When Johnny* picked up the phone, the urgency in his brother’s voice on the other end was unmistakable.
Get out of your house. And get out now.
The tornado is about to hit.
“I didn’t even shut the door,” said Johnny, who jumped in his old pickup and sped off the opposite direction. “I knew he meant business.”
The memory of those crucial seconds on Saturday evening, an epic F3 twister bearing down on his mobile home, is forever ingrained in Johnny’s mind.
As he made the right turn out of his driveway, he recalls a surreal scenario out of his peripheral to the left. “I saw something flying,” Johnny, 49, said. “I thought it might have been birds … but it was the neighbor’s house.”
And then, as he raced some 300-to-400 yards down the two-lane road in tiny Askewville, N.C., he looked in his rearview mirror, and could hardly believe his eyes.
A scene right out of the movie Twister, Johnny watched his home obliterated to a million pieces. In the blink of an eye.
His 16-foot fishing boat was later found five miles away.
Exhausted and broken, Johnny, fighting through the tears, knows there’s only one reason he was spared that day.
God called him by name.
“He gave me one more chance,” Johnny said.
‘I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHERE TO START’
To say it’s been a rough stretch for the Windsor, N.C., area is an understatement only Bertie County folks would really understand. Just six months ago, Tropical Storm Nicole flooded an estimated 80 percent of Windsor in early-October, killing six people.
This week, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response Team was deployed to Raleigh, Fayetteville and Windsor, N.C., as over 60 tornadoes reported in the state damaged over 6,000 homes.
But the tornado that ravaged rural Bertie County, home to less than 20,000 people, was one of the fiercest to hit the southeast.
Hundred-plus-year-old oaks snapped like toothpicks. Refrigerators left dangling in a tree.
Reportedly carrying 168-mph wind gusts, the funnel cloud that ripped through Bertie was responsible for half of the 24 deaths state-wide.
Johnny knows he could have easily been No. 13.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he said, tired and dazed, as he bulldozed what was left of all his belongings into an orderly pile.
But Johnny’s mom does.
She had been praying for Johnny to accept Christ as his Savior for years.
“I knew it would take something,” his mother said. “I’m sorry it took something like this.”
‘THE BIRDS DIDN’T KNOW WHICH WAY TO GO’
Saturday was supposed to be a relaxing fish fry at the nearby church.
But as the storm crept closer and warnings became louder, the church urged people to get back to their homes and bear down.
Of course, Johnny’s mom was one of the last to leave, making sure everything was picked up. It was a decision that may have saved her life.
As she hurried back to her house, she passed Johnny, who had barely escaped the storm’s wrath, and was headed to his brother’s house.
They both recognized each other’s vehicle, flashed their brights, and gave hand-signals to turn around but kept on going. Johnny tried unsuccessfully to reach his mom on her phone and was worried she was driving right into the teeth of the tornado.
And she was.
Wind and debris pounding against her modest brick ranch home where she has lived for 41 years, Johnny’s mom struggled to enter her home, where her brother, Johnny’s uncle, was staying.
Pressure had been building. Books were being sucked off the cabinet shelves.
“The sky was so weird,” she said. “The birds didn’t know which way to go.”
A few seconds after Johnny’s mom opened the door to the house – the pressure keeping her from closing the door – her windows shattered and the roof of her living room was torn off.
“When the top came off and the windows blew, that’s what relieved the pressure,” she said. “I felt like within 2 or 3 seconds, we would have been airborne.”
A 2-by-4 board then slammed through the back window of her car, destroying the steering wheel.
Miraculously, the spot she stood in her entryway and the corner where her brother was sitting ended up being the safest spots in the house.
Seconds later, the winds died down. The tornado had passed.
Johnny’s mom had survived.
Her neighbor, an elderly, hard-of-hearing woman across the street, did not as a tree fell on her home.
“It was right over there where the mattress is,” a Samaritan’s Purse worker said. “I can’t even look over there.”
‘I GOT SAVED’
Johnny and his brother, worried sick about their mom, were many miles away.
But the roads were impassable, trees and storm rubble everywhere. Time to improvise.
They decided to drive their tractors through some of the tobacco fields they farm on to get closer, but the excessive damage everywhere forced them to hop off and run the final four miles on foot, screaming most of the way.
Johnny’s mom, standing outside, heard them in the distance.
“I yelled, I’m OK,” she said.
Johnny, completely out of breath, was OK, too, but God had now gotten his full attention.
“I’ve been going to church, but I never been saved,” he said. “I’ve been putting it off and putting it off.”
In the days after the storm, Jack Dowling, a BGEA Rapid Response chaplain and a Samaritan’s Purse volunteer shared Christ with Johnny and he prayed with both men to ask Christ into his life.
“I got saved,” Johnny said. “Praise the Lord.”
Dowling came out to encourage Johnny the next day at the site where his mobile home used to reside. With help from the Samaritan’s Purse team, Johnny had made tremendous progress, but was still in dire need of emotional and spiritual care.
“You’re grieving,” Dowling said. “You’re going through a loss of your home, a loss of your way of life. But God promises you He won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Johnny sighs deeply, looking at the surrounding devastation, but knows nothing can knock down his eternal destiny. Not anymore.
And if you look closely, past the weariness of his face, you can’t help but see a hope in his eyes.
“He gave me another chance,” Johnny said.
* For reasons of confidentiality, we’re using only Johnny’s first name.
Love Your Neighbor
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