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Birmingham-area church suffers tornado damagecomment (0)

April 13, 2000


Twelve-year-old Corey Collier will never forget the day he got braces on his teeth. Just a few minutes after he left the orthodontist’s office with his new shiny smile, he and his mother, Teresa, found themselves within a few feet of an F1 tornado.

Traveling west on Shades Crest Road in Vestavia Hills, the Colliers were trapped by the April 3 storm that damaged Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, uprooted trees along its path from Highway 31 to U.S. 280 and battered the Shades Mountain Water Filter plant.

“I was driving straight into it,” said Mrs. Collier, who pulled into the parking lot of Vestavia Hills Baptist to seek shelter. “We jumped out of the car and ran to a door, but it was locked.”

There was no where to go, she noted. The pastor emeritus of Vestavia Hills Baptist, Otis Brooks, sat in his car in the parking lot waiting out the storm. “And we were hanging on to the door.” Mrs. Collier said.

“I just kept thinking we would be sucked up in the cloud,” she said. “I could see the circular motion and everything going around, but it was blowing away from us.”

The Colliers and Brooks escaped the storm with no harm, as did the nearly 100 people inside the church.

While the back windows of Mrs. Colliers’ and Brooks’ cars were blown out, it was the damage to the church that was frightening.

“We saw the roof come off the church,” Mrs. Collier said.

A partial section of the roof was blown off over the front of the sanctuary and with that destruction came severe water damage to the choir loft.

“The pulpit area is a total disaster, but the piano was saved because of someone’s quick thing to cover it,” said Pastor Gary Furr. “And we think the pipe organ can be repaired.”

Three offices were also destroyed and several areas within the church suffered minor water damage. Carpet throughout the three offices was saturated with water, and ceiling tiles hung in shambles or lay dissolving on the floor.

The pastor’s office suffered only minor water damage because it is located under a different roofing structure. The computer system also escaped harm.

“The biggest damage came to the property,” Furr noted.

Trees along the church property were uprooted, splintered and scattered leaving an obvious path of the tornado.

Still, “we are thankful that no one was hurt,” Furr said.

Vestavia Hills Baptist operates a day care that had 73 children and about 27 day care personnel on campus the day of the storm. Jim Walls, minister of youth and college, was the only church staff member present, but he put the church’s emergency plan into action, Furr said. Everyone was taken to a basement hallway to ride out the storm.

While the tornado ended up tiptoeing over the top of the church, its path downed trees, and debris prevented vehicles from getting in or out of the church. The children had to be walked out to the highway for parents to pick them up.

The day care center closed the rest of the week but reopened April 10. Church services were relocated to Samford University’s Reid Chapel and will remain there until Easter. The Wednesday night service April 5 was also at Reid Chapel.

Wednesday night services were expected to be back at the church April 12. Sunday School classes are expected to resume at the church April 16. Shuttle buses will then take church members and guests to Reid Chapel for the worship service.

Furr said the worship services will be held in the fellowship hall beginning April 30. The administrative offices have been relocated at Vestavia Center on Columbiana Road in Vestavia Hills. They are not expected to be back in the sanctuary or the offices for several months, he noted.

“We were already in a building program,” said Furr, noting the contractor and architect were at the scene almost immediately. “They had a temporary roof on the church before Friday,” Furr said.

“We eventually planned to renovate, but the weather has moved that up,” he said. “The priorities have now been set.”

Evaluating Damage

The sanctuary expansion will be internal, but there is a possibility of some structure damage that will have the be repaired, he noted. “We are sill evaluating.”

Furr said church members, while shocked and saddened at first, have pulled together and have depicted determination and energy in the cleanup.

More than a quarter of a million dollars has also been given since the tornado hit,” Furr said, noting this is over and beyond what was already pledged to the building fund.

“This is a great challenge to our people,” he said. “It is a time when our faith can grow.”

Volunteers from other areas have also helped clear trees and cleaned up the damaged areas of the church, Furr said.

The Bessemer Association disaster relief team was one group that responded and will continue until cleanup is complete.

“Our specialty is cleanup and recovery chainsaw work and cleaning up debris, “ said team leader Billy Hobson, pastor of First Baptist church, Sylvan Springs, describing the damage as “pretty severe.”

The April 3 F1 tornado ransacked areas of Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook at speeds faster than 72 mph. Another F1 tornado devastated parts of Forestdale April 2, while a F2 tornado hit a cluster of mobile homes near Piedmont that same day killing one person. No other Baptist churches were reported damaged.

First Baptist Church, Pelham, served as a Red Cross shelter during the initial cleanup time. The Red Cross brought in cots, food and other disaster-related supplies.

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