(Photo: REUTERS/Marvin Gentry)
The surviving victims of the tornadoes that hit near Birmingham, Ala., on Monday are probably wrestling with a variety of emotions today, including sadness, uncertainty, anger or even denial. Fortunately, they won't have to deal with these feelings alone.
Three chaplain coordinators from the Billy Graham Evangelical Association's (BGEA) Rapid Response Team (RRT) arrived in the affected area Tuesday to evaluate where volunteer chaplains are most needed to lend an ear to hurting storm victims.
"So what we're looking for is the people that desperately need our help, that maybe don't have anybody to turn to, don't have a support group, cannot afford to get their homes repaired or get a tarp on the roof, get the trees removed," Keith Stiles, deployment manager for the RRT, told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
Two people – a 16-year-old girl and an 82-year-old man – were killed in Monday's storm. The Alabama Red Cross told CNN that 211 homes were destroyed and 218 were seriously damaged in Jefferson County alone.
Stiles said his chaplains were deployed to the Center Point-Trussville area just outside of Birmingham. They spent Tuesday evening counseling those who lost their homes and are members of the church that is hosting them during their stay.
Stiles estimates that an additional six to eight volunteer chaplains will also be sent to the storm-ravaged area to provide spiritual and emotional care for the victims. The RRT will rotate in a new set of volunteers each week, however, because the emotional, mental and physical strain of providing counseling can be overwhelming to the chaplains.
"What we do is we get in there and we start talking to them and let them know that we care about them personally. It's a listening ministry. We try to get them to pour out their story – where they were, what they've experienced the last few days," said Stiles.
Sometimes victims aren't ready to share their emotions or haven't fully processed them yet, so the RRT simply helps those people to get organized and provides them with important phone numbers to insurance companies, government relief agencies and support groups.
The sudden impact of tornadoes can make the emotional response afterward even more intense than in other disaster situations, says Stiles.
"With hurricanes you know where it's headed, you have time to prepare...but tornadoes, it's unexpected. You usually have no warning. You think it's going to hit somebody else and not you. One moment your life is normal, then there's a thunderstorm, and the next thing is you've lost your home. It heightens the sense of trauma and it gives people such a feeling of insecurity."
Ron Trumbla, a National Weather Service spokesperson for the Southern Region of the U.S., told CP that seven confirmed tornadoes impacted the region between Jan. 17th and 23rd, including those that hit areas of Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.
In addition to addressing emotional needs, the RRT also works in conjunction with Samaritan's Purse, a Christian disaster relief organization that helps with physical needs. Samaritan's Purse helps with things like fallen-tree removal, disaster cleanup efforts and the recovery of some personal property, and currently has its storm-relief base set up in Jefferson County, according to the organization's website.
Stiles says the partnership between Samaritan's Purse and RRT is invaluable when it comes to sharing God's love with disaster victims.
"The homeowner has the benefit of seeing the Bible message come alive in deed and word. And it provides a tremendous impact that these people are there because of their love of the Lord, and their love for me, the homeowner," said Stiles. "So they see it acted out and they hear it in word and so it's a wonderful opportunity to share with them the love of Jesus Christ and the gift of salvation that he offers anyone."