Just hours before some 150 tornadoes touched down April 27 across six states in the U.S. South — carving a historic and tragic swath of death and destruction — Colleen Robbins shared a harmless joke with her husband, Wade.
The longtime Tuscaloosa, Ala., resident and Church member was no stranger to the sorts of tornado warnings that were being issued that day. She knew most such warnings are issued and pass without a twister ever touching down. So that day Sister Robbins told her husband, tongue in cheek, "that I'd be hiding in our bedroom's middle closet when the tornado hits our home."
That's exactly what happened.
Late in the afternoon, Sister Robbins, a member of the Tuscaloosa Ward, Bessemer Alabama Stake, heard on the radio that a tornado had touched down some four minutes from her home. She was caring for her 1-year-old granddaughter, McKenna, and decided to take the toddler and move to her bedroom as a precaution. "With tornadoes, you always just hope they won't hit you."
Sister Robbins and McKenna were on the bed together when rocks began pelting the side of the home. The two hurriedly ducked into the bedroom closet. "A moment later my bedroom window blew out — it sounded like a bomb," she said. Terrified, both began to cry. Sister Robbins tried to pray in-between her sobs. She looked up, watched the roof twist from the top of her brick home and peered into the blue sky.
In just seconds, the tornado had demolished the family's home. "But when it was over, we were OK," Sister Robbins told the Church News. "It was as if the Lord had put His hand on us and protected us."
Despite losing her house and countless possessions, Sister Robbins considers herself blessed to be alive. She's especially grateful little McKenna was unharmed. She knows hundreds were not as fortunate. At press time, 328 people from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia were reported killed in the April 27 twister outbreak. Meanwhile hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed, leaving thousands without homes and, in many cases, without jobs in a region already staggered by a weak economy.
No missionaries or members were harmed in what's being called the largest tornado outbreak since the Great Depression. Still, several member families in the Bessemer Alabama Stake, Tupelo Mississippi Stake and Jackson Mississippi Stake lost their homes entirely or are dealing with significant damage. Many members and missionaries have found shelter in the homes of fellow members. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of homes across the impacted Southern states were left without power for several days following the twisters.
"The devastation of this disaster has been overwhelming," said Sister Robbins, who is staying with her family with friends from the Tuscaloosa Ward.
Alabama member Jim Phillips reported that electrical service in his neighborhood was interrupted for almost a week. "Many spots in the [state] are just obliterated," he said.
No Church-owned buildings were significantly damaged.
Members in this area are no strangers to natural disaster. Legions were enlisted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to assist their fellow members and hurricane-weary neighbors to the south. Now many who were benefactors of service following Katrina have become the beneficiaries of such assistance. When the tornadoes finally passed, the members across the region were quick to help any and all in need.
"I have been so impressed with the Church's organizational [skills] and dedication to helping others rebuild their lives," said Alabama Birmingham Mission President Richard Holzapfel.
The missionaries and members were immediately enlisted to assist others with a variety of humanitarian aid. Some members have taken in friends and fellow members while others have worked long hours to clear fallen trees and building materials around damaged homes. Many have assisted tornado victims to search for valuables scattered across debris-strewn lots.
Members in the Birmingham area had planned for a weekend day of service long before the tornadoes hit. As part of the event, a truckload of bailed clothing had been shipped from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City to distribute to residents of the community. Many who lost everything to the tornadoes were able to find clean, quality clothes at a local LDS meetinghouse just days after the disaster.
Local priesthood leaders have also worked tirelessly with Church authorities and welfare workers in Salt Lake City to coordinate relief efforts. Sacrament services were conducted on May 1 in areas impacted by the storms, but many local members spent the Sabbath out and about in their communities, helping all they found to be in need.
A large-scale service project has also been organized for May 7-8, with thousands of members from the U.S. South expected to travel to affected areas and spend the weekend providing service.
President Holzapfel said he has seen many in the devastated communities come together as they have both rendered and received service.
"People's hearts have turned to what's really important," he said. "There is a feeling here that we are a real community."
Brother and Sister Robbins continue to recover from the shock of losing their home and witnessing one of the many tornadoes at ground level. Still, they said they have been sustained, thanks to the love and support of their fellow members. Brother Robbins has even maintained his sense of humor. Just days after the twister destroyed his home, several visiting priesthood leaders stopped by the family's demolished lot to check on their welfare.
Brother Robbins greeted the men, saying "Brethren, if I knew you were coming I would have cleaned up a little."