‘We Thought We Were Dead’: NC Tornado Survivors Tell Chaplains

By   •   August 6, 2020

Allen and Lori Speller have lived in their home in Bertie County, North Carolina, for the last 27 years. On Monday, they survived an EF3 tornado.

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” —Psalm 118:24

It didn’t move.

Glass shattered and the roof ripped apart as an EF3 tornado hurled through the Spellers’ neighborhood in Bertie County, North Carolina, on Monday—but the picture frame bearing Psalm 118:24 remained untouched.

Lori and Allen Speller laid in the narrow hallway where the Scripture was hung while a twister charged down their road. The fatal tornado was triggered by Hurricane Isaias, a Category 1 storm that made landfall 200 miles away.

“I was down here like this, and then he was laying on top of me,” Lori explained to Barb and Leo Grabowski, chaplain coordinators with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. The team provides a ministry of presence to communities hard-hit by natural and man-made disasters.

Startled awake by a weather notification, the Spellers rushed to find a flashlight and secure themselves in the hallway by closing all the doors. Lori remembered clutching a rattling doorknob as the house moved around them. In the distance, they heard their 250-gallon oil tank slam into the back of their home.

God’s Word remained hanging on the wall intact even as an EF3 tornado devastated much of Bertie County.

As Lori recalled the sound of glass breaking to the chaplains, the nearby pounding of hammers chopped through her conversation—a reminder of their recovery process as Samaritan’s Purse volunteers tarped the Spellers’ roof. While Billy Graham chaplains are offering emotional and spiritual care, Samaritan’s Purse has volunteers repairing homes.

“It was really that bad,” Lori said, thinking back to the storm. “We thought we were dead. We finally got up … crying and emotional … and thanking the Lord at the same time.”

Despite the shift of circumstances, their faith has stayed the same—like the hanging frame of Scripture on their wall.

“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” Allen said aloud through his mask. A daunting recovery process and high humidity didn’t stop a chorus of “amens” from ringing out in response.

“And that’s what we’ve been doing,” Lori said, although she and her husband had believed their time on earth was coming to an end during the tornado.

“We were making our peace with God,” Allen said. “I had mentally accepted that this was our departure date.”

“He didn’t want you to go,” Leo responded. “He wants you to be an example to people right here.”

“Yeah obviously. He had me, but He said, ‘No,'” Allen said, creating a circle of laughter—a once familiar sound in the home that his parents built in 1968. He later moved back into his childhood home with Lori to take care of his mom.

Part of the tight-knit community for decades, the family knew the two people who lost their lives in the storm.

“Both of them I’d been knowing all my life,” Allen shared.

One was a childhood friend, the other a former classmate to Lori and fellow church member.

“I’ve been feeling guilty a little bit because they died and I’m still here,” Allen paused. “I know God kept me here for a reason—I know all that.

“But still, your emotions are going to kick in. You’re going to feel things, and when you do, whatever emotion shows up is going to show out. So I had to pray that off.”

While the Spellers are still processing the week’s events, they’re leaning on their faith and one another. Constantly finishing the other’s sentences and lovingly teasing the other, the couple explained how they want God to use them in the next season.

“Going forward, I’ve got to tell the [Good] News,” said Allen, who hopes to be a role model while serving as a local probation officer.

Before leaving, Leo walked the couple through a Steps to Peace with God booklet, which he suggested they use to encourage others to trust God.

Lori added, “Our faith was so strong before, and it’s going to continue to grow stronger, to deepen in God—because that’s the only thing we know to do.”

Do you have faith in God during life’s hardest moments? Know Him today.


Some of the tornado’s damage just down the road from the Speller’s home.