Published in the Rains County Leader on May 2, 2017:
Thunderstorms had been predicted all day on Saturday, but every time we looked at the weather on our phones, the onset had been moved to a later time. Finally, as I was beginning preparations for dinner, the sky darkened enough that I turned on the kitchen lights. We no longer have network TV, so after the dinner dishes were done, David found a movie on his laptop, hooked it up to the TV, and we settled down to watch the latest Jack Reacher flick.
One disadvantage of not being connected is that you don’t get the latest weather updates. It’s not a big loss to us because the only time we really pay attention to it is when we’re trying to decide whether to wear a jacket or whether David will get out of mowing for another weekend. When thunder began to rumble a few minutes into the movie and David’s phone began to squawk with weather alerts, we ignored them other than to comment that the long awaited rain had finally arrived.
My phone isn’t set for weather alerts, but I’m in the middle of a project that involves social media responses – and I’m not a patient person. I’ve developed a rather compulsive habit of checking my phone every few minutes, and the next time I glanced at my phone, I had been tagged on three Facebook messages. These messages were from people that I’m acquainted with but who don’t show up on my radar every day, so I was curious. I clicked on all three messages, and they were identical:
Per Rains County Emergency Management Coordinator: TAKE SHELTER NOW!!
We’ve become pretty casual about the possibility of dangerous weather since we’ve been here. Most storm fronts seem to split and go around us. In addition, we live in a single wide mobile home, so we have no safe place. Every room is on an exterior wall, and every exterior wall has at least one window. The warnings were estimated to expire within the next ten minutes, so I told David about them, and we turned our attention back to the movie.
By the time the movie ended, the rain had subsided and the thunder had quieted. Still, based on several messages and texts I had received asking if we were okay, I suspected that this storm had been different. My suspicions were confirmed Sunday morning when I read damage reports on the Internet and when Pastor Jason posted on our church Facebook page that we would meet at the regular Sunday school hour to discuss what our response would be as a church.
Attendance was light because a number of our men were already involved in search and rescue or cleanup operations. Many of them, including Pastor Jason, had been up until the wee hours and had risen after a couple of hours sleep to begin again. Those of us who were at church shared stories of miraculous near misses – people who left their homes seconds before the house was flattened or a congregation who held the hallway doors shut while the walls on the other side of the door disappeared. We prayed for our families, our friends, and our community; and we discussed what we could do to help.
When the Sunday school hour was over, we moved to the sanctuary where we spent a few minutes in praise and worship before Pastor Jason shared briefly about God’s sovereignty and grace. We finished early so those who were available could meet back at the church around 1:00 pm to join in the cleanup efforts.
David and I would have joined the volunteers, but in our cases the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – and old. Still, I wanted to see the damage, so I asked David to drive down Hwy 69. It was a dark thing to do, but aside from television news reports, I had never seen the aftermath of a tornado. I wanted to see it for real before I tried to write about it.
I saw it, but I’m still not sure I can describe it. Trees were twisted into grotesque shapes with shards of fresh wood jutting out through rips in the bark. One house was nothing more than a concrete slab with a mound of broken and splintered lumber pushed to the side waiting for a lighted match. Surrounding the slab were piles of debris that a few hours before had been the substance of a family’s life. Across the highway was a house with a brick wall intact but little else, and next to it was a house that had lost its shingles, but the torn tar paper still fluttered on top of the decking. The destruction went back further than I could see from the window, tracks left by a storm that went through instead of around.
The first thing I saw, though, before we were close enough to see the actual damage, was the cars. Cars were parked bumper to bumper on both sides of the road as traffic moved slowly between them. At first, I thought the cars were left by people who had stopped for a closer look, but most of the people I saw had on work boots and gloves. Some were driving heavy moving equipment, but most were wading through the debris, helping devastated homeowners separate what could be salvaged from the trash. A few were taking a break – laughing, talking, listening, being there in a time of need.
I first began this final paragraph by saying that I didn’t know what would happen in the days and weeks ahead, but I realized that’s not true. I’m not sure exactly how it will happen, but I know what will happen. The people of Emory and the surrounding community will recover. Helping hands will be offered; donations of time, money, food, and household goods will be given; and bonds of friendship and love will be strengthened. And next time, maybe David and I will listen when the weather alarm goes off on his phone.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Psalms 46:1