He’s been a trainer at the University of Alabama for 25 years.
For over a quarter century, he’s taken mission trips with his wife, building churches around the Southeast. He is even a chaplain at the local hospital.
But Bill McDonald could never have prepared himself for this.
Shortly after the massive tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, he found himself at Druid City Hospital, ministering to the spiritual needs to hundreds flooding in for treatment.
He was also assigned the unfortunate task of taking loved ones to identify the bodies of those who didn’t survive the deadly storm.
The first three victims were very young children.
“Eight months, 18 months and three years old,” McDonald said, recalling the first three bodies. “Those are tough moments.”
McDonald, certified as a Billy Graham Rapid Response chaplain at The Cove in February, knew from training and all his ministry experience that there’s only one way to make it through such an emotional time.
“We have to depend on the Lord to get through those moments,” said McDonald, who serves as a part-time chaplain at Druid City Hospital. “We try to tell them the Lord loves them and cares about them and will never leave them.”
It’s the same message that 35 Rapid Response chaplains have shared as they ministered and prayed with over 2,400 people around the Tuscaloosa area.
“We’re there mainly to listen, to pray with them, to comfort them,” said McDonald.
The debris-clearing efforts have been “tremendous,” according to McDonald, and the Rapid Response Team will wrap up their deployment in about 10 days.
But the efforts of the Rapid Response Team, Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations and an army of volunteers will not soon be forgotten.
McDonald was on the front lines, guiding Rapid Response chaplain coordinator Kelly Burke around Tuscaloosa in the first days after the tornado struck, using his 25 years of connections to logistically streamline what can be a very chaotic process of setting up camp.
“Thousands of people have volunteered to work either daily or on the weekend, helping them relocate, get furniture,” said McDonald, who retired as the Crimson Tide’s head athletic trainer in May of 2010. “We have a backlog of supplies just because of the generosity of people.”
The last shelter closed on Friday, McDonald said, as every person affected by the tornado now has either a temporary or permanent shelter.
“Even the national news media has recognized they’ve never seen a community come together like they have in Tuscaloosa,” he said.
But there is a long building process ahead. As McDonald stops himself in mid-sentence, he can’t help but describe the damage: “If you came out here, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Rebuilding damage estimates will reportedly reach hundreds of millions, although rebuilding won’t begin until Aug. 1, as the city focuses on clearing all debris first, a nearly $100 million task, according to news reports.
“When they’ve lost loved ones and everything they owned, it’s a tough situation,” McDonald said. “We had over 500 people reported missing. But within a week, all but five had been found.”
The current death toll is 43, a surprisingly low number to McDonald, especially after the initial mob of over 800 injured people who came into Druid City Hospital that first night.
“With the damage here,” he said. “I expected it to be in the hundreds. Our hospital did a tremendous job.”
And McDonald, himself, was part of that effort, ministering for four straight days at the hospital after the tornado struck.
“There were so many God stories that came out of this,” he said.
One he crisply remembers is walking down the hospital hallway, after praying with an older couple. The Holy Spirit told him to turn around and go back to a room he had just walked past.
Inside the woman, in her 30s, was overwhelmed. She had been praying for someone to come in and talk with her. Turns out, it was that couple’s daughter.
“The next day, she came up and hugged my neck and said ‘You were there when I needed you,'” McDonald said. “I told her, ‘It wasn’t me. It was the Lord.'”