Pearce’s Truck and Auto of Martin traveled to the Hillsboro community and set up a relief trailer.
On April 27, tornadoes blazed paths through the state of Alabama, and the small burg of Hillsboro – population just over 600 – in Lawrence County sustained an enormous gash from an F-5 twister (the strongest level of measurement on the Fujita scale for determining a tornado’s intensity) that looked to be irreparable.
Irreparable only to doubters.
Relief efforts began almost immediately and among those providing relief were churches all over West Tennessee.
Included in those contributing help from Weakley County was a church group from First Baptist Church in Martin.
Local automotive businessman Joe Pearce was ahead of the game. He owns a 53-foot trailer known as Unit 16. Originally owned by Chevron Oil, it had served as a hazmat (hazardous materials) response and air cushion unit. Pearce knew it would be perfect to take down to Alabama.
“It looks like a semi-truck trailer that hauls race cars, but it has a kitchen, interior and exterior lights, wall outlets and a full basement for storage,” Pearce explained. “It’s a two-floor setup. There’s a wheel-chair lift for loading and unloading heavy equipment and front and rear entry doors. A large awning pulls out and there’s a central air unit equal to one inside a house.”
Pearce contacted the North American Mission Board and Southern Baptist Convention last year to see if his trailer could be of service anywhere and, recently, after the tornadoes struck Alabama, he reminded the groups of his offer for assistance.
“I saw the need for the trailer and I got together with the groups and was told to wait on an assignment from the Alabama Baptist Convention,” Pearce recalled. “I told them specifically that I wanted to go to a small town in an outlying community. I have a contact who works with the state and I sent information and pictures.
Soon, the Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency came pleading for help and Pearce responded immediately.
A command center had been set up in the Lawrence County seat of Moulton and the person in charge of the center received Pearce’s pictures and contacted him for help. Within two days, he and his unit arrived.
Receiving assistance from churches across West Tennessee, Pearce’s trailer was set up in the parking lot of New Antioch Church of Christ in Hillsboro. The church is situated just 200 yards from the tornado’s crossing of a nearby highway.
Pearce and helpers immediately set to work serving food and supplies to Lawrence County’s homeless.
The response was staggering and as Pearce and crew member Daniel Hutchins made trips back and forth from Martin to Hillsboro, several local businesses pitched in with supplies.
“We went through hundreds of pounds of meat and we barely met needs at times, but we started out with no vegetables. I really want to thank MTD. I went on WCMT and asked for donations and got a call from MTD. I took a ¾-ton pickup truck and they filled it up with vegetables,” Pearce said.
Roughly one case of cans per menu item was needed for every meal, so an average of six gallons of baked beans were consumed at most every sitting. In addition, other items were donated such as microwaves and refrigerators and, naturally, money.
Cajun Cookers, a barbecue restaurant in Threeway, called Pearce to inquire about the size of the trailer and then sent enough vacuum-packed meat to fill it.
“If it weren’t for them and MTD, the county would have starved,” Pearce claimed. “It was such a great effort. There were so many involved and it came together so fast. So many people came through. They don’t call us the Volunteer State for nothing.”
Most recently, Gordon Food Services wanted to donate a truck of food and called the Lawrence County EMA to ask about help. Ironically, the company was told to get in touch with someone from its own area – Joe Pearce.
Now, as FEMA trailers are moving in, Pearce’s trailer can “cease operation” and prepare to help another area when needed.
Pearce is already moving on plans to add a stove, deep freeze and smoker in the trailer.
“In a county of about 30,000, a large majority of them were left homeless and these are people that don’t want to ask for help,” Pearce explained.
“Their fence rows are littered with cars and large pieces of metal. The devastation was so bad that houses are just completely gone. The foundations have been pulled out of the ground and left as giant craters and ditches. It takes a lot of force to do something like that.”
And what about those wanting to make donations?
“There are still so many needs. Just walk in the front door of your house and look around. Most everything you see is needed,” he said. “The New Antioch Church has a store set up inside it and they’re taking donations and running out of supplies. We pulled in with a meal unit and supplies the church needed and now we’re almost out of supplies and it’s the third time it’s happened.”
There is an especially great need for cleaning items, according to Pearce. Items such as mops, buckets and brooms would be invaluable as FEMA trailers “must be cleaned before use.”
The State of Alabama and Lawrence County is slowly rising from its state of emergency, but more relief will be needed in order to ensure a complete recovery.
“They have to go a few more miles to get things now,” Pearce said.
“Many things the people have depended on are now gone.”