Early this morning, I drove north on Scenic Highway, one of the most beautiful coastal drives in America. And yet, as the sunrise glistened over Escambia Bay, the picturesque Florida scenery was scarred by nature’s whim. Stately oaks were uprooted, townhomes were blown from their foundation, homes stood minus their roofs and windows, and neighbors were helping neighbors sift through the debris.
The scene is far too familiar to me. In 1994 I was serving at the First Baptist Church of Williams near Jacksonville, Ala., when a tornado touched down on Palm Sunday near Ragland, Ala., and cut a trail to Rome, Ga., demolishing hundreds of homes, destroying five church campuses, and taking 29 lives before leaving that area.
In 2005, when I began serving at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, we dealt with a series of destructive storms including Hurricanes Ivan, Cindy, Dennis, and Katrina. Later, we sent teams to assist with repair and rebuilding after tornadoes in Enterprise, Ala., and Sipsey, Ala.
Now, here in Escambia County, we have once again experienced two destructive storms within the same week. As we help others put life back together, let us employ the lessons learned from storms past as we help our neighbors rebuild after the storm.
Once a storm passes, residents are faced with a haunting reality. Life will never be the same. For many, friends have been injured, homes have been destroyed, and irreplaceable family heirlooms lost. A sense of despair prevails. But for most, at least, life will continue. In fact, this week’s storm cut an eight-mile path damaging over 300 homes, yet there were no fatalities and only minimal injuries.
Following the Palm Sunday tornado and the coastal hurricanes, the communities I served learned a lot about patience and perseverance. We learned a lot about grace and hope. We learned the importance of looking forward and not backward. We learned that our dreams trumped our nightmares. We learned a lot about faith and life.
At least seven crucial lessons learned from storms past have helped us to heal and move forward, slowly and progressively:
1. Life goes on after the storm. Once the initial shock of the devastation has been absorbed, it’s time to channel all of your energy to re-building and moving forward. Despite the grief over things lost, there is a unique kind of joy that arises when you begin dreaming of the new things you can build — together. And interestingly, the challenge of re-building had a healing effect and can be a healthy way to process the grief of storm-associated losses.
2. When a storm hits, no one is exempt. Storms result from a chaotic weather pattern and they tend to strike indiscriminately. Contrary to religious superstition, storms are not typically God’s way of punishing the most wicked of sinners. Storms affect everyone in their path, whether you are rich or poor, young or old, faithful or faithless. As Grady Nutt used to remind us, “It rains on the just and the unjust, and not always just on the ‘just’.”
3. When the going gets tough, people of faith mobilize and work together cooperatively. After each of the aforementioned storms, a variety of churches and missional partners organized, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work. Volunteers from faith-based groups often organize quickly and dispatch to the scene, while professional and government groups are often slowed by paperwork and red tape restrictions. I distinctly remember many of the professional workers who partnered with us telling me how they admired the work ethic, the productivity, and the cooperative spirit of the volunteer teams from churches and faith-based organizations.
4. All kinds of talents and skill levels are needed for clean-up and re-building. We were fortunate to have a huge corps of skilled personnel who managed chain saws, dozers, cranes, and front-end loaders. However, we also needed folks to cook food, drive trucks, pick up debris, run errands, care for children, visit the elderly, sweep the floor, manage communications, and do household cleaning. In disaster relief, every job is important and every volunteer has something to offer. Never underestimate the importance of doing all the good you can, where you can, when you can.
If you want to volunteer, always connect with a group such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, BRACE, or a church group. Don’t just strike out on your own. Our staff is currently exploring the best ways for us to connect in Century and Pensacola.
5. Relief work builds community. We learned that remarkable bonding occurs in the field. The sense of community born among those who work together following a storm forges a spiritual kinship that lasts for a lifetime — or longer.
6. You are wise not to live in fear of the next storm. Those affected by storms may be inclined to experience storm phobia, a fear of storms. Many begin to live in such a heightened state of anxiety, that every cloud invokes a near panic attack. One alternative to living in fear is to be better prepared for the next storm. Perhaps that means creating a storm preparation checklist. Or possibly that means better implementation of a storm safety plan. Time and energy spent worrying about something as unpredictable as a future storm is wasted energy. It is best to find creative ways to transform that energy into constructive preparation.
7. The process of going through a storm can deepen your spiritual faith. For some, simply the experience of having a “close call” with death provokes a profound sense of one’s mortality. For others, there is a sense of a “new lease on life,” that translates into a commitment to live in a deeper and more meaningful sort of way. For still others, during the rebuilding process they discover a community of friends who inspire them toward a more authentic and honest understanding of faith, a faith they want and often claim for themselves.
This week many of us have grieved with and prayed for friends and neighbors after storms have wreaked havoc in local neighborhoods. I am sure the local residents are feeling shock, anger, and a nearly overwhelming sense of despair.
But the people of Escambia County are resilient. In the next few days, relief agencies and churches will mobilize labor pools and resource centers. And residents will be drying their tears, rolling up their sleeves, and getting ready to repair and rebuild, because there are some things deep inside that the strongest storm cannot destroy.