On the afternoon of March 3, I remember telling my wife I hoped the storm would be past us by 3:00. We had been to church that morning, and knew there was a possible threat of tornadoes that afternoon. When the storm came through, we experienced only strong wind and rain. We had ample warning that there were tornadoes spotted just a few miles away in the communities of Beauregard and Smiths Station, but we had no idea the devastation that would visit our neighbors.
Two tornadoes came through our specific area that day, one ripped a path a mile wide and was categorized as an EF-4, with wind speeds over 170 mph (the same as a strong Category 5 hurricane). The damage and destruction it left behind is hard to imagine, let alone to see. Homes were blown from their foundations. Mobile homes and brick homes vanished—leaving only the concrete slab foundation. The trees twisted and torn, many so covered with the insulation from people's homes that it looked like they were covered in snow. The mangled earth made search and rescue incredibly difficult, but when the searching was finished there were 23 dead. Their ages ranged from six to 89, three were under the age of 10.
In addition to that sobering number, there are families who suffered no loss of life, but whose futures were permanently altered in tragic ways. One family with five children lost all earthly possessions and the father sustained injuries so severe he faces the rest of his life as a quadriplegic. He was the sole financial provider for his family. Their future is forever altered. Similar stories abound in this tragedy. The impact on families grieving the death of loved ones or friends, as well as families now adjusting to a new permanent reality, is heavy.
The community response
The grief of the local community was both immediate and overwhelming. Those who died or whose lives were affected are not just a list of names, but family, friends, co-workers, and schoolmates. For those very reasons the outpouring of tangible compassion was immediate and overwhelming. Local restaurants and businesses are collecting supplies for the families. People all over the community have contributed time, money, and effort to help with cleanup and donate clothes and donate blood and anything else that can be done at this time.
The church response
As encouraging as the response of the community at large has been, the response of the church has been even more welcome. The majority of relief efforts are coming through the church. Samaritan’s Purse arrived to train and organize cleanup efforts, and churches across denominational lines began organizing the collection of food, clothes, and other essential items within hours of the storm.
The rapid response of Southern Baptists have also been astonishing. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams of trained volunteers from local SBC churches (and from churches in surrounding counties in both Georgia and Alabama) began immediately with chainsaw work, serving as chaplains, providing food and laundry services, and doing so many other things in a carefully administered way. Those efforts and services are still ongoing.
These broader church efforts have been immensely helpful and necessary. But in acknowledging this outside help we should not overlook how the local churches of this community are working together. Providence Baptist Church has been a central gathering and collection point for many of the relief actions. The church, which is currently serving as the headquarters for the Red Cross, opened an entire wing of their building for the collection of clothes and other relief supplies. As other local churches have gathered relief supplies, they have taken them to Providence to be dispersed to the victims in the community.
How to help
It is remarkable how concern for the victims has come from individuals and even major corporations from across the nation. President Trump declared Lee County a major disaster area, which will allow federal aid to find its way to the area and to the victims. But even with that aid, there are additional needs. Let me identify three ways you can still help the victims.
- Pray for the families of those who lost everything they own, who lost loved ones, and whose lives will never be the same again. Imagine the needs you might have in such a scenario, and prayerfully consider how you can do for them what you wish they would do for you (Matt. 7:12). Pray that the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions” will comfort these victims in answer to the prayers of his people (2 Cor. 1:3-11). Pray that this comfort would continue to come for the indefinite future in tangible ways through the church.
- Contribute to the physical relief of the victims, and do so in an intentionally specific way. Find a way to contribute to the relief of individual families for an extended period of time by contacting the Alabama State Board of Missions or the Tuskegee-Lee Baptist Association. They can direct you to one of our local churches.
- Consider not only how you can help right away, but how you can help six months from now. Because of the overwhelming response of our community and churches, many of the immediate needs are supplied. The greatest needs will be when the initial wave of help has returned home. It will take months for any semblance of normalcy to return to the families affected by the tornado. Consider contacting one of our churches in three to six months to see what needs are still present and how you might help.
The storm was over around 3:00 on Sunday afternoon. But for dozens of families in our community the storm is still a very present reality. May the Lord find us faithful to “comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).