With estimated wind speeds of up to 200 mph, the EF4 tornado that left a mile-wide debris field hit densely populated neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa, snaking around the University of Alabama, the DCH Regional Medical Center and a high school.
Entire communities were leveled, and at least half a dozen of the association's 80-plus churches were heavily damaged.
People walked behind the police barricades, looking at the piles of timber that used to be the walls of someone's living room. They stared at trees flashing their undersides, flipping up asphalt. They watched as workers stacked huge power poles and waited for more to arrive. They walked in the blazing hot sun and accepted a cool bottle of water. Their eyes lit up momentarily.
"We talked to some of these people. They are OK. They seem to be OK," Gray said. "They can laugh, but I know they are hurting."
In Crescent Ridge, an area turned nearly to mulch by the twister, Gray said he spoke with a recently widowed woman who lives close to all of her family. And all of their homes had just been destroyed.
"They are OK as far as handling things, but in looking at the devastation, the lady said, 'Every once in a while I just have to cry, but I don't make a practice of it,'" Gray said. "I think that's a good way to put it."
Gray said he was looking forward to the arrival of Alabama Baptist disaster relief chaplains who are trained in counseling those who are faced with loss and grief. He was grateful for the volunteer team already serving alongside the American Red Cross.
"I am extremely proud of our people," Gray said. "I have been bombarded with calls from people wanting to help. It's a wonderful thing to see."
On the scene since April 28, J.D. Beck, disaster relief team leader for the Tuscaloosa association's disaster relief unit, was overseeing feeding efforts at a shelter operated by the Red Cross at Beck Park.
At the 24-hour shelter where an estimated 600 people have been staying since before the storm, Beck said the 13 Alabama volunteers were joined by two from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention who were visiting when the storm hit. The two had their gear packed and were ready, so they joined in.
One of the smallest units in the state, Beck said his volunteers nonetheless are equipped to feed up to 2,000 people at each meal. At the Tuscaloosa site, the volunteers were working alongside Red Cross workers to feed the 600 at the shelter and to supply an additional 250 meals to about six vehicles used by the Red Cross to distribute the food.
Beck, who has been involved in disaster relief work since 1994, said he believes in caring for people, even if sometimes it's behind-the-scenes work.
Standing tall beside a disaster relief trailer that holds cleaning supplies and cooking equipment, Beck stopped for a moment to work out some details with a Red Cross official about propane gas procurement.
What Jesus said about the cup of water is what keeps Beck willing to volunteer his time and effort.
"If you've done it unto the least of these, you've done it to me," he said, quoting Jesus.
TUSCALOOSA CHURCHES DAMAGED
At Hopewell Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, the tornado flipped a few shingles from the roof but otherwise bypassed the imposing brick buildings and instead tore into the neighborhood.
"Hot food and water" was advertised on a sign out front. Out back, some men from the church were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers to give to those who dropped by. Sandy Guy, director of women on mission, said the congregation is praying for those who are suffering.
"We are truly blessed and thankful," Guy said, noting that in the past three weeks three storms had gone "around" the church.
Only 16 blocks away, at Alberta Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, winds blew the steeple, roof and the front wall onto the steps, leaving mounds of insulation and splintered wood hanging from a huge opening in the ceiling of the church's newly renovated sanctuary. The educational space also was heavily damaged.
Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa suffered extensive damage, Gray said, and he was unsure whether the congregation would be able to continue to meet in its facility.
Left standing in an otherwise nearly flattened older neighborhood, Forest Lake Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa was being assessed for structural damage likely to have occurred when the church was lifted off its foundation, Gray said. The building was being used to store teacher supplies from the nearby elementary school that was destroyed. After members and volunteers shuttered broken windows and made other repairs, the church became a community center for food and supplies.
"We are trying to get more resources out to them," Gray said of Forest Lake Baptist.
The sanctuary at Rosedale Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa has "quite a bit of damage," Gray said, but the congregation may be able to meet in the fellowship hall for services. "That neighborhood is gone," he said. "It is devastated."
New Eastern Hills Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa sustained heavy damage with a large hole in the wall, roof damage and windows being blown out. They will meet elsewhere for a while, Gray said.
A few families from Temple Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa lost their homes, Gray said, but the church received only mild damage. At rural Fleetwood Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, where some of the surrounding neighborhood was wiped out, Gray said one member was killed and 14 members lost their homes.
Gary Bonner, associate director of missions for the Tuscaloosa association, said he was happy churches are working together during the crisis and reaching into their communities. The need is extensive, he said, and the disaster relief effort needs to be ongoing.
"Not for a week or two weeks, and not even a month," Bonner said. "We've never had a tornado of this velocity come right through the center of town. There is more loss of life than in the history of Tuscaloosa County.
"It's going to take a long time. We really need to do everything we can to work together and be patient," Bonner said. "We are do everything we can in the short term but be prepared to serve in the long term."
Gray agreed. He said there is hope even for the people of Tuscaloosa.
"I would say to these people that God is with us through the bad times as well as the good," Gray said. "I think everybody -- as bad as it is -- we are going to make it though, and we are come back."
Relying on God, having a good attitude and supplying people with resources will help in the long haul, Gray said.
"This has a way of rearranging your priorities," Gray said, but people can look at it and say, 'OK, it's bad, but we are make it.'"
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper and wrote this article as a special correspondent for The Alabama Baptist. View an e-edition of The Alabama Baptist with extensive tornado coverage at online.thealabamabaptist.org.
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