BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – As I drove through the debris of what used to be Smithfield Estates, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., I was shocked by the power a tornado has to destroy both homes and lives. The wreckage evokes a sense of awe at the power of nature, but also stirs fears of uncertainty and the lack of control we have over it. My mind began imagining different scenarios of what each family had been doing to protect themselves as the storm swept past—and the prayers that must have been prayed.
Then I thought of what I would do to protect my family during such an event and it began to overwhelm me. I gained control of my thoughts as I arrived at one of the Operation Blessing work sites, but little did I know that these emotions would quickly resurface in a very real way as I met Charles, a husband and father like me, who began to tell me the devastating impact tornadoes have had on his life.
Being men, our conversation started out like some might imagine—talking about chainsaws and how quickly Operation Blessing’s huge front-end loader can remove downed trees and debris. But the laughs and conversation soon became tears and deep emotions as I asked this husband and father of four how he was holding up after the storm.
While the OB teams worked around us with chainsaws and heavy machinery to remove trees from his yard and home, he and I stood in front of his house, both of us with tears running down our cheeks.
Charles told me that he works as a dispatcher for FedEx and was helping to direct his trucks out of harms way when he realized the tornado was heading toward his neighborhood. He called his wife and told her to grab their four children and get downstairs because a tornado was coming. He could hear as she quickly gathered up their children and ran downstairs for cover. Moments later, he heard glass shattering, his family screaming, and then nothing. The phone went dead.
As a father and husband, I can’t imagine the emotions he felt. How would I respond if the last communication ended with shattering glass and frightened screams? How would you? My heart was pounding as I listened to him talk about his fears and powerlessness to change the situation.
While I was still processing the terror that Charles underwent that night, he choked up, paused for a moment, and then told me that 34 years ago his mother had been killed by a tornado just one street over from his house in April 1977. It was the day after his 5th birthday. He held up a Polaroid picture in a stack of photos he had salvaged from his home and had been fidgeting with as we talked. It read “June 6, 1977.”
It was a photo of him as a boy, just two months after his mother had passed away. Since that tragic accident, he has always been afraid of thunderstorms. In Charles’ words, “It’s vivid, it’s something you never forget.”
This fear escalated to the highest degree when he heard the storm hit his home before cell phone communication was cut off from the five people he loves most in life.
He jumped in his car and started heading home, not knowing what might be ahead of him. He kept calling and calling until he finally reached his wife Kristen, 20 minutes later. He was so happy to hear her voice and said with tears, “Oh God, I’m so glad you answered the phone!”
“Everything’s gone. There’s nothing here. Everything’s gone,” she kept repeating to him as she overlooked their neighborhood.
At that moment Charles was still trying to find out, “Are you OK? Are the kids OK?”
She told him his family had survived and only received very minor injuries. His wife and oldest daughter had some scratches on their forearms from shielding themselves from the shattering glass, but nothing serious. Their house sits up on a hill and was on the very edge of the tornado as it came through the city. It did receive a lot of damage, but was still standing. Best of all, his family was safe.
“It was the scariest 20 minutes of my life,” Charles told me. “It’s like your worst nightmare. I thought they were gone.”
With tears of joy, Charles told me about the moment he first saw his family. Because of a gas leak, everyone had been evacuated to a school parking lot outside of the neighborhood. He arrived to a crowd of around 200 people who had been evacuated and was greeted by his children running up and wrapping their arms around him. He said, “It was hard, but I thank God that everyone survived.”
After hearing his story, I couldn’t help but give a hug to this gentle giant who opened up his heart to me. It was obvious that this man was genuine, loved his family, and was thankful that God had brought him through one of the hardest moments of his life.
Because of his insurance situation, he said that only the damage to the structure of the home itself will be covered, but not the belongings, interior, or any of the costly debris cleanup. He and his wife were extremely thankful for Operation Blessing helping to relieve him of the hard work and cost of cleaning up the trees that had fallen on his home and in his yard, and also for being a comforting ear that he could open up to.
It’s amazing the many ways we can unknowingly be a blessing during someone’s time of need. While Charles is happy to have his family safe, please continue to pray for them and other families as they work to rebuild their homes and restore their lives.