By Associate Editor Joe May

SEARCY, Ark. (BNc)- “This is what Christians do for each other.”

Those were the words of Harding University sophomore Marie Yates in answer to a Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter’s question Sunday.

Over 800 university students from the Searcy, Ark.-based Christian college swooped down on tornado-ravaged Clinton, Ark., Sunday to assist residents in cleaning up storm damaged areas of the state.

Charlie Walker, president of the Harding University Student Association, told the state newspaper that upon seeing the 123-mile swath cut through Arkansas Tuesday evening by only one tornado, students wanted to help out.

“Basically, we just had a lot of students say, ‘What can we do to help?’” Walker was quoted as saying.

On Thursday, someone broached in chapel the idea of a mass volunteer effort. More than 300 students signed up. By Sunday, the ranks had swelled to 800.

Traveling in a caravan of buses and cars, the students made the 60-mile trek to Clinton. The first order of business was an hour-long worship service at the Clinton High School auditorium where both students and residents lifted their praises to God.

Following worship, the students fanned out across the city of Clinton as well as various rural areas around Van Buren County. Some cooked meals for volunteers, while others acted as servers. Some repaired fences and cleared debris piles in pastures so livestock could graze again.

In the Honey Hill neighborhood in Clinton, sophomore Rachel McMahan told the Democrat-Gazette that she had not expected to see so much devastation. She and about 30 other students cleared debris and pulled insulation out of trees.

The tornado that cut through the state was rated as a Category EF4. It cut an path along 123 miles of woods, farmland and cities from 5.6 miles east of Centerville (Yell County) to 3.2 miles northeast of Highland in Sharp County, causing serious damage in the towns of Clinton, Mountain View and Atkins. In addition, a smaller tornado damaged a 14-mile area in Marion and Baxter Counties, destroying a much as three-fourths of the town of Gassville.

In all, 13 people died in Arkansas and 150 were injured. At least 880 houses were damaged or destroyed. It was the strongest system to hit Arkansas since Mar. 1, 1997.

The storms were part of a larger series of tornadoes that hit five states and killed 59 people. Tennessee had the worst destruction, with 32 people being killed and 192 injured.