a natural disaster and relief is needed.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Manna One food trailers provided by Baptists on Mission travel to disaster relief areas, and volunteers like Michael and Lee Willis are trained to serve food to people in need.

At least a dozen storms – some of which have become hurricanes – have formed in the Atlantic since August, and more are predicted to affect especially areas of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. In late August, Hurricane Laura formed in the Caribbean, killing at least nine people there and then did the most damage in the U.S. near Cameron, La., killing at least 27 people. Laura was followed by several tropical storms, including Sally, which developed into a category 2 hurricane and did some damage in Gulf Shores, Ala. And Beta made landfall on Sept. 21 as a tropical storm that affected the eastern coast of Texas. 

People like Michael and Lee Willis as well as Gary Holland pay attention to natural disasters, both in Macon County and throughout the United States. Hurricane season is particularly a time of great awareness as they participate in and/or help coordinate disaster relief at the drop of a hat. 

“We’re always ready,” said Michael Willis. “My wife and I have our bags packed and are ready to take off to help wherever we are needed.” 

The Willises, since retiring – he as a band director at Franklin High School and she as a dental assistant – have participated in disaster relief through an organization called Baptists on Missions. While there are many areas of training, which takes place over a weekend in various locations around the state of North Carolina, the couple is trained in at least five, including administration and chaplaincy. 

Disaster relief volunteers go into areas affected by such disasters as fires, floods, and hurricanes, and serve food, participate in cleanup efforts, provide assessment reports, assist with temporary shower and laundry facilities, handle administrative efforts, oversee communications, help with childcare, and more. After 2017’s category 4 hurricane Harvey that especially devastated portions of east Texas, the Willises said the Baptists on Missions’ “massive food trailers” fed 40,000 people daily. 

The couple thought they would be needed recently in Louisiana and then Florida, but they learned that other volunteers in other states were covering those areas. 

“But if we’re called, we’re ready to be deployed.”

Samaritan’s Purse is another organization based in Blowing Rock, N.C., that has volunteers ready and able to manage disaster relief. 

Michael said that even though these organizations are  faith-based, the intention is not to evangelize but to help. 

“We help with physical needs and emotional and mental needs,” he said. “We listen … offer guidance. It’s a big deal when people go through something like a natural disaster, and we are there to help in whatever way we can. Just like Jesus, we are there to be His hands and feet … to meet needs when people go through a tragic event.” 

He added that volunteers do not have to be affiliated with any particular denomination to be part of a disaster relief effort; they just need to sign up and be trained and understand what is involved. 

“We work alongside people from all walks of life. When the forest fires were happening around here in 2016, we set up and were feeding people.” 

Gary Holland is a disaster relief coordinator for Macon, Swain, Graham, and Cherokee county volunteers. He said that while no one that he knows from these counties is currently assisting in areas already affected by recent tropical storms and hurricanes, hurricane season does not officially end until Nov. 30. 

“People from this area have helped with disasters in the past and several are ready to go when they are needed.”