February 14, 2013

February tenth

On Sunday, February 10th, an EF-4 tornado ripped through our city. It started on the west side and traveled for 20 miles east. At its largest point, it was 3/4 of a mile wide. The winds were determined to be 170 mph.
{via CBS news}
No one died.

A miracle. God sustained life and he was good to our city in a beautiful and redeeming way on that Sunday.

We had a tornado warning earlier that day around 2:30. If you know me well, you know that I am terrified of storms. I take every watch and warning seriously. We have five large pine trees in our front yard, and so our house never feels safe to me during storms. Andrew saw the panic in my eyes and asked if I wanted to go to a sturdier building. I did. We drove to the campus library, about a mile away.

That warning expired in about 30 minutes, and so we headed home.

Around 4:30, we had another warning. The sirens started to go off. Wilson was sleeping and I really didn't want to inconvenience our family because of my irrational fears. I told Andrew, "Okay, let's at least get the mattress off the bed and get in the hallway." As he was getting the mattress off, I was pacing in front of our TV. Weatherman: "This is now a tornado emergency. The tornado has touched down and could be a mile wide."

I've never felt so close to fainting from fear. My worst nightmare was actually coming true. Andrew: "Let's go to the library. If we leave right now we will have time." Me: Speechless. Crying. Shaking. Grabbing Wilson (and his pants). Forgetting I have my house shoes on.

We run (felt like floating) to the car. I put Wilson's pants back on as we drive. We run red lights. I say "Jesus" a thousand times in the mile it takes to get to the library.

I hear in my head, "The name of the LORD is a strong tower. The righteous run into it and are safe." Oh, to be in the safety of that library!

We run inside. I'm embarrassed about my house shoes. No one else looks worried... just working and reading and studying. And then the lights go off for about 15 seconds. Pitch black. I feel like I'm screaming in my head, but I'm not screaming.

The lights come back on and suddenly everyone is much more serious about this. About 20 of us run into a hallway. The lights flicker again. We don't hear anything.

A student we know runs in from the stair well. Student: "I just saw it. It's huge. It went right through campus and is heading downtown."

Me: "You saw it? It's gone? It's over? We're safe?"

{via Clarion Ledger}
A view of the front of campus. SMTTT = campus mantra, "Southern Miss, to the top"

It was over... but not really over. At that moment it was bulldozing hundreds of houses downtown. Was our house okay? I really didn't care about anything but the fact that I could touch living, breathing Andrew and Wilson. My world was in front of me and they were okay.

And then reality started sinking in. How was everyone else we knew?! Andrew and I started a mad dash of texting and calling everyone we love so dearly here in Hattiesburg. Everyone was fine. Everyone was alive.

Around 6:00 we were clear to leave the library. On the way out we heard fragments and pieces of information about maybe another tornado on its way. We get in our car and drive in the wet, drizzling, darkness. I'm not sure how to describe the eeriness of it all. We could sense the doom around us but the night put a veil over it all. Trying to get back to our house, we saw pieces of the brokenness through our headlights. Trees, there were trees everywhere down on every road. It was a pure chaos. A war zone. Would this road lead to a tree down? Would this leaning power line fall down in front of us? And the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles were flashing every where. Lines of cars were backing up every road. We could not get to our house.

Andrew decided to take us to the nearest hotel. The hotel didn't have power, but we just wanted to be in a building. Wilson and I stayed there and Andrew ventured back out to make sure our house was okay. It was. Thank you, Jesus! He grabbed some things and we stayed in the hotel that night to ease all of our minds. There were more storms that night, but no tornadoes. I couldn't stop hearing the siren in my ear. It was a haunting echo that didn't leave me for the rest of the night.

We took a back way to our house in the morning (because so many roads were closed), and so I didn't see any of the devastation. Then I started to see pictures on social media. Places that were so familiar to me, that I saw every day, were twisted, and barren, and wounded.

But nothing compares with seeing it face to face, which I finally did yesterday. The tornado's path was not even 1/2 of a mile from our home. Houses are totaled and trees are just gone. The saddest thing is to drive in front of campus (a beautiful campus with old, gorgeous oak trees hovering over its front lawn)... barren. It's a giant, mangled field. A war zone.

Front of campus. This is the Alumni House, the oldest building on campus.

Again, I say... no deaths. Dare I say it again? A miracle.

But our city is hurting and so many have lost everything tangible in their lives. Andrew has been out for several days putting tarps on roofs and sawing fallen trees... he has heard so many incredible stories of survival. A student of ours took refuge in his bathroom while every other room in his house all but disappeared. A lady jumped out of her truck right before a ton of bricks from a church roof toppled on top of it.

God's hand of mercy. Everywhere.

Thank you for all of your concerned calls and texts. We have felt very loved. Please continue to pray for our city as it rebuilds... and pray for us and our ministry as we discern what it looks like for us to enter into the suffering. Our first calling is to the students, but we want to bring them alongside of us as we love our community well and hope to offer the hope of the gospel not only in words, but also in deeds.

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