VAN, Texas—Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief volunteers deployed to Van, Texas, on Monday, May 11, in response to the EF-3 tornado that swept through the East Texas town the evening of May 10, Mother’s Day Sunday, killing two, destroying homes and severely damaging J.E. Rhodes Elementary School.
The National Weather Service reported Monday that winds from the tornado reached 135-140 miles per hour.
SBTC DR personnel set up a joint command center with Texas Baptist Men at First Baptist Church of Van, said George Yarger, SBTC white hat, or incident commander. “We have 24 SBTC volunteers on site, including two chainsaw crews, clean up and recovery teams, three chaplains/assessors and operations staff,” Yarger, pastor of Harbor Baptist Church in Payne Springs, confirmed. The SBTC brought a shower trailer, skid steer and mule.
Most work has involved debris removal, Yarger said. A chainsaw team led by Jim Howard removed a large tree from the roof of a home.
SBTC DR volunteers are housed at First Baptist Church of Van, which has become an emergency center for the Red Cross and other groups, according to Tom Campbell, FBC Van pastor.
The tornado damaged or destroyed the homes of five families from FBC Van who lived in a small housing area north of Bois d’Arc St. adjacent to the damaged elementary school. Law enforcement officials restricted access to the affected neighborhood on Monday, but when Yarger, Campbell and SBTC assessors approached the first check point, the official on duty exclaimed, “Oh good, here come the Baptists!” and allowed them to enter.
“The fire department was in search and rescue mode, but they waved us on through,” Yarger noted. “Pastor Campbell was able to find and talk to most of his church members.”
The team also talked to other victims. The tornado lifted one family’s wood frame home completely off its foundation, Yarger said. “The tornado moved the house 20 feet on one side and 10 on another, stopping it against a tree.”
The family was inside during the tornado. “The kids were in their bedrooms and when the sirens went off, they moved the kids into the middle of the house, where they would be surrounded by walls. Those bedrooms were gone. The family is pretty sure the children would have perished had they stayed in their rooms,” Yarger said.
Just as Yarger and team were “marveling” at the damaged home, the door opened and out walked the family. “The mother broke down. She was crying and saying, ‘I want to go home. I just want to go home. We talked to her about a home in heaven and asked where she was in Christ,” Yarger recalled. “She assured us that she had met Christ more than a decade ago and that she was certain God was with them during the tornado. We prayed with them for encouragement and comfort. I checked on them Tuesday, and they were doing better.”
DR workers have seen 14 people make professions of faith in Van so far as a result of their witness.
“We need prayer more than anything,” Van Zandt County fire marshal and emergency management coordinator Chuck Allen said in a news conference Monday, expressing appreciation for the outpouring of help from outside.
“Give us a few weeks, and we’ll be right back on track,” Van mayor Dean Stone said in the news conference.
SBTC DR volunteers are expected to be in Van at least till the end of the week.