HOUSTON — The countywide tornado warning began firing at staccato-like intervals on Bethany Vermillion’s cell phone on what was becoming an unforgettable Saturday afternoon in late August 2017.
No worries, thought the lifelong Houston-area native. She’d seen plenty of disaster warnings. Even at that moment she was methodically finalizing her family’s preparations for the fast-approaching Hurricane Harvey.
“Plus, Harris County is huge, we never thought a tornado would hit near our home.”
But when she and her husband, Zak, stepped into their backyard the dark skies above were beginning to percolate. “And then we saw it — a tornado forming in the clouds. And it was close to us.”
They immediately rounded up their three children — ages 4, 9, and 12 — rushed inside their home and huddled inside the closet of their main floor master bedroom.
Noisy reports of the twister’s violence were soon filling the house. From inside their flashlight-lit closet, the Vermillions heard the menacing crack and thuds of heavy objects slamming against the outside walls.
“My 9-year-old daughter, Storey, said, ‘Let’s pray’ because we were all panicking,” said Vermillion. “I dragged out that prayer for the entire time that we could hear the tornado.”
Maybe the tornado lasted 30 seconds. Maybe it lasted three minutes. Vermillion’s not certain.
“But it sure felt like a long time,” she said. “I asked in our prayer that we would be protected and that we would be ok with whatever we found once we walked from that closet.
“I knew we needed to keep our cool.”
The Vermillions offered many more prayers in the hours, days and weeks that followed Hurricane Harvey and its destructive deluge. Like countless other Houstonians, their solemn entreaties were offered for their families, their friends, their neighbors and legions of strangers.
And they also prayed for the beloved temple that stands just a 20-minute drive from their wind-damaged home.
“We found out on Facebook about what was happening at the [Houston Texas Temple],” said Vermillion. “We saw the photos of a guy kayaking to the entrance of the temple. We couldn’t believe it.”
For Mormons worldwide, the haunting images of filthy flood water lapping at the front door of Houston’s 17-year-old temple became synonymous with the disaster. The rains breached the edifice on Aug. 26, flooding the temple annex building, the basement and the main floor, with water rising more than a foot.
Church leaders decommissioned the Houston Texas Temple for extensive repairs and refurbishments. Almost eight months later, Houston’s first and only Mormon temple has made its own hurricane comeback. It will be rededicated on Sunday, April 22, in a single session.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, will preside at the ceremony. It’s expected to be a low-key event. No open house or cultural celebrations are being staged, and the rededication will not be broadcast to meetinghouses in the temple district. Local members will attend their normal three-hour block meetings.
But Latter-day Saints here say it will be a joyful day of rededication. The temple will be open for patrons two days later.
“The Lord never left us.”
Elder Daniel W. Jones’ life was changed by the events of the past eight months. He’s watched friends and neighbors abandon flooded, mold-infested homes. And he’s found strength watching yellow-clad waves of Mormon Helping Hands volunteers from across the country, stepping forward to help.
And, like Vermillion and many other Texas Latter-day Saints, he’s looked to the day when the Houston Texas Temple would be open again for the work of the eternities.
Watching Harvey’s waters encroach upon the beloved temple caused “an awful lot of angst and disappointment,” said Elder Jones, an Area Seventy and resident of southeast Texas.
Sadly, the House of the Lord was closed for a time. But he’s quick to add, “the Lord never left us.”
The Church-directed Helping Hands service projects are continuing even as traditional missionary work is returning in full. Young elders and sisters who spent months offering sweat, muscle and smiles across flood-weary communities are now going about the work of offering the gospel.
Meanwhile, folks across the temple district have continued their temple work. Many organized excursions to surrounding temples in San Antonio, Dallas and Baton Rouge. For others, the temple closure functioned as a season of personal family history work and research. They’ve discovered, researched and indexed the names of ancestors to prepare for the soon-to-be-reopened temple.
Meanwhile, new temple workers are being called to meet anticipated increased staffing needs.
“A place that feels like home”
Clyde Criddle almost lost his breath upon learning floodwater was filling the temple. He’s lived in the Houston area for more than four decades. And he’s watched hurricane seasons come and go. Surely, he thought, the deluge couldn’t reach the high-sitting temple.
“But that amount of rainfall, in that short period of time, was just unprecedented,” he said.
A temple shift coordinator, Criddle has spent a good chunk of his life in recent years inside the walls of the Houston temple. It’s both a personal sanctuary and a quiet gathering place for loved ones and friends. “The temple is a place that feels like home,” he said. “So when it closed, we felt displaced.”
Now, Criddle is counting down the days until he can report back for duty. A few things have changed since the Houston temple’s closure. Youth are performing an enhanced role in temple service and new workers will need to be trained.
“But we are so excited to once again be with our brothers and sisters in the temple,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of the article said floodwaters breached the Houston Texas Temple on Aug. 16. The rains breached the edifice beginning Aug. 26.