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May 13, 2011 | Nancy Phillips

St. Luke's on the Lake, Austin, Visits Tornado Destruction

Tornado St. Luke'sSt. Luke's on the Lake, Austin, has been at the forefront of relief work in Mississippi and Alabama after deadly tornadoes swept across the South at the end of April. To learn more about their efforts, and to view photos, visit their website.

 

Allen Griswold, long-time member of St. Luke's on the Lake Episcopal Church, accompanied by Senior Pastor  the Rev. Mike Wyckoff, pulled out of the church parking lot early Thursday, May 12th, towing a trailer loaded with supplies to help the victims of the recent tornados. They covered a lot of ground and blessed a lot of people with the donations of cash and materials provided by members of St. Luke's and the Four Points community.   

 

After driving all day Thursday, Allen and Mike spent the night in Jackson, Mississippi, with Griswold's relatives.  They traveled to Smithville, Mississippi, on Friday. Griswold's description of the scene:  "As it's been reported, it's just total destruction that's beyond belief."  

 

There are no Episcopal churches in Smithville, but John Turner, pastor of  Pascagoula's Ingalls Avenue Baptist Church, connected the St. Luke's team with the First Baptist Church and the Church of Christ relief efforts. Griswold first met Turner during a similar St. Luke's relief mission to help Pascagoula in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Griswold and Wyckoff also did what Griswold believes is even more important to do--to get out to meet the people face-to-face where they live--even if all that's left is a slab.

 

Griswold spoke of meeting an elderly woman, a three-time cancer survivor, who rode out the Smithville storm. Her pier-and-beam house was picked up by a twister, spun around three times, and set down in tree on her property. Griswold and the church alliance have committed to helping her rebuild her home.

 

Wes White, pastor of the First Baptist Church, showed Griswold a concrete statue of an angel sitting in front of the church office. White and the youth director rode out the storm in that office. The church itself was demolished. When White cleared the debris from the office door, he saw the angel.  He had never seen it before, and had no idea where it came from.

 

"Among all this stuff, you find things that are mind-boggling," said Griswold.

 

Later Friday, Griswold and Wyckoff drove to Hackleburg, Alabama, another hard-hit community. The former mayor of Hackleburg had set up a shower station and shelter for victims and workers. Griswold left all the donated gasoline with him to run the shelter generators. 

 

Phil Campbell, Alabama, was the next stop. Completely demolished, the mayor there said that 3% of the population of 1,860 had perished, and 13% were hospitalized.  On the way into Phil Campbell, Griswold stopped to talk to a woman parked on the side of the road.  Her 88-year-old mother had ridden out the storm; her house was badly damaged, and they were low on supplies. The St. Luke's trailer was a Godsend.

 

By Friday night when they stopped over in Columbus, Mississippi, every single item that was donated by the community--enough to fill the trailer to the ceiling--had been given away and was comforting someone. Griswold remarked that people were especially touched by the fact that we had thought to send baby blankets and pillows and Bibles. Those things, he said, "stopped people in their tracks." Griswold also gave people cash to pay bills or buy supplies.

 

Griswold and Wyckoff drove to Tuscaloosa Saturday to connect with Wyckoff's daughter SoRelle after a frightening near-miss by the Tuscaloosa tornado.  SoRelle, a student at the University of Alabama, was studying for finals with friends in a house near campus. When they realized that the tornado was bearing down on their location, the friends piled under a mattress, linked arms and legs, and grabbed the mattress handles for protection.  They felt the suction of the storm pulling them up, but their combined weight was great enough to stabilize them, and they survived. A friend studying in a different location was not so fortunate. Her body was found a two blocks from her home.

 

"We're talking to big ol' burly unshaven country boys, telling us their story.  When we hand them cash or supplies to help them, you can see the tears welling up in their eyes," Griswold said. 

 

Griswold commented that people he met are really scared. They are scared that when the media leaves, and this disaster is off the radar screen that they will be forgotten. Griswold and St. Luke's intend to keep that from happening.