Tornado touches down locally

LU Send Now students respond to natural disaster about 30 miles from campus

Donned in blue jeans and laced-up work boots, more than 20 Liberty University students piled into two Liberty vans and made the half-hour drive off campus on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 28.

As the vans filled with students pulled into the Evergreen Baptist Church parking lot on White Pine Drive in Appomattox, Virginia, the damage was evident.

Havoc — The tornado ripped through the Evergreen community in Appomattox. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

Havoc — The tornado ripped through the Evergreen community in Appomattox. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

Trees were uprooted, power lines were down, house siding was ripped off, and roofs were obliterated.

Students from Liberty’s newly created disaster relief program, LU Send Now, made the trip from Lynchburg, Virginia to help with relief efforts after a tornado struck the Appomattox community Wednesday, Feb. 24.

LU Send Now began mobilizing teams quickly after a tornado struck the neighboring community, with the first team coming to serve Friday, Feb. 26.

After students arrived, they were debriefed by Mark Gauthier, the state disaster relief director for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Virginia.

Gauthier said the SBC was on-site in Appomattox, Virginia at 7 a.m. Thursday morning, close to 12 hours after disaster had struck.

Willie Pearce, a part-time volunteer with the SBC disaster relief, said the beginning stages of relief were to calculate the damage.

“We did evaluations the first day … and went up and tried to evaluate the damages and get work orders for people (of) what their needs were,” Pearce said. “And of course today and yesterday (we were) cleaning yards, separating out personal belongings, that type of thing.”

Gauthier said the next phase of disaster relief the LU Send Now students assisted with Sunday, Feb. 28 was cleanup.

“What we are doing right now is working with homeowners to help them clean up after the storm,” Gauthier said. “We are still putting up tarps on roofs. We’ve got rain coming in on Tuesday, and we want to make sure all the houses that have roof damage have tarps on them. We are also doing chainsaw work, cutting up trees that are in the yards, helping homeowners recover their belongings, sorting through their belongings that have been damaged or destroyed, helping them recover what they can, and sorting through and (deciding) what they cannot save.”

After the debriefing, LU Send Now student volunteers were broken into smaller groups and assigned specific work orders.

Gauthier said Evergreen Baptist Church has become the center of operations for the relief effort.

“Evergreen Baptist Church (was) at the epicenter of the storm,” Gauthier said. “It’s really centrally located on both directions where the storm (was). Right across the street there was total devastation, but the church itself has very little damage, has power back, and we’re able to use this as a headquarters.”

A portion of the LU Send Now students then traveled 10 minutes down the back roads of the small country town to a secluded house far off the main road. As the students approached the house, the damage was instantly apparent.

The students were quickly put to work by homeowner Joey Davis. Davis’ former multi-story house had barely two stories left as the students began sorting through belongings in what was his former basement bedroom. Some students headed to the destroyed backyard barn to try to salvage any tools that could be recovered.

Davis, who is a tractor-trailer driver by trade, said he was in Bloomington, Illinois when the tornado ripped through his home, taking off the roof. He said his youngest daughter, Jo Elizabeth, called him and told him what had just occurred.

“You don’t know what to think,” Davis said. “You kind of think at first, ‘You’re kidding.’”

His daughters were standing on the porch moments before the tornado approached when they decided the storm was getting serious, and they needed to seek shelter immediately. Davis said his oldest daughter, Amy, her fiancé, Jake, and Jo Elizabeth were hunkered down under a mattress in a corner of the basement at the touchdown of the tornado.

Davis said his family was unharmed as well as his pet horse that ran away during the storm but later returned.

Davis returned to his home in Virginia the following day to check on his family and his house.

He remembers what went through his mind as he approached his home.

“Me and my wife and a friend of ours built this house a little over 20 years ago,” Davis said. “Jo was a baby. We built this house, ran all the wires, all the plumbing, everything. When I came down the hill and (saw) the house, it looked like I was about to build it.”

Resilient — Appomattox officer and grandson of Keith Harris, who died in the storm, looked at the damage. The officer was the first to find his grandfather’s body. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

Resilient — Appomattox officer and grandson of Keith Harris, who died in the storm, looked at the damage. The officer was the first to find his grandfather’s body. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

After not receiving much assistance because of the rural location of his home, about a half-mile from the epicenter of the storm, Davis said his middle daughter’s future mother-in-law called the City of Appomattox requesting help.

He said 150-200 volunteers appeared Saturday, Feb. 27, including the Appomattox County football team, the Brookville High School football team, the Appomattox County girl’s softball team, and people from Henrico County.

The Liberty students who came to help Feb. 28 worked alongside Davis to sort through the debris in his bedroom — brick, pipe, wood, carpet and pieces of glass. Among the pile of rubble, memories of Davis’ late wife were found.

“My wife passed away in April, so (it has been) almost a year (since) I lost my wife,” Davis said. “We were married for 34 years. She was my mechanic help. If I had to change a transmission in a truck, she was right there helping change the transmission (and) motor. She was right there. No matter what I (did), she was right there. (If) she needed help doing something, I was there. We were best friends.

We were husband and wife. She had cancer, and when she got to where she couldn’t do anything, I’m out here by myself, pushing and struggling to get things done, too proud to ask someone to come help me.

But that’s just the way I am.”

With his home in an unlivable condition, Davis said his friends have allowed him to borrow two campers because Davis’ motorhome was torn to pieces in the storm.

Though he has suffered two catastrophes in his life in less than a year, Davis encouraged the Liberty students by telling them that God has gotten him through the difficult circumstances.

Other LU Send Now students traveled to another devastated home and assisted with the cleanup effort.

Freshman mechanical engineering student Marshall Davidson, one of the Liberty LU Send Now volunteers, said his group picked up items around the damaged house because it was condemned as unsafe. The students could not go inside, so they assisted outside and helped chainsaw workers clean up brush.

With homes completely destroyed in the Appomattox County area, many families needed assistance with preparing meals. Located in the Evergreen Baptist Church parking lot, families could find sustenance for free provided by Mercy Chefs.

Gary LeBlanc, the founder of the emergency feeding organization, said the government called his faith-based charity and requested their services in the Appomattox area. He said Mercy Chefs has been serving around 800 chef-prepared meals a day to victims, volunteers and first responders in the affected area.

“VDEM (Virginia Department of Emergency Management) called and just said that we need you to deploy,” LeBlanc said. “I had already been watching everything going on up here. I have friends and connections throughout, and I already had a crew here on the ground doing an assessment here in Appomattox.”

LeBlanc, who lost his grandmother in Hurricane Katrina, said God spoke to him and told him to enter the emergency feeding industry. Though the nine and a half years of Mercy Chefs has not always been easy, he said God has provided.

“I really hate kitchens, so this really was a ministry of obedience for me,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc gave credit to those who spent their time and hard work helping a community recover.

“It’s like looking at a hot rod and bragging on the gas,” LeBlanc said. “(Volunteers) are the hot rod, and we are just putting fuel in the tank. That’s all I do, just put fuel in the tanks.”

Though the time the students spent in Appomattox was just a portion of the entire relief effort, the students learned what it really means to serve their neighbor.

Cleanup — LU Send Now students worked to repair a resident’s broken roof. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

Cleanup — LU Send Now students worked to repair a resident’s broken roof. Photo credit: Leah Seavers

“Sometimes loving your neighbor is loving your global neighbor, and sometimes it’s loving your local neighbor,” Isaac Lacey, the team leader for the Saturday, Feb. 27 and Sunday, Feb. 28 LU Send Now trips and a resident director at Liberty, said. “I think (serving here) also puts the students in a mind and the perspective that they don’t have to travel across the country to serve their neighbor. I think we have this preconceived notion that if we want to help people and serve people we have to go across the country, and that’s not true.”

Davidson acknowledged the importance of serving those in need so close to Liberty.

“Missions is in our everyday lives,” Davidson said. “It’s not just something that has to be done internationally or even domestically. It happens in our everyday lives. Partnering with the people around us is what’s most important.”

Pearce said he has seen the Appomattox community of 15,000 people come together in the wake of such a damaging tornado that ripped through trees and houses.

“The whole community has pitched in together,” Pearce said. “They are very appreciative of all the help that everybody has done.”

LU Send Now students have had to sacrifice class time, sleep and their social lives to put others first in such a time of need.

“When you give something up, it makes the thing that you’re doing more worthwhile,” Lacey said. “If you’re willing to give something up, even if that’s just a Saturday or Sunday evening to be able to do homework, (that) giving something up gives a weightiness to the thing that you’re working toward. I think if they hadn’t given up anything to come out here, it wouldn’t mean that much to them.”

LU Send Now student Abby Griffiths acknowledged the significance of LU Send Now’s role in the community.

“I think there is strength in numbers,” Griffiths, a freshman English student, said. “So getting as many students as possible who are young and passionate about helping others … can make an impact in a quick way especially since disaster relief entails getting things done as quickly as possible. So (I think) Liberty having students available to go at a moment’s notice (is) important.”

As the SBC continues to serve the devastated Appomattox community in the coming days, Pearce said the locals need prayer.

“Most people we’ve talked to (said) they’ll rebuild,” Pearce said. “Just give them a few months, and they’ll be back on their feet and off and running. It’s amazing what’s happened today and how much they’ve gotten stuff cleared, and the next phase will be building it back up.”

According to Morgan Monasterio, administrative assistant of LU Send, Liberty will continue to work with its partner organizations in Appomattox, including the SBC, in the coming days. Liberty will keep sending teams as long as a need is identified by its partners.

Rodriguez is the news editor.

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