SPECIAL REPORTS

Praising Disaster:

Suffolk Community Rejoices After Storm Hits

The after effects of a tornado that swept through Suffolk. The twister did $28 million in damage and caused 200 injuries but there was no loss of life. © Adam R. Cole 2008

A worship service filled with prayer and praise held at Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church a week following the tornado. The atmosphere was one of celebration not dismay. © Adam R. Cole 2008

SUFFOLK, Va. – To Barry Cole—and many others in his same predicament—it sounded like a roaring train, a tremendous and thunderous wave of energy. The velociraptor-like storm was a twister, so powerful that it “seemed to have a life of its own.” The tornado had made a rapid turn, like a running back cutting up field, toward his Suffolk, Va. office—head on.

Inside the once cozy confines of his office, he observed the twister’s change in direction on his weather station, an early warning detector for severe storms. Instinctively Cole and his wife, Kathy, darted for the bathroom and huddled on the floor. Ten seconds later, they heard the first big boom, which sent a tremor through the entire building. Moments later the roof had been blown away and the monstrous funnel was swirling overhead.

Is this the end? Cole thought to himself.

More tremors. A progression of breaking glass.

Cole, of man of faith, did only what any Christian would do at that moment: he prayed.

“Lord, spare us,” he said, ever-so huddled with his wife on that bathroom floor.

Another big boom and shake of the office. And then nothing. The storm had moved on.

Cole and his wife emerged out the head-on collision with the tornado without a sign of injury.

His office and his vehicles, flipped and mangled, weren’t so lucky.

How could we emerge out of that without even a scratch? Cole thought to himself. The only answer: God has a plan and a purpose in this and for each of us.

Cole’s testimony is not unique. The twisters—there were actually eight total that touched down that fateful late afternoon in late April—wreaked havoc throughout the Suffolk region, causing an estimated $28 million in damage and 200 injuries, but not a single loss of life. The testimonies seem to come from the same silver lining. I would have been home…I would have been in that room if not for…

Those of faith, like Cole, explained the fact that no life was lost as God’s grace and mercy.

* * *

Staring at the wreckage of a tornado is like gazing at a finger painting of a five-year-old—there is no rhyme or reason to it. One house is spared, just a few minor dinks, while another house is toppled completely over, the sides and roof looking like a bulldozer had done the damage.

Here in the neighborhoods of Suffolk subdivisions like Burnetts Mill, Hillpoint Farms, and Sadler Heights, two days after the storm that wreaked havoc, residents sort through what remains of their material lives. They wade through the brokenness of their beaten homes—glass everywhere, entire walls stripped out—to take comfort in the small items that are salvageable. For many, what remains is not much…some keep sakes, a jewelry box.

A good many homes survived with minor damage and a tree trunk or two sprawled out on the lawn. But a large portion of the residents in these communities returned to homes that were utterly destroyed, where it was easier to climb through a broken window than the front door.

Benjamin C. Waldrom, 24, is one resident who returned to find his house a wasteland. On a quiet Wednesday evening, two days after the storm, he solemnly collects glasses left in the dishwasher, still intact; those dinner glasses are the only items left whole in a house full of broken glass. He says that he had put a lot of energy and money into renovating the house, working with a neighbor to complete projects such as putting a granite table top in the kitchen and a beautifully tiled shower in the master bathroom, among other renovations. The renovation items still stand proud; but the rest of the house, including an entire wall in an upstairs bedroom (and everything else that had been in that room) were swept away. The only thing left untouched is the dining room table that sits out of place, a piece of artwork with a broken frame, a large square clock and those dining glasses.

Before the storm, Waldrom had just put his house on the market, already accepting a job offer in Charlottesville and moving his family there. He even had an interested buyer.

“Not anymore,” he laments, placing the dinner glasses on the granite countertop.

Waldrom takes solace in the fact that none of his family was hurt.

“I guess we’re lucky…I know if we were living here, they would have been in the house,” he says, ending the thought there, leaving the assumption to the listener of the fate that would have been for his family.

An agnostic, Waldrom doesn’t quite know what to make of the tornado and the fact that he and his family were miles away from danger. “Maybe it was just nature…maybe it was just time for a tornado to come through Virginia,” he says.

Other residents were not shy about crediting God for getting them and their house through the storm.

“Somebody is looking over us,” said Bill Banker, 46, whose house of 15 years stood strong, even though the house to his left and right suffered severe damage. His flag pole, proudly waving the American flag, also made it. You could hardly see the green grass on Banker’s lawn, but he knew that with community help, it all would be cleared up soon enough.

“We’re just blessed,” he says, analyzing the damage from his front lawn, covered in trees.

* * *

The first warning of the tornado, reported to be on a scale of a EF [Enhance Fujita Scale] 3 (with 5 being highest) with gusts registering up to 160 mph, was put out by the National Weather Service at 3:11 p.m. and another following at 3:30 p.m. By 4:04 p.m. it had touched down at the cross-section of two highways—U.S. 58 and U.S 460. According to weather reports, it then went on a 10-mile streak of fury, sweeping up cars and homes in its path.

Other touch-down areas—caused by the eight total tornados—included the cities of Carrsville and Colonial Heights, and counties Brunswick, Gloucester, Halifax, Mathews, in addition to 80,000-strong Suffolk, the hardest hit, which lies just west of Norfolk.

In its wake, the tornado(s) left 46 homes destroyed and 91 with major damage. Another 319 had minor or limited damage, according to estimates by state/local officials.

Post disaster, the community immediately went to work to uplift those besieged by the tornadoes.

Westminster Presbyterian Reformed Church became a disaster-relief center, hosting the American Red Cross. Open Door Church, just down the road, hosted Operation Blessing and a number of other faith-based non-profits, including Mercy Chefs and God’s Pit Crew, the latter of which specializes in rebuilding efforts. Operation Blessing helped facilitate “work orders” for help, and then God’s Pit Crew and local volunteers tackled the wreckage while Portsmouth, Va.-based Mercy Chefs fed the teams. The Salvation Army also had three mobile feeding units giving away meals to the tornado victims.

The overall rebuilding effort has been spearheaded by the United Way of South Hampton Roads and has also included the Suffolk Police Department, faith-based disaster relief non-profits Samaritan’s Purse and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. Volunteers poured in from throughout the country; 1,500 had registered on United Way’s online registration by Friday; Thursday’s effort alone totaled 250 volunteers. Support came in from citizens two states over, from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coastguard, and even the Boy Scouts. Chaplains from Billy Graham’s Evangelical Association are also onsite providing counseling services to victims. All facets of life were involved.

“When you see this kind of support, people coming in from all over and immediately offering services…you know that God has a hand in this, both in the disaster and the relief effort…perhaps to give us an opportunity to show His love,” said Jason Peaks, 24, who serves on the staff of Open Door Church and became the site coordinator for the relief effort. His words resonate in a parking lot full of trailers and semi trucks, each representing a key relief agency. “When you see the kind of help—and love—it’s touching…Jesus in skin.”

For Gary LeBlanc, 51, founder and main chef for Mercy Chefs, the meal preparation has been non-stop. In just one week, he and his staff have prepared 4,500-5,000 meals, he estimates. What started as a calling after contributing to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort, the former hotelier knows that the food is just a temporary solution to people’s hunger. In Leblanc’s mind, it’s about satisfying a spiritual emptiness in people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“It’s not so much in words,” he says of his ministry, “it’s just about showing the love, grace and mercy of a living God.”

* * *

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” reads Pastor James Blevins, from Liberty Baptist Church in Suffolk to a standing-room-only crowd during the church’s Sunday service, less than a week after the tornado.

A resounding message of hope, of peace, of God’s amazing grace—like the one at Liberty Baptist—swept through Suffolk churches for Sunday services.

Liberty Baptist, as a church and the 100-plus kids in day care that day, had its own testimony of God’s grace. The twister came straight at the church, twirled around on the front lawn and dashed away with the steeple, yet no one was hurt. The cross of that steeple was salvaged and lay at the altar on the Sunday of worship, a visible symbol of that grace.

A day after that first Sunday worship service since the tornado, a Monday evening exactly one week after the disaster, 24 Suffolk churches, more than 300 members of the community and 12 different denominations came together to thank the Lord for His grace, in a special celebratory service dedicated to prayer and praise. The night of worship and personal testimony was hosted by Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church, the same church that hosted the Red Cross through the crisis.

A number of community members spoke of their personal run in with the twister—and how they survived. Cole was one of them. One woman spoke about losing her entire house but followed up with saying, “But I say, ‘Thank you Lord.’”

A powerful mood of praise, even through the struggle, emanated throughout the service. There was a tangible sense of gratitude from every participant. The service lasted two hours and was filled with emotion, as hearts seemed to connect and grow more unified with each praise song and each prayer.

“Many of us may have lost our homes, may have lost our belongings, but God preserved the most precious thing of all—life. And He gave us a reminder to what is important,” said Rev. Michael Ola, a Nigerian minister who leads New Life Church, in closing remarks. Ola came forward with the all-Suffolk church service after a middle-of-the-night vision. “I look out on this crowd and the way we have come together tonight, and I know that this tornado was God’s purpose and plan. For He wanted to bring us together, to make us family, to inspire us to reach out to one another in order to show us that relationships are the foundation of life.”