Yesterday, around 4:15pm, an EF-3 tornado (160 mph) skipped across Suffolk, VA. It touched 6 neighborhoods. Today, I joined 7 other Disaster Relief volunteers assessing the damage for the Southern Baptist Convention. We looked at over 500 homes in 4 of the neighborhoods, assessed damage for 2/3 of them, and observed 24 destroyed homes, some with little more than the front steps remaining.

See pics here and here.)

Along the way, I saw how three churches in the affected area reacted. The first was a small church of 50 just outside the police checkpoint. We were some of the first volunteers there, and the church was open, running a generator. They were serving pancakes and coffee, and let us use their parking lot. We created an impromptu planning session with another Baptist Disaster Team that saw our van and stopped. I spoke with them about our efforts to be ready to respond, but they did a good job of doing whatever they could with what they had. And after assessing that area, they fed us (and any who stopped by) hot dogs and sodas.

That other team was on their way to a church just outside the southernmost disaster area. That church had hosted Disaster Response recertification training just last week. They opened their facility to be a volunteer reception and coordination area. They were prepared, and they knew what to do, and had people in the neighborhoods very quickly to help clean up and cover (with tarps) open spaces in the houses.

The third church, unfortunately, was not as prepared. They were less than 1/4 mile from one of the hardest hit areas, just across the road from the city’s disaster command post. Yet, when I walked up, with power crews parked in their lot (fixing the lines to the hospital), only one person was there, and he came to mow the yard so it would look nice for when power . He agreed it would be good to do something, and lamented the inability to provide water bottles to the work crews on his property (not thinking of a thermos of ice water and paper cups). The pastor showed up later, and found some of his parishioners standing around and eating at the nearby sub shop. Yet they were still waiting for someone else to come do something at their church.

We do disaster response to get us past the police checkpoint. Even with training, credentials and precoordination, we spent a lot of time standing around, talking our way through multiple sequential checkpoints and doing things that seemed non-productive. (However, having blazed a trail, whoever goes tomorrow will have an easier time getting through those checkpoints.) But once at disaster ground zero, we were able to talk to homeowners about their problems, praying with and for them, letting them talk about their problems, and setting the stage for others to quickly come to do more direct response.

I wouldn’t wish a disaster on anyone, but if a major event happens on your doorstep, what will you do to show your neighbors you care? They want to know you care before they will listen to why you do it. But if you let the Spirit move you and look for ways to be used, they will see your good works before men and hear your heart.

p.s. – On Wednesday the local news reported that Baptist Disaster Relief workers were already removing branches from people’s yard. You can’t buy better coverage than that!

c2008, Mike Mitchell, all rights reserved

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