by Betsy Childs

Three years ago, deadly tornadoes swept across the South killing 324 people; 238 of them died in my state, Alabama. Because I grew up here, where tornado warnings are a routine occurrence, I never took them seriously. That changed after April 2011 when I saw just how deadly and destructive a tornado (or, to be more accurate, 199 tornadoes) can be.

One of the most tragic things about this death toll is that we knew the tornadoes were coming. According to the National Weather Service’s official report after the storm, “This tornado outbreak was anticipated and forecast days in advance.” Thanks to SkyCam, those of us who didn’t lose power could literally watch the funnel cloud heading our way. In such a massive storm, some deaths are unavoidable. Yet the NWS pointed to a couple of factors that made this storm particularly deadly.

Some Didn’t Hear

Early on the morning of April 27, before the sun even rose, the first line of tornadoes swept through. While these pre-dawn storms caused only three fatalities, they set the stage for disaster by knocking out power to thousands. In addition to the power outages, three of the NOAA radio transmitters were knocked down along with cell phone towers across the state.

It doesn’t do any good to know a storm is coming if you can’t hear the warning. When the power is out, you can’t watch the news, charge your cell phone, or check the weather on the internet. Since the NOAA radio transmitters were down, even some weather radios didn’t effectively sound their alarms. Some who could’ve found safe shelter didn’t know they were in danger.

Some Didn’t Heed

Plenty of people did hear the warnings but didn’t take them seriously or personally. The NWS reports that people generally will not respond to a warning until it comes to them from more than one means of communication. Additionally, “some people needed visual confirmation of the tornadoes before taking protective action.” In other words, people won’t believe a tornado is heading their way until they see it with their own eyes. Here’s why that’s a problem:

Most people do not know what a large tornado looks like (i.e., a large, dark, low-hanging cloud) and were not expecting what they actually saw. People reported that they spent several minutes looking directly at the tornado before they realized what it was. In many cases, it was not until people saw debris flying that they recognized the threat. This fact, coupled with the speed of the storms, meant many people barely made it to shelters or did not make it to safety.

For example, despite hearing warnings all day, one man stated he did not take action until he saw the tornado approaching. At that point, he didn’t have time to run to a nearby store, so he crawled into the bathtub. Another family reported that they had been monitoring television and radio as well as looking outside when they noticed a “large dark storm cloud” approaching. By the time they realized that the cloud was a tornado, the family barely made it to their storm shelter. As they pulled the door shut, they heard debris pounding against it.

While I am tempted to judge these people, it would be fairer to count myself among them. I waited out the storm in my closet, but I chose not to go down to my building’s basement, even though the meteorologist told me a tornado was heading straight for me. If the storm hadn’t changed course, I might have been one of those injured or dead because I didn’t take the warnings seriously.

The Storm to Come

So what does a deadly tornado have to do with the gospel? The Bible is full of warnings that a devastating storm is heading our way, the storm of God’s wrath (John 3:36, Romans 2:5, the whole book of Revelation). There is a shelter available to us, the shelter provided by God himself. Jesus Christ will shield us from the wrath of God just as the blood of the Passover lamb protected the Israelites from the angel of death. But none of us will seek shelter in him unless we believe that a storm is coming our way.

Regrettably, many still do not know that this storm is coming. We need to sound the warning, to journey to those who may be out of earshot, to pound on their doors until we know they have heard the news.

Even so, some will not heed the warning. They won’t believe that God’s wrath is real until it is upon them. Don’t be among them. Today, heed the warnings and seek the shelter before it is too late. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2a).
Betsy Child’s article first appeared on the GOSPEL COALITION website on April 30, 2014.