April 29, 2011
The death toll continues to rise as search and rescue teams dig through the rubble after the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes in four decades blew through the southeastern United States. States hit hardest by the storm system include Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky. At least 300 people were killed.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports into Wednesday night. This year’s tornado season has targeted ‘Tornado Alley's’ southern neighbor, ‘Dixie Alley.” The record number of tornadoes has taken hundreds of lives and destroyed or severely damaged a number of churches throughout the south.
The oldest United Methodist Church in Alabama was among those demolished in the storm. Witnesses say only a single pew was left standing in the rubble of the 202-year-old building. Jake Fauble told WAAY TV he spent the night keeping watch over what is left of Ford Chapel United Methodist Church in Harvest.
“Right now I'm just up here keeping an eye on the place so to keep the looters out,” said church member Jake Fauble.
Fauble said no one was injured at the church. A Mother’s Day Out day care program had just released before the storm ripped through.
“I just hope that everyone else got out of this okay. I'm sorry to see all the devastation around here and all the homes that are ruined, but – as with the church – it can be rebuilt,” said Fauble.
Church denominations are also busy connecting to relief organizations to quickly coordinate relief efforts. The Alabama Baptist Convention is working closely with the Red Cross. Teams are in communities removing debris and prepared to serve some 60,000 meals per day, if needed.
“We’ll be here for as long as they need us,” said Jerry Butler, Director of the Southern Baptist Association’s Alabama Disaster Relief organization.
BGEA Teams, Chaplains Mobilize
Billy Graham Rapid Response Team organizers say two chaplain teams with trailers will be based in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala. Chaplains will address the emotional and spiritual needs of tornado survivors in and around Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. One chaplain coordinator lives in Birmingham who has already established a base of operation there.
“The swath of devastation that has ripped through the South and brought so much death and destruction is stunning,” said Preston Parrish, executive vice president of ministry at BGEA. “The overwhelming sense of loss – for those who lost their homes, and especially for those who lost loved ones – will be nearly unbearable for many. We want those suffering to know that Christ cares for them, that we are praying for them, and we will be standing beside them.”
The North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse is also sending crews to help Alabamians recover from the killer storms. The international Christian relief organization has teams of experts en route to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Cullman, Ala.
"When people lose everything to a tornado, flood or hurricane, it is overwhelming," said Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “Even in a country like ours, we can't just depend on the government to come in and fix everything. As Christians, we are called to help our neighbors in distress."
Samaritan's Purse has also dispatched one of its Disaster Relief Units which includes a tractor-trailer stocked with emergency supplies and tools that are ready to deploy whenever disaster strikes. The relief unit will function as a self-supporting operations center for volunteers and staff.
“We are going alongside Samaritan’s Purse and in doing so together we seem to meet the physical, emotion, social and spiritual needs of those directly effected,” said Jack Monday, director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team.
Monday says last week the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response teams were acting on a spring storm system that generated more than 240 tornadoes that ripped through 14 states, killing at least 45 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. In North Carolina, identified as the state hardest hit by the outbreak, more than 60 tornadoes, ranging in strength from EF-0 to EF-3, tore through the state on Saturday evening, destroying homes and businesses and leaving more than two dozen dead in their paths. BGEA Rapid Response teams have also been in Japan providing assistance.
“Regardless of where we look it seems like there is crisis and suffering everywhere, but for the moment we are focusing on the southeast,” said Monday. “We ask that people pray for those in need.”
States Move into Action
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has activated 2,000 National Guard troops to help with search and rescue efforts. Bentley, who is also a longtime deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, said at a press conference, “The people of Alabama are resilient. We need to keep in our prayers all the people across the state who have been injured and those who are still missing.”
Across the state line in Mississippi, about two hours southeast of Memphis, not much is left of the town of Smithville. Police report at least 13 people died when a mile-wide tornado hit that town Wednesday.
The twister flattened the Smithville Funeral Home, a Texaco gas station, a Dollar General store and a Piggly Wiggly, police said. Smithville Baptist Church and neighboring Smithville United Methodist Church were also both destroyed.
Smithville High School basketball coach Greg Haynes told the Dispatch Newspaper he was in a classroom at the school when the storm hit. Haynes was preparing to leave school when he heard the tornado sirens sound. After going to the classroom to check the weather radar, he decided to stay where he was.
"This was the last cell that came through here, and it was right at the tail end of that cell," Haynes said. "It was loud and you could see all of the debris outside of the window."
"It is by the grace of God that I'm here."
Sign up to receive updates through Crosswalk's After the Disaster Facebook page.
If you'd like to help with Samaritan's Purse disaster relief teams to help with cleanup, volunteer at www.samaritanspurse.org.
Russ Jones is a twenty-year award winning journalist and correspondent. He is co-publisher of ChristianPress.com and media consultant. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. Jones is a frequent freelance reporter for Crosswalk.com as well as the Christian Broadcasting Network, Total Living Network and American Family Radio. He has also been published in The Washington Times. He may be reached at [email protected]. For more information see russjones.me.