Billy Graham chaplains are deployed in the Birmingham suburbs and available to talk or listen to the recovering community, including students. Stationed at First Baptist Church of Gardendale, the crisis-trained chaplains are offering emotional and spiritual care while Samaritan’s Purse helps residents with storm cleanup.
Fultondale High School students and staff clung to one another while releasing hundreds of white and blue balloons in the Target parking lot of Fultondale, Alabama, Friday afternoon.
They watched in silence, some wiping tears from their eyes as they remembered 14-year-old Elliott Arizaga-Hernández, a freshman who died while taking cover in his basement during an EF-3 tornado on January 25. He was killed when a tree fell on his family’s home, and his parents were hospitalized from critical injuries.
Sophomore Ulises Barrios, 16, stood with three of his former teachers, sharing his perspective from being hit by the storm.
“The house took some damage, but materials can be replaced. One’s life really can’t,” Barrios said.
“Elliott will be remembered as the person that he was—loving and charming. He was an amazing friend,” Barrios continued. “His brother was on the soccer team, us on the soccer team are like a big family. He’s another one of our brothers.”
In fact, Barrios was on the phone with friends when he heard the tornado sirens first go off.
“Dude, I gotta go. A tornado’s coming. Pray for all of us,” the high schooler said before running to the basement with his family. The tornado broke the home’s windows, caved its ceilings and tore off part of its metal roof.
But that wasn’t what Barrios focused on.
“All we worried [about] was that our family was OK and everybody around us was OK. We just started helping out wherever we could,” Barrios said.
Putting on mismatched shoes and no socks, Barrios held onto his faith while charging out of the house with his father to help their neighbors, who had taken a much harder hit.
“God is everything to us. He is our Savior. At one point, the tornadoes, it split into two,” Barrios explained. “It basically went around our house and hit every other house but our house. In the backyard, it joined back into one and went down Carson Road.”
He and his father found two of their neighbors stuck under a tree—a father with his 5-year-old daughter. At first, the daughter didn’t move, and Barrios wondered if she was still breathing. As they began to move debris off of her, she cried out in pain. The father remained stuck. Hours later, he eventually had his leg amputated by two surgeons who came to the scene.
But this isn’t the first time Fultondale has faced hardship. In the past three years, the tight knit community has now tragically lost four of its high school students.
“We’re all out here as a community and we’re going to do our best to get back on our feet and bring Fultondale back to what it used to be,” Barrios said.
There’s much to be done—hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed in the tornado that reportedly reached its peak with 150 mph winds. Fultondale High School is among the buildings severely damaged, meaning students will not return to school for the spring semester or the following school year.
“It’s hard, but right now what we can do is think positive and think ahead, stay on our feet and put everything in God’s hands,” Barrios said.
“This is a moment that won’t be forgettable,” he concluded. “And someday, somebody will look back at what happened today and say, ‘Wow, I lived that.’
“We’ll look back and say it really happened. We really did it as a community, we got back on our feet.”
Are you searching for hope? Find God in every circumstance.