On Friday, April 8, the Rev. April Milligan rented a movie, "Letters to God," then knocked on doors in her neighborhood to invite children to the church for a movie night.
The parents of three children accepted the invitation, so Milligan popped popcorn and prepared to show her young guests a good time.
"All of a sudden, I was aware of how hard it was raining, and then the lights blinked, and then they went off for good," says the pastor at Draper United Methodist Church.
For the next five minutes, Milligan calmed the frightened children while observing that the sky was green and the rain came down in sheets. The storm water was so violent, it forced itself through the church door frame, soaking the vestibule.
The pastor would later learn that a tornado had passed over the church, snapping off pine trees and ripping off roofs within two blocks -- but otherwise sparing lives in Draper, Va.
The Draper tornado was one of two that spun through Wytheville District on April 8. Another touched down in Pulaski, causing more severe damage and engaging Holston churches and the conference Disaster Relief Team in providing aid.
Churches spring to action
The tornadoes caused few injuries but were responsible for an estimated $8.3 million in property damage. Holston churches were not damaged, said Wytheville District Superintendent Meg Taylor, but local church groups mobilized to provide immediate aid to their neighbors.
An Early Disaster Response Team from the Virginia Conference, stationed in Blacksburg, was on the scene the day after the tornado, tarping damaged roofs, according to the Rev. Ty Harrison, senior pastor at First Hillsville UMC.
Jordan's Chapel UMC and Aldersgate UMC prepared 225 lunches daily for the American Red Cross to deliver to victims, Taylor said.
Mount Pleasant UMC donated a pickup truckload of canned goods and other supplies, according to the Roanoake Times.
First Hillsville UMC led a district-wide collection of flood buckets and other supplies. First Pulaski, Grant, Flat Ridge, and the Cripple Creek Circuit also donated urgent supplies such as diapers, nonperishable food, and bedding, said the Rev. Maria Grimm, district disaster response co-director.
"The outpouring has been amazing," said Grimm, pastor of the Cripple Creek Circuit.
At the Wytheville District's recent clergy meeting, 46 pastors gave an offering of $1,400 to buy food for the tornado victims, Taylor said.
Members of Auburn UMC and the Draper Circuit helped sort donated clothing where they are being collected at New Life Church of the Nazarene, pastors said.
Fifteen volunteers from Mt. Olivette UMC in Galax came to Draper to help residents in the clean-up effort, Milligan said.
Wanted: Work teams and money
While Draper is far along on the repair effort, Pulaski is in great need, disaster officials said. District and conference workers have divided Pulaski County into zones and will address the needs and aid victims for weeks to come.
"Initial tarping of roofs and street debris cleanup are completed," said Jim Fetzer, Holston disaster response coordinator. "Officials are gathering information from survivors and will compile the information to create a master plan of support and a list of their needs."
Volunteer work teams or individuals who can help with the clean-up effort may contact the Rev. Melissa Smith, Holston Volunteers in Mission coordinator, at (865) 689-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Churches and members are encouraged to give to Holston's relief effort by writing a check to their local church with "#143 -Pulaski disaster" on the memo line.
- "After storms' pounding, churches respond" (UMNS, 4/18/11)
- "Wythe lends a hand to Pulaski tornado victims" (Southwest Virginia Today, 4/15/11)