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Community flattened, yet faith fanned

TALLULAH, La. (BP)–Members and guests of Willow Bayou Baptist Church told harrowing stories Sunday morning of the tornado that flattened their small community about five miles north of Tallulah, La., around noon on April 24.

“I’ve seen a lot of damage from tornadoes; never any worse,” said Jay Morgan, director of missions for Bayou Macon Baptist Association in northeast Louisiana, about 70 miles southwest of Yazoo City, Miss., where there were fatalities as well as destruction.

“Our Northeast Louisiana Disaster Relief team showed up and brought chain saws,” Morgan said. “They did some cutting, but there’s nothing left to trim limbs off of.”

Nine homes in the Willow Bayou community were completely demolished; three more, nearly so. In addition, a chemical plant where most of the people worked also was destroyed along with the area’s shipyard, according to several news reports.

Martin Parker, a native of the area but pastor of Willow Bayou just since November, said he devoted the morning service “to sing praises and to let them debrief, let them describe what happened to them and how the Lord took care of them.” Parker, who came to the church after retiring from the Air Force and earning a college degree in counseling, has seen the church grow from a dozen to about 40 people within six months.

“I see God’s hand in preparing me for this,” the pastor said.

A dozen people from “two and a half” families huddled together in the hallway of Grandma Thornton’s home during the tornado, Parker said, recapping several accounts.

Son-in-law Allen Shelton was being sucked from the end of the hall by the wind but was caught by a recliner that pinned him against a wall. Bricks from the house came flying, but because the recliner was in front of him, it caught the brunt of the damage and Stockton received only minor cuts and bruises.

An 8-month-old, Isabel, also was caught up into the vortex, but when Grandma Thornton, 92, reached up to grab her, she was hit in the head by flying debris. Twelve-year-old Rebecca stretched out and caught Isabel, and she was hit by a two-by-four, but the baby was protected by Becky’s body, and Becky’s arm will heal without surgery.

“Each one said how they were held completely down,” the pastor said. “They said, ‘It was like the hand of God was on my back.’ They were just protected.”

One woman, who had gall bladder surgery a week ago, was taking a shower. Her daughter in the kitchen called out, “Mom, the stove don’t work.” She looked out the window. “Mom, it’s a tornado!” Mother and daughter dashed into a hallway. Minutes later, that hallway was the only part of the house still standing.

“Our power went off about 40 minutes before,” Parker said. “There was some lightning and thunder, but no rain, and it was still. I decided to put windshield wipers on my car, and my wife said, ‘Did you hear that? That sounds funny,’ and at first I didn’t.”

But just that fast, he could — a faint sound not unlike the jet engines he used to work on, all revved up just prior to takeoff. Martin and Cathy Parker moved into the parsonage’s bathroom, and watched transfixed through the window as the tornado took aim at their house and the church next door.

At almost the last possible moment, “We watched as it turned 90 degrees and went across the road,” the pastor said. “It was just a wall of water going in a circle…. When they say it sounds like a freight train, that’s exactly how it sounds.”

And just that fast, the tornado was gone; the sky was clear.

“If you could see the devastation and look at each one of the houses — and they walked away from it with minor scratches and bruises — you know God’s hand was in it,” Parker said. “Absolutely. It took one train clean off the tracks — two engines with it! And it demolished the [chemical] plants.”

One of Willow Bayou’s members is a security guard at one of the plants. Several employees are among church members’ families.

Several Southern Baptist churches in the area rallied, director of missions Morgan said, and the pastor explained how: Transylvania Baptist Church had planned a fellowship barbeque for that evening. They brought all the fixings to Willow Bayou Baptist Church and provided supper that night for area residents, rescue workers and whoever showed up. Other churches brought more food as well as water. Others helped prepare the church for use as a disaster relief site.

“We were all in shock,” said Cathy Parker, the pastor’s wife. “Transylvania Baptist Church came in and just took over. They did everything…. I couldn’t get over how many different people from several denominations came to help.”

The Red Cross provided water, comfort kits and small toys. Generators appeared from area individuals. The Madison Parish Sheriff’s Department continues to provide gasoline for the generators. Western Auto donated two deep-freezes and Aaron’s Rental donated one, to store donated food until it’s needed.

“If they lose their hotel [paid for by the Red Cross] tomorrow, we’ll have 15 people staying at the church,” Parker said. “I’m just kind of supervising. I’m going to keep my church open 24/7 with coffee, water, sodas and food — come and eat or come and take it with you — for the people here and for the disaster relief workers.

“We need prayers for continued protection and for a quick resolution with the insurance companies,” the pastor said. “Those are two very specific requests. Rebuilding is always going to be a long process.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.