First the news, because a 20-death disaster doesn't get much attention anymore: At least three tornadoes, with winds possibly as high as 165 mph, hit an area 50 miles north of Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 2 between 3 and 4 a.m., when few people were awake to hear tornado warnings on radio and television.
Then the reaction: By noon that day, numerous teams from churches and the Christian Contractors Association were on the job. By nightfall the next day, some 130 volunteers had already completed 38 jobs, which included material help and spiritual comfort.
The volunteers each day came back from the field with tidings of comfort and grace:
-- One team drove down a dirt road and saw a distraught woman bolting out of a damaged house. Four Shetland ponies, along with chickens, cats and dogs, were running loose. Fifteen minutes later 30 volunteers were rounding up the animals, tarping the roof and cleaning up. When the woman asked what brought the volunteers together, a pastor sat down with her and talked about God.
-- Otto and his wife (I'll use only first names to protect privacy) lost a car, so a church secretary called a salesman at a local dealership. He talked a woman buying a new car into donating her old one.
-- Lou sat in a chair in front of what used to be her mobile home. She had a dislocated left shoulder but was grateful to be alive -- her husband Larry had dug her out of the rubble. The frame of their mobile home had landed on their van and crushed it. One person loaned them a pickup truck and a second offered a travel trailer for temporary lodging. Another person found what she thought were Larry's dentures, but they turned out to be someone else's, and a dental clinic provided new ones for free.
-- A tree that fell on Lillian's mobile home saved her life by working as an anchor, holding it in place while the tornado shredded other mobiles and left the pieces (and sometimes people) pinned up against trees. A church member with an extra bedroom took her in.
-- Twenty volunteers spent eight hours cleaning up five acres owned by a family that included an elderly man with congestive heart failure and his crippled wife. Their 35-year-old son asked how much the cleanup would cost them. A pastor responded, "Fact is, it cost a whole bunch -- but it was paid 2,000 years ago."
Many groups pitched in. Church volunteers partnered with Volunteer Florida, Neighbors to the Rescue and the Red Cross. The Orlando Sentinel lauded the efforts of five members of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
Tornado stories are not happy stories. Among the dead was retired school bus driver Jamie Wright, 55, who had left south Florida a year ago to escape hurricanes. Other victims ranged from a 92-year-old man to 17-year-old Brittany May, who was killed by a falling tree that crushed her bedroom.
Insurers estimated $68 million in damage. One tornado destroyed a church built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. The wind picked up one tractor-trailer rig and slammed it down on top of another.
But with overwhelming damage came overwhelming grace. One of those helped said, "I have never felt and experienced love like this from total strangers who work for people they have never known."
In huge disasters like Katrina and in relatively small ones -- "only" 20 dead -- like this month's, victims rarely talk about "love" when they are referring to FEMA or other governmental entities. Government certainly has a big role in responding to disaster, but let's not ignore what religious and community volunteers can and will do, especially when encouraged to come forward.