By Barry Howard
On Palm Sunday in 1994 a tornado touched down 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. Entire communities were in disarray. I lived in one of those communities hit hard by the storm. My home was one of those damaged by the storm. The church I served became a disaster relief center. And we learned a lot of lessons.
Little did I know that 11 years later I would serve a church on the Gulf Coast and deal once again with massive storms — this time with Hurricanes Ivan, Cindy, Dennis and Katrina. The experience I gleaned following the Palm Sunday Tornado prepared me to better serve and provide leadership in the aftermath of the coastal storms.
At least five crucial lessons learned from storms past helped us to heal and move forward, progressively:
1. We learned that you have to grieve quickly, then get to work. Once the initial shock of the devastation has been absorbed, it’s time to channel all of your energy to rebuilding 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 work of rebuilding had a healing effect.
2. We learned emphatically that God doesn’t exempt folks from tragedy just because they have faith. I remember someone asking me, “Pastor, why do you think God let that tornado hit five churches on Sunday morning?” Since I can’t imagine God sitting in heaven and pushing a “Create Tornado” button, then hitting “Send” to a specific address, I remember responding, “Try drawing a line 55 miles in any direction on an Alabama map without hitting at least five churches.” The Bible says something like “it rains on the just and the unjust.” Since most churches are comprised of some combination of just and unjust people, I take that to mean that there is no place or people group who are given a free pass from natural disasters.
3. We learned that when the going gets tough, people of faith mobilize and work together cooperatively. After the Palm Sunday Tornado, the First Baptist Church in the Williams Community served as a Red Cross relief center. We partnered with the Cherokee Electric Cooperative, Bellsouth, and FEMA, and each of them did admirable work, eventually. But we also hosted Builders for Christ, Campers on Mission, Mennonite Response Teams, Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief Teams and a Latter-Day Saints Team. The volunteers from churches and faith-based groups organized quickly and went to work, while the professional and government groups were 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. 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.
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.
Seventeen years later, another wave of tornadoes has wreaked havoc across the state of Alabama, storms even more powerful and more destructive and more fatal than that the tornado that struck on March 27. And one of these post-Easter tornadoes followed a similar path as the Palm Sunday storm of 1994 hitting Webster’s Chapel, the Williams Community, and Goshen.
People there are hurting, even grieving over the loss of life and the destruction of property. But those good rural people are not just weathered storm veterans. Like so many Alabamians, they are a determined, hard-working, and faith-filled people who do not back down from a challenge. They are already 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.