A storm hits. It is horrible and you’re glued to your TV. How far is it? Can I drive there in a day?  Do they need us, or is help already going? Can I rearrange some things on my schedule and go? Who else can go this time?

Then the emails start flying. “We’re doing this. Can you go too?”

You stress as you scramble to wrap things up at home and at work. You think about the inconvenience, but then you remember the people whose lives have just been turned upside down. It probably isn’t a convenient time for them either. It probably isn’t convenient that there is a hole in the roof or that rain is ruining the few items that did survive the storm. It probably isn’t convenient that there is no electricity. And it’s certainly very inconvenient that there are months of paperwork ahead before they can even begin to live their new normal.

So we go. On this day, we drive 700 miles from Huntsville, Alabama, taking our chainsaws, blue tarps, and some smiling friends. All are willing to give up precious time to take a little bit of hope to a nearly impossible situation. We work with them, sit to listen, and share the love of Christ. We hope it is enough to get them through for a few days until the next volunteer crew shows up. And maybe one day they will pay the kindness forward.

That’s why we do it.

Heartbeat for Disaster Relief

My family’s involvement in disaster relief began in Pearlington, Mississippi, in September 2005 when we committed to help a storm-ravaged community rebuild. Our local church had invested in families who had relocated to Huntsville after Hurricane Katrina, and we made a trip to retrieve some of their belongings. Along the way, we stopped by the forgotten little town of Pearlington to drop off supplies. We meandered through neighborhoods and saw walls of homes scattered like leaves and roofs sunken to the ground. The first standing building we saw was a church. All that remained of it were exterior walls, the roof, interior studs, and a concrete slab. But it was indeed a building, a welcoming sight, and a glimmer of hope.

Our time in Pearlington changed us. My daughters got filthy from head to toe showing Christ’s love to strangers. Our family grew with the new faces we met and friends we made along the way. Sharing our love for Christ became our passion, and we developed a heartbeat for disaster relief work. We, like Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, were rebuilding homes and lives one brick at a time, all in the name of King Jesus.

Tragedy Hits Home

Fast forward a bit. On April 27, 2011, a massive storm system plowed through the Southeast spawning 62 tornadoes in Alabama alone. Thirty-nine were in the Huntsville forecast area, which we call home. They came in three waves, saving the most devastating for last. When we emerged from our shelter, there was no power, and most of our cell phones had no signal. We salvaged our perishable foods by cooking everything on the grill and sharing with neighbors. Some ventured out in cars and came back to report that there were downed trees, twisted power lines, and many houses with visible damage. We felt relief that it hadn’t been worse. Later that day, when we dug out our D-cell batteries and fired up our radios, we found out how wrong we were.

Surveying the Wreckage

Across the state, 252 lives were lost and more than 2,200 people were injured. The loss of property was catastrophic. Entire communities were erased from the map. Within days, volunteers began arriving in the hardest hit areas with no clear direction and very little training. Organizers soon fell into a system that began to work, but progress was slow.

I was with a group of workers doing a prayer walk in Harvest Meadows, an area devastated by the storms. As with all of the volunteers who had assisted in the aftermath of Katrina, my family and I had learned a great deal from our Pearlington trips. As our group walked, we met 12 siblings outside of their childhood home. Their mother had recently died and they wanted to rebuild in her memory so they could continue to hold their family gatherings there. They knew they couldn’t do it alone. They needed help — organized, equipped, and trained volunteer help. We heard their story. Witnessing immeasurable loss all around us, we reconvened with the others. Representatives from many different churches and organizations were working in the Harvest Meadows area that day. Together, with a common desire to make sure we were prepared for the next disaster, we answered God’s call and the idea for PAR was born.

Prepare and Respond (PAR) organized in July 2011 as a union between many volunteer groups and multiple churches. It is a volunteer-based unit funded entirely by donations. To date, there are ten fully equipped trailers positioned all across northern Alabama ready to deploy.

Working closely with the local Emergency Management Agency  (EMA) and United Way, PAR ensures volunteers are properly trained, supported, and have whatever supplies are needed to best serve those in crisis. When alerted by EMA staff members, PAR volunteers operate as an early response entity and do not enter the area until first responders clear them to do so. We bring disaster trailers, tools, heavy equipment, food, prayer, and unique skills that combine to make the recovery process just a little less painful. Trained PAR teams remove fallen trees, clear roads, and clean houses. We remove debris from yards and tarp roofs.

PAR has been busy since that first meeting back in July 2011. January 2012 tornados in Clay, Alabama? We responded. Two months later a tornado returned to our area, following almost the exact same path. PAR was there. Hurricane Sandy? We made the trip. Oklahoma tornado outbreak? We decided to go. Pop-up destructive tornados in remote Alabama counties? We are so there.

Because We Are All In This Together

If a storm ever hits your house, we will show up for you. We will listen. We will pray with you. We will tarp your roof and remove that huge tree from your yard. That’s what Jesus would do; because He gave so much for us, we give to others.

If my house was damaged by a tornado today, I know who would show up. They would be wearing PAR shirts, and they would be carrying chainsaws. They would have given up a day of work, usually without pay, and they would work until the trees are removed or until the sun goes down. On the outside they would look very different. Some would be men. Some would be women. Some would be short. Some would be tall. On Sundays, they would go to different churches and worship God in various ways. But on the inside, they would have the same authentic desire to serve God by responding to people who have been affected by disaster. They train for it. They plan for it. They come together for it. They cannot do it in their strength alone but only by the grace of God.