As the school’s principal saw the tornado dancing over the horizon, this was no longer a drill.
Bruce Potts is the principal of Sonoraville High School in Calhoun, Ga., home to 15,000 residents located an hour northeast of Atlanta.
“I was scared to death,” Potts said. “I’m responsible for over 1,100 folks at our schools.”
At 11:45 a.m. on Jan. 30, he specifically felt the weight of an entire town’s student population on his shoulder as an F3 tornado hurled directly at the school campus, which houses all three Sonoraville schools — elementary, middle and high.
“It was a big deal in the community,” said Jim Giannestras, a chaplain who responded to Calhoun, Ga., with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. “He had the kids hunkering down.”
As the twister came into focus, Potts ordered the students to brace themselves for impact: “Hold onto your books, put your faces in your book bag and don’t move.”
“It was silent in the high school as the tornado went rumbling by,” Potts told Giannestras.
Yes, at the very last instant, the F3 storm shifted course just enough to miss all three schools.
But in its wake it left quite a mark on this small town, despite only a few intermittent touchdowns. An estimated 500 houses were completely destroyed with another 197 damaged.
“In the midst of the craziness the Lord spared all our lives,” Potts said.
But it also left a city emotionally reeling, including the principal who helped organize more than 1,700 meals that were distributed to the city at the school.
“He’s just been an outstanding example,” said chaplain Sandy Giannestras.
Potts shared with both Jim and Sandy for several hours this week about the struggles he’s faced as the town tries to rebuild from the rare January storm that killed two people in a nearby county.
“He just really needed somebody to talk to,” Sandy said. “He talked about the weight of responsibility on his shoulders and admitted he was really frightened. Tears started coming down his face.”
Potts was excited to receive the call from Jim and Sandy, who explained they were chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, deploying alongside volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse.
“He said, ‘Oh my goodness, Billy Graham chaplains — I’m so glad to hear from you. I’ve got shivers going down my spine,’ ” Sandy said. “He made it really clear that ‘Boy do we need you.’ “
“When they came we were still a little bit on edge,” Potts said. “They were very comforting,”
Jim and Sandy will spend two weeks ministering to the Calhoun community, sharing the hope and love of Christ to those who have been affected by the tornado.
“One thing I keep thinking is that by national standard or by tornado category, some may say this is not a big deal,” Jim said. “But to these 700 families, it’s very significant. It’s the biggest thing ever.”
It’s the first deployment of 2013 for the Rapid Response Team after 31 deployments in 2012 — including several that carried over from 2011 disasters. The Hurricane Sandy deployment in Nassau is set to wrap up next week.
Rapid Response Team chaplains Al and Toni New have deployed to Bundaberg — in Queensland, Australia — to help with a massive flooding relief effort.
Al and Toni join crisis-trained Billy Graham chaplains from Australia, along with a team from Samaritan’s Purse to help meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the survivors.
News reports say the Queensland flood levels are far higher than the ones from 2010 and 2011. Local authorities have estimated 3,000 homes and 7,500 people in the Bundaberg area have been affected.