PHIL CAMPBELL, Ala. (BP)–Annihilation seemed to loom as three deadly tornadoes ripped through the small adjoining towns of Phil Campbell and Hackleburg, Ala., killing more than 50 people. The storms came about as close to total destruction as anyone there ever wants to be.
“Fifty percent of our population is displaced,” Tim Haney, pastor of First Baptist Church in Phil Campbell, said of the nearly 1,100 people in the town.
“We have no power, no water and some people lost everything,” he said, noting the death toll continued to rise and several people were still missing. Both towns literally were flattened in parts by the storms April 27.
It was as if a giant weed eater cleared a path nearly a mile wide in Phil Campbell and more than three miles wide in Hackleburg, Haney said.
Steve Lawrence, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hackleburg, said, “There is hardly anything left in those three miles. The school is leveled. The stores, the Wrangler plant and all the houses are gone.”
While some areas were wiped clean as if nothing ever sat there, other areas contain the splintered remnants of homes, vehicles and businesses.
With all telephone lines down, communication became a serious issue. The towns seemed cut off from the outside world. News of loved ones flowed through the communities by word of mouth and sometimes took days to make it to the people fretting the most.
Still, in both towns, it was the church that became the central point of communication and the place people gathered throughout the days following the destruction.
First Baptist Phil Campbell suffered only minor structural damage to its main building and likely will have to rebuild its multipurpose building, but Mountain View Baptist Church in the same town didn’t fare as well.
“The church is gone, Bro. Sammy. The church is gone.”
Those were the first words Sammy Taylor, pastor of Mountain View Baptist, heard just seconds after emerging from a storm shelter within sight of the church.
“The building is a total loss,” Taylor told The Alabama Baptist (see the newspaper’s e-edition at online.thealabamabaptist.org). “But the church is not the building. The church is the people. We’ll get through this.”
The Mountain View Baptist family lost two church members in the storms, an adult woman and a 9-year-old boy. First Baptist Phil Campbell lost two adult women.
No deaths were reported from the First Baptist Hackleburg membership, and information from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hackleburg was not available.
While First Baptist Hackleburg received only minor damage, Emmanuel Baptist was destroyed. The church’s pastor, Gene Thomas, was hospitalized.
Lawrence said his city was in the same shape as Phil Campbell.
“At least 50 percent, if not more, of our people are displaced,” he said of the more than 1,200 people in the town. So he’s doing the only thing he knows to do — help.
He has organized First Baptist Hackleburg as a resource site for the community as well as a drop-off and distribution center for clothing and nonperishable items. Meals are being served in the church’s multipurpose center.
First Baptist Phil Campbell has a similar setup.
Amy Rollins, a member of First Baptist Phil Campbell, was the first to arrive at the church after the storms rolled through the area. She joined the group already there taking shelter from the storms and got to work.
“I started setting up for donations for people in need right away,” said Rollins, whose 6-year-old son Grant worked alongside her. “We don’t really know what to do, but it makes you feel better to help.”
In both towns, donations and assistance are pouring in from individuals, churches and businesses across the state. But water, food and clothes are not all those in need will receive. Haney plans to put a New Testament in their hands as well.
“We are planning to meet their physical needs and their spiritual needs,” he said, noting the Sunday service would take place as normal.
“We are out advertising we will be here Sunday,” Haney said April 29, noting an average Sunday attendance is 110–120.
“You might have a few more this Sunday,” a town resident picking up supplies from the church whispered in Haney’s ear as he walked by.
“Amen, brother,” Haney said. “I’ve been waiting for you to join us.”
At Mountain View Baptist, the May 1 service was scheduled to take place outside next to the demolished sanctuary as a time to “be together, pray together and love on each other,” Taylor said.
The sadness, shock and numbness among residents in Phil Campbell and Hackleburg stilled the air for any who witnessed the surreal atmosphere surrounding the two towns.
“We are shell shocked,” Rollins said. The dazed, robotic movements of those sifting through piles and piles of debris proved her point.
Taylor said the reality of what has happened has not truly sunk in yet. His wife Judy said, “I cry a lot.”
She’s not alone. Few people could speak of the horrific event days later without wiping away tears.
The smell of blood in the air still haunts Haney, and the heaviness of all that has happened and all that is to come shows in the weariness of the pastors’ faces.
“This is so massive,” Haney said. “In the matter of four minutes life as we know it changed.”
Jennifer Davis Rash is managing editor of The Alabama Baptist. View an e-edition of the newspaper at online.thealabamabaptist.org. Donations to disaster relief can be made to state conventions, or directly to the North American Mission Board’s disaster relief fund, at NAMB.net, or by calling 1-866-407-NAMB (6262). A $10 donation can be made by texting “NAMBDR” to the number “40579.”