You will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. ~ Isaiah 29:6
Call it what you may – cyclone, tornado, dervish, twister, funnel cloud, whirlwind – a tornado is terrifying, even the threat of one. This is true both on the ground and in the air. A jetliner cannot fly high enough to avoid severe turbulence when over a system spawning tornadoes. Just ask anyone who has been on a plane at that time and place.
Tornado terror is nothing new, as shown in the Scripture passages above. The whirlwind is the metaphor for all kinds of sudden severity of devastation and distress. Dorothy may have been safely transported to Oz by a tornado, but realistically that is only a dream. The truth is that tornadoes are often capricious in what they spoil or spare, so the realistic response is to play it safe, don’t take chances.
Tornado season in the United States has continued from the Spring of 2016 through Summer, Fall and Winter in the South. As this is being written, it is less than a week since tornadoes hit New Orleans, damaging several facilities, including those of churches, such as Suburban Baptist Church and New Orleans Seminary.
Although tornadoes may touch down almost any place on Earth, they are more common in the United States, especially in the Midwest and South. The reason is the position of the Gulf of Mexico. Warm, moist air from the Gulf moves northward to meet cooler air moving east from the West Coast or south from Canada. In Spring and Summer, Tornado Alley stretches north into Canada.
Churches and Tornadoes Past and Present
June 30, 1912, Regina, Saskatchewan –
A tornado, known as the Regina Cyclone, rips through town just before 5 PM, killing 28 people and heavily damaging three downtown churches: Metropolitan Methodist, Knox Presbyterian, and First Baptist. So far, this is the deadliest Canadian tornado.
2 Knox Presbyterian Church[Wikipedia]
June 12,1899, New Richmond, Wisconsin –
A waterspout on Lake St. Croix becomes an F5 tornado. It reaches town about 5:30, just an hour after a circus closed for the day. Darkness and rain become terror, killing 117 people, both in town and in the countryside. Over 300 buildings in the twister’s path were flattened. Winds were strong enough to carry a 3,000 lb. safe a block. As to churches, only two were left standing.
1 Metropolitan Methodist Church (L)
and YMCA (R) [Wikipedia]
3 Ruins of Methodist Church [Wikipedia]
An EF1 tornado damaged several buildings, including four churches. Only one building collapsed. Most of the damage was done to roofs. Only 5 people were hurt, with minor injuries.
March 30, 2016, Tulsa, Oklahoma –
At least three tornadoes touch down in the Tulsa area, damaging several churches. This was a Wednesday night. At the time, services, classes or prayer meetings were in session in some of these congregations, including St. Paul A.M.E., Bethel Seventh Day Adventist, and Timothy Baptist.
February 7, 2017, New Orleans, Louisiana –
Several tornadoes hit the New Orleans area on Tuesday. Among damaged buildings were those of Suburban Baptist Church and the campus chapel of New Orleans Seminary.
Semper paratus, the Boy Scout motto, means “always prepared”. Our job as a Safety & Security Ministry is to be ready to protect the flock, not only from crime and in case of fire, but in severe weather. When it comes to weather and natural disasters, planning and preparation are essential. The Church Security Guide on Sheepdog Church Security has a chapter on Severe Weather Preparedness. In this case, it means being ready to keep those in the church safe while facing funnel clouds. Preparation for tornadoes, as for other weather situations, means knowing what to do just in case the twister comes, and having in place what is needed.
Tornadoes develop during certain weather patterns, the same kinds that produce severe thunderstorms. The above passage from Psalms includes lightning and earth-shaking thunder along with the whirlwind. If these conditions are developing when services, classes, meetings or events are going on or scheduled at the church, the Safety Team should monitor the weather and be equipped to receive tornado alerts. The team member monitoring stays in touch with other team members. Know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A watch means that conditions are right for tornadoes. A warning means that a tornado has been sighted or detected.
Sounding the Alert
If a tornado or funnel cloud is spotted with the church possibly in its path, all persons in the church facilities are directed to go to designated tornado shelters. Ideally, there should be a place in each building, so that no one has to go outside to get to a shelter. If there are people outside when the alert is sounded, they need to be warned to get inside and to the shelter immediately. Nobody should be in a vehicle at this time.
Planning for keeping the congregation safe in the event of a cyclonic storm begins with a Church Security Assessment. Since tornadoes are associated with thunderstorms, protection from lightning strikes will be included in the survey.
If the church is located in an area with a likelihood of tornadoes, identify places in the church building(s) that can serve as tornado shelters. These would be on the lowest floor (basement, if you have one). Best are interior hallways and rooms with stout walls and short ceiling spans. Ideally, they would have reinforced concrete walls.
If the congregation is planning on new construction or remodeling, this would be the ideal time to intentionally include tornado shelters. To be financially feasible, a shelter should be a space that is regularly used. This has the additional advantage of being an area with which members of the congregation are familiar. They know where it is and how to get there. For children, the benefit is the comfort of a familiar place. When St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Joplin, Missouri was rebuilt after the devastating tornado in 2011, a section of interior rooms with a corridor was designed as a tornado shelter.
Plan routes to the shelter(s) from every area of the building(s). Map them out on a floor plan. These maps can be posted on walls in classrooms, meeting rooms, the sanctuary, and the foyer. Areas the hold large numbers of people, such as the sanctuary/worship center and an event center, need more than one exit – the more people it holds, the more exits it needs. The larger the church, the more stairways it needs into the basement. As with fire evacuations, the intent is to get all the people to safety without jamming doors and passageways.
The church can also plan to be a shelter and resource for the community. St. Mary’s planned on being a shelter for those passing by if a tornado alert is sounded. Your church can also be a shelter for those in the immediate vicinity at the time. If the tornado misses the church, it can also be a center for relief efforts. For this, it needs to be prepared with some supplies for displaced persons staying there.
If there are any injuries, either in the church building or with people coming in after a cyclone, members of the Safety Team can administer First Aid. Members of the team should be trained in responding to medical emergencies.
Just as every church needs fire drills, churches in areas where tornadoes are likely need tornado drills. March is a good month to start these, as this is when the main tornado season begins. If a tornado warning is issued during a Sabbath or Sunday morning service, everyone will know which exit from the sanctuary to take, which hall to follow, and which stairs to descend.
Being Ready Saves Lives
When the North Tulsa tornado sirens sounded, members of the three named churches moved into recognized shelter areas, and no one was seriously injured. However, if the twister had been much more powerful, this might not have been enough. Considering how prevalent tornadoes are in that area, more secure shelters are advisable. Hopefully, this was taken into consideration in plans for rebuilding.
State and local government emergency services can help in planning for tornadoes. The church’s insurance provider can also offer advice.
Sheepdog Church Security has several online resources related to preparing to face funnel clouds:
* Emergency Operations Planning http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/emergency-operations-planning
* How to Conduct a Security Assessment http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-assessment.html
* Preparation and Response for Strong Windstorms: Facing the Whirlwind http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/preparation-and-response-for-strong-windstorms
* ‘Til the Storms of Destruction Pass By: Protecting Children Through Tornado Drills http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/til-the-storms-of-destruction-pass-by
* Drill! Drill! Drill! http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/drill-drill-drill
* Code Blue: Responding to Medical Emergencies http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/code-blue-responding-to-medical-emergencies
* Keeping in Touch http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/keeping-in-touch
* A Shelter in the Time of Storm: The Church as a Refuge for Evacuees and the Homeless http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/a-shelter-in-the-time-of-storm
There is also a downloadable Training Bundle, Severe Weather and Natural Disasters v1 https://www.sheepdogchurchsecurity.com/shop/bundles/severe_weather.html.
We also have a newsletter, The Church Guardian.