From the Bible
The Bible’s writers knew of tornadoes (whirlwinds):
“And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee” (Job 1:19).
Out of the south cometh the whirlwind: and cold out of the north (Job 37:9).
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7a).
I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest (Psalm 55:8).
“Whirlwind” aptly describes a tornado with its circular winds. Tornadoes are a type of cyclonic storm. Other types are tropical cyclones (hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons), extratropical cyclones (such as nor’easters), and polar vortexes (producing many strong winter storms). While the other types are usually hundreds of miles in diameter and last for days or weeks, most tornadoes are less than a half-mile wide and last for minutes. However, tornadic energy is more concentrated with winds up to hundreds of miles per hour.
Church buildings are not exempt from tornadoes. Many have been hit, some when services or classes were in session. A number of times, people have been killed.
Almost the entire year is tornado season in the South. We are now in the general tornado season when they are likely over a wider area from the Rockies to the East Coast and northward into Canada. Ohio had scheduled a state-wide tornado drill on March 23, but it was cancelled because severe weather was forecast for that day, and people should know it’s the real thing if the sirens blare. A few rare tornadoes may arise on the West Coast.
The question is, “How do we keep people in the church safe when a tornado comes?”
In the News
Piedmont, Alabama, March 27, 1994 – The Goshen United Methodist Church just outside of Piedmont had 140 people in attendance on Palm Sunday 1994 for the Sunday School children’s program. Just before 11 o’clock, unknown to those in the church, a tornado formed to the southwest and began moving northeast, gathering strength. By the time it reached Goshen, it was F4.
No one in the church received a warning. The first indication was when they heard hail hitting the roof. This was soon followed by a roar and debris hitting the walls. An elderly woman yelled, “This is a tornado!” and people ran for cover, many under pews. This was too late for most. The twister hit the church, ripping the roof off then dropping it on those in the sanctuary. Twenty persons died, and ninety were injured.
Xenia, Ohio, September 20, 2000 – Two tornadoes went through Xenia [ZEE‧nee‧yah] while many churches were holding Wednesday evening services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. The first one, at 7:30, hit two Baptist churches, demolishing their sanctuaries.
In one, the power went out and they heard a sound like a freight train. The people started for the basement. They got as far as the hallway and bunched up on the floor against the walls. Two were injured by glass shards.
In the other church, the congregation hid under the pews. One person was injured seriously.
The two tornadoes killed one person in the community and injured 145.
Mayfield, Kentucky, December 11, 2021 – Several severe tornadoes hit three states along the Mississippi River, some of them deadly. Hardest hit was the city of Mayfield, Kentucky. The F4 tornado which went through the center of town travelled over 165 miles and killed 56 people.
At least three churches in downtown Mayfield were destroyed and a fourth was heavily damaged by the whirlwind, which also tore up the courthouse, sheriff’s office, and other public buildings, as well as a large factory on the edge of town. This was a Friday evening, so there were people in only two of these four churches.
The pastor, youth pastor, and their wives and families were in the First Baptist Church when the tornado sirens sounded. They went down to the basement and into a tunnel under the street between two of the church’s buildings. The men put their families against the wall and stood against them. Ceiling tiles shook and dirt fell when the tornado hit, but they were unhurt. Both church buildings were heavily-damaged, but still standing, while many other nearby buildings were totaled.
One block south, at Mayfield First United Methodist church, the pastor and his wife hid in a closet. The tornado took off the roof and tore down all outside walls except the front façade with the pillars. The couple was unhurt. He saw the sky when he looked up.
No people were in the First Christian Church and the First Presbyterian Church when they were demolished.
Farther north in town, two Churches of Christ were untouched. One served as a shelter for members and neighbors.
All of the churches had members whose homes, businesses, and/or workplaces were damaged or destroyed. Churches in Mayfield helped people recovering from the tornado.
Videocast and Show Notes
Kris Moloney expounds on this article, “Weathering a Whirlwind” (Tornado Safety), in a videocast on the Sheepdog Church Security Academy channel on YouTube. You can subscribe to this channel. In the comment section beneath the video frame is a link to the Show Notes (article summary). If you don’t see it, click on “SHOW MORE.” This is available for seven days following the posting (with a Lessons Learned article these are available for a month). The videocast’s audio is on a podcast.
A touchdown in a football game calls for rejoicing (on at least one side), but during a tornado watch, a touchdown calls for seeking cover:
- In 1994, a packed church was hit without warning, and 20 people died.
- In 2000, the lights went out in two churches and the people heard the train sound with little time left– the story made no mention of a siren. They took cover with few injuries.
- In 2021, there were a few people in two heavily-damaged churches. They heeded the warning sirens and took cover – no injuries.
The differences in these accounts illustrate the importance of preparation, warning, and knowing what to do (response).
As in most situations requiring safety preparation of a church building, this is much easier when planning for new construction or major remodeling/renovation. However, there are ways of making an existing church safer in case of a tornado.
Make or identify tornado shelters. The last place you want to be during a tornado is in a wide open space, such as the sanctuary, a dining hall, or a gym, or in front of windows. The ideal place has narrow ceilings, strong walls, and no windows. Ideally, this is on a lower floor, preferably in a basement. The most secure tornado shelters are underground, such as the tunnel at First Baptist in Mayfield. The door to a shelter should open inward so it can be opened even when covered by debris. This makes it possible to ventilate the area, to be heard by rescuers, and (maybe) to push enough debris aside to get out.
Stock the shelter with drinking water in case people will be in there a long time. Have a stocked First Aid cabinet to treat injuries. Ideally, there would be at least one sanitation facility and hand-cleaners. Also, have battery-operated lights and backup batteries. The Church Security Guide article “Preparing Your Church for Natural Disasters” has a list of recommended emergency supplies.
Tornado warnings save lives. Now most localities in tornado country have tornado sirens. Some places test them regularly – weekly or monthly. Besides ensuring that they work, those who live or work in the area know how it sounds and will recognize it during a real warning.
Many localities also have reverse 911. Landline phones and subscribed mobile phones will be called for emergency alerts, such as a tornado. Mobile phones can be set to receive weather alerts for the location of the user. These include flash flooding, extreme heat or cold, damaging winds, and tornadoes. I received such an alert while in a mall just before we were sent to the mall’s tornado shelter.
Alerts will also be received by weather radios. Radios with S.A.M.E. (Specific Area Message Encoding) will issue watches and warnings for your location (city or county). It is advisable for all institutions, including churches, to have and monitor S.A.M.E. weather radios. This kind of warning system was not generally available in 1994 and 2000, but now the service is available in most places.
The responses are for when you know a tornado is coming and for after the storm has passed.
It is very important to know ahead of time how to respond when you know a tornado is coming. On December 11, 2021, tornado alerts went out ahead of the twisters. This saved possibly hundreds of lives. At least one church with a tornado shelter opened it to those living nearby. The people in the downtown Mayfield churches survived because they took cover.
When a tornado alert is received, everyone in the church should go to the designated shelter, but they need to know where it is and how to get there.
- Plan routes to the tornado shelter(s) in the church.
- Post floor plans throughout the church showing the route(s) to the tornado shelter(s) from the posting location (“You are here”).
- Hold at least one tornado drill each year. Enough people will know how and where to go that others will follow.
- The Safety Team guides people to shelter and helps disabled persons.
After the Storm
- When in the shelter, check to see if everyone is there. Take note of any missing persons.
- Treat any injuries or medical emergencies – hopefully the shelter has medical response supplies. Some are available in the Sheepdog Church Security Store (Recommended Equipment for Safety Ministries) on Amazon and from Mountain Man Medical, a SDCS affiliate.
- Keep in touch with emergency services. When they ask, let them know where you are and whether anyone needs medical attention. Also let them know if anyone is missing.
- Keep those in the shelter calm. If trapped in the shelter, keep them updated on rescue attempts.
We cannot prevent or stop a tornado. The best we can do is to know when it is coming and head for shelter.
There Is More
The other three of the four articles in April are “2015 Emanuel AME Church Shooting” (Lesson Learned), “Man Down” (Knowing What to Do in a Medical Emergency), and “All Eyes & Ears” (Situational Awareness).
Get your team trained and certified through the Safety Member Certification program. Available modes are Individual Training (online), Team Training (classroom), and Online Events (live Zoom classes). The Fall semester begins in October; register in September.
- Kris Moloney, Safety Member Certification, Sheepdog Church Security [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/].
- Chris Anderson, “Ohio to conduct statewide tornado drill on March 23,” WOIO, March 17, 2022 [https://www.cleveland19.com/2022/03/17/ohio-conduct-statewide-tornado-drill-march-23/].
- William Thornton, “20 years after Palm Sunday tornado, Goshen church members ‘just pray for sunshine’,” Alabama Live (AL.com), March 27, 2014, Updated: March 28, 2019 [https://www.al.com/news/anniston-gadsden/2014/03/palm_sunday_at_goshen_a_church.html].
- Todd Starnes, “Tornado tears through two Baptist churches during worship services,” Baptist Press, September 21, 2000 [https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/tornado-tears-through-two-baptist-churches-during-worship-services/].
- “2021 Western Kentucky tornado,” Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Western_Kentucky_tornado#:~:text=On%20December%2010%2C%202021%2C%20a%20violent%2C%20long-tracked%20tornado,towns%2C%20including%20Mayfield%2C%20Princeton%2C%20Dawson%20Springs%2C%20and%20Bremen].
- Pastor Wes Fowler narrating, “Hit by a tornado, a Kentucky church still stands,” Washington Post on YouTube, December 12, 2021 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okjEGTjTt_4].
- Scott Stump, “Altar depicting Last Supper survives catastrophic tornado damage at Kentucky church,” Today.com, December 13, 2021 [https://www.today.com/news/news/altar-depicting-last-supper-survives-catastrophic-tornado-damage-kentu-rcna8562].
- Lauren Adams, “Pastor, wife were inside 100-year-old Mayfield church as it was destroyed by tornado,” WLKY, Updated December 13, 2021 [https://www.wlky.com/article/pastor-wife-100-year-old-mayfield-destroyed-tornado/38506654#].
- Sravasti Dasgupta, “Kentucky tornado: 100-year-old church in Mayfield destroyed within seconds,” Independent, December 13, 2021 [https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/kentucky-tornado-church-destroyed-video-b1974780.html].
- Erik Tryggestad, “Devastation in Kentucky: Killer storms topple church members’ houses, businesses,” The Christian Chronicle, December 11, 2021 [https://christianchronicle.org/kytornado/].
- Clayton Hester, “Mayfield church helps with tornado recovery,” KAIT 8, December 27, 2021 [https://www.kait8.com/2021/12/28/mayfield-church-helps-with-tornado-recovery/].
- Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Academy channel, YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/c/SheepdogChurchSecurityAcademy].
- Kris Moloney, “Preparing Your Church for Natural Disasters,” Sheepdog Church Security, 2018 [https://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/severe-weather-preparedness/].
- Kris Moloney, “Sheepdog Church Security: Recommended Equipment for Safety Ministries,” Amazon [https://www.amazon.com/shop/instructor_moloney].
- Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link, Mountain Man Medical [https://www.mountainmanmedical.com/?aid=18].