They weren’t expecting a tornado in January.
Residents of eastern Burke County, near Hickory, N.C., were caught off guard by the freak winter twister that tore through their area Jan. 11, causing an estimated $13.4 million in damages, but sparing lives.
“It’s extremely odd, extremely rare,” said Andrew Kimball, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “I don’t ever remember a tornado in North Carolina in January.”
Some people didn’t bother to turn on the news. “I knew there was a storm and I saw the lightning,” said 58-year-old Brenda Harnes. “But it wasn’t until I heard the sound of a freight train coming that I knew something was really wrong.”
By then it was too late to run down to the basement. Brenda screamed for her 9-year-old grandson, Silas, to meet her in the center of the living room. The two huddled together while the 115-mile-per-hour wind wreaked havoc around them.
“We were safe in the arms of God,” Brenda told Rapid Response Team chaplains Barb and Leo Grabowski Monday as they ministered to tornado victims. The couple deployed to Hickory on Jan. 13 to work alongside volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse in bringing the comfort of Christ to hurting people.
“It was scary but I am glad we stayed upstairs,” Brenda added, explaining that a 12-year-old boy who lives across the street was home alone. “When the wind slowed a little, he ran to our house for safety. If we were downstairs, we never would have seen him.”
The chaplains prayed with Brenda and with Silas, who was still a little frightened after the storm, and thanked God for their safety. Then the Grabowskis traveled across the street to check on the 12-year-old neighbor, Brandon.
“I think God saved me,” said Brandon, as he showed the chaplains the hole the EF2 tornado carved into his bedroom wall. “I was really scared at first, so I ran into the corner of the living room to hide.”
Brandon quickly mustered the courage to run to his neighbor’s house. “Jesus must have kept me from being hurt.”
The End of the World
Other residents expressed a similar note of thanks for their physical safety—in spite of the complete destruction of their homes. “God must have reached down and put a shield around us,” said Eddie Lane. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.”
Eddie and his wife, Ronda, heard the tornado coming but had nowhere to run. “We figured we’d be safer inside our trailer,” he recalled. Diving on top of his wife, Eddie saw the walls shaking and felt the wind trying to toss their home in the air.
And it did. The twister tore the trailer off its foundation, spun it around several times and rolled it down an embankment.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” said Eddie, with tears dotting his eyes. “But we survived and crawled up the hill.” Since Eddie sustained a number of injuries, he and Ronda went to the nearest hospital. “We lost everything but our lives,” he added.
When the chaplains first met Eddie on Saturday, they asked if he knew Jesus as His Lord and Savior. He replied that he did not. After praying with Leo to accept Jesus for the first time, Eddie broke into a huge smile and stated that he felt “lighter.”
Later in the day, Ronda, daughter Amber, and son Eddie Jr., rededicated their lives to Christ.
Act of Service Reaps Eternal Reward
Another couple a few blocks away survived under the protection of a mattress while the wind ripped their house to shreds. It took a full rescue squad to extract Terry and his girlfriend from the rubble. As the two recovered from the trauma on Monday, one close friend was busy cleaning up their yard.
His selfless act of service led to an encounter with the Savior.
Forty-five-year-old Randy Hall—who was off work due to the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday—decided to spend Monday removing wreckage from Terry’s yard. As he worked, the RRT chaplains happened to stop in front of the house.
After Randy told Leo and Barb what had happened to his friend, the chaplains asked if Randy knew the Lord. He did not, but he eagerly prayed to accept Christ as Savior after “seeing firsthand God’s power in the storm.”
A Close-Knit Community
As they reflected on their deployment thus far, the Grabowskis said they have noticed that the community seems close-knit. “Neighbors are reaching out to neighbors. Churches are working together and pastors have crossed denominational lines to team up and help.”
An official from the American Red Cross pointed out that most people who have been affected didn’t have much before the tornado.
“But,” said Barb, “these people have each other. They count their lives to be more important than possessions.”
This is the first deployment of 2012 for the Rapid Response Team. Read stories from 2011 here »
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