JASPER, Ala. (BP)–It was a sight 13-year-old Fritz Wilson never forgot.
It was 1974 and downed trees and power lines battled for attention across tornado-ravaged Walker County, Ala. Rain and wind pelted the area that Wednesday night as Fritz and his father, James, gathered people inside the church hallways. An entire Jasper fire station disappeared under a funnel cloud and the top level of the courthouse shifted in what came to be called the “Super Outbreak.”
Some 37 years later, Wilson looked at toppled trees, downed power lines, mangled homes, ravished neighborhoods and broken faces and saw the same thing, returning to his native state with Florida Baptist disaster relief volunteers after the deadly April 27 tornado outbreak.
But this time — instead of riding with his dad, a cable-repair man, to check on things –- Wilson arrived with years of experience as director of disaster relief for the Florida Baptist Convention.
Able to “look at a disaster and have a quick sense of how a disaster will unfold,” Wilson said God has gifted him with an ability “to look at it and make a strategic plan about what to do.”
At the annual National Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Roundtable in Lynchburg, Va., Wilson took an unexpected phone call from his mom, Bobbie, alerting him that straight-line winds had hit Alabama hard the morning of April 27 and things were going to get worse.
“It’s never a good morning when you answer the phone and your mom starts out with, ‘Everything’s OK but,'” Wilson recounted. “I was sitting with Mel Johnson [Alabama’s head of disaster relief] and jokingly told him he had a tornado and to go home.”
By the next morning, Wilson said things moved into fast forward and Florida Baptist disaster relief was asked to serve in Walker County where he had grown up.
By April 29, Wilson, his wife Deborah, also an Alabama native, and two sons were on their way to Jasper. Stopping by the Alabama Baptist State Convention headquarters in Montgomery, Wilson didn’t flinch when plans changed on a dime. He grabbed a bag he had packed separately and spent the next 10 days or so sleeping in the building’s basement with other volunteers.
“I sensed something like that might happen,” Wilson said. In Montgomery, he served as the disaster relief planning officer, coordinating the activation of out-of-state units to Alabama.
Deborah Wilson headed 120 miles north to First Baptist Church in Jasper where teams from Florida began to arrive early the next morning. Assessment teams from the National Weather Service had evaluated only a handful of the tornadoes that tore through the area, and by that afternoon, the Hackleburg tornado, 64 miles away, was rated an EF-5. The next day, they determined the Cordova tornado, 15 miles away, was an EF-4.
Deborah, assisted at times by her younger sister, served as the administration officer, took care of daily reports, coordinated communication between the disaster relief leaders and tracked Florida teams as they traveled toward some of Alabama’s hardest-hit areas.
“This was a different feeling for me,” Deborah said while in Jasper. “It’s just like old home week,” with family members and longtime friends stopping by to check in and thank her on behalf of the community.
And when the long days finally wound down, Deborah went home to stay with her mom, Ina Watson.
“Mom has been fighting ovarian cancer for so long it’s just good for me to be able to check on her a little bit,” Deborah said emotionally.
For Watson, having her daughter and grandchildren in Jasper was a special treat.
“I am very proud of her; when she does a job, she wants to do it right. Her dad was so proud of her, too,” Watson said.
Around Walker County, the buzz spread about Florida Baptists. At the same time, Deborah said, “My hometown has stepped up to the plate, basically.”
On Mother’s Day, Fritz Wilson finally made his way to Jasper to join the family and surprised his parents at Providence Baptist Church.
Bobbie Wilson said Fritz drew her a Mother’s Day card on a napkin at a local restaurant as a gift. “We always do different things,” she laughed.
Wilson said his parents understand the nature of his work and, although seven of nine large trees in their yard were uprooted by the storm, they didn’t have any expectations of teams heading their way, with Bobbie saying repeatedly the teams needed to help those with more pressing needs.
Hearing about Cordova and seeing pictures of Tuscaloosa and other heavily damaged areas of Alabama, Wilson immediately flashed back to the 1974 tornado outbreak and knew what it would be like for Alabamians — especially those in the rural areas away from the glare of the TV cameras.
“I think this is the heart of the ministry, when we look at this and we think about how devastating this is,” Wilson said.
“I’ve had a ringside seat to numerous national and international disasters over the last 12 years,” he said. “For a guy from Jasper, Ala., who graduated in 1979, I wouldn’t have imagined I would be doing this today. I am greatly and humbly honored to do what I do and that God put Deborah with me to encourage me and empower me and walk beside me.”
Wilson said his dad taught him in the manner of the Apostle Paul to be courageous.
“He wasn’t afraid to work on things, to take things apart,” Wilson said.
James Wilson said he believes Fritz is right where he belongs in disaster relief. “I think it was meant for him to be in DR,” James said. “He’s seen it and was involved after Hurricane Frederic at Mobile College [now the University of Mobile].”
Although Fritz never became a “preacher,” James said he is a minister and a missionary “because he’s certainly doing mission work because he’s ministering to people in the name of the Lord.”
Noting Fritz was responsible for the extensive Buckets of Hope food relief effort after the earthquake in Haiti, James said it makes him “proud and humble” when he considers his son’s accomplishments.
Fritz is uncomfortable about the accolades he receives, preferring at times to sit at the piano to calm inner storms, James said.
“I just want to serve God the best I can,” Fritz said, “as a husband, as a leader within the Florida Baptist Convention disaster relief ministry.”
In Florida and Alabama, much love and trust are extended to Fritz and Deborah — and appreciation for what they contribute to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.
Rick Lance, executive director and state missionary for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said Wilson provided “experienced assistance” following the April 27 outbreak.
“As a former Alabama Baptist, he knows our state well, and his disaster relief background in Florida was immensely helpful,” Lance said. “Fritz is a valuable leader in Southern Baptist Convention life as a disaster relief coordinator.
“Florida Baptists can and should be proud of his valuable ministry. Alabama Baptists are grateful for his assistance during this historic disaster relief response,” Lance said.
Cecil Seagle, former director of the Florida convention’s missions division and now interim director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, said he believes the Wilsons are a great resource.
“Fritz and Deborah Wilson are among God’s most gifted disaster relief leaders,” Seagle said. “Going home was more than a homecoming; it was our Father’s way of using a native son and daughter for His purpose in Alabama. They are simply the best of the best.”
Joni Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.goFBW.com).