By Marilyn Stewart
NEW ORLEANS – The harrowing sound of a freight train sent pastor Jeffery Friend and wife Stephanie running for cover Feb. 7 when an EF3 tornado touched down in New Orleans East about three miles from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus.
Stephanie Friend was preparing to leave the house when she opened the front door, not realizing that the storm that had come up so quickly was upon them.
“As soon as I shut the door, there it was,” Friend said.
Louisiana Baptist Disaster Relief chaplains, workers, and assessors are on-site assessing damage to the Friends’ home, the three-building church campus, and a pastorium occupied by Nikos Elzy, a NOBTS student and Suburban Baptist Church associate pastor, with his wife and two children.
Current estimates put the number of homes damaged at 250, with 33 injured. No fatalities have been reported.
At NOBTS, chapel services began with a cautious note – the National Weather Service had issued a number of tornado watches for the area. The sky darkened as chapel attendees entered the chapel and seminary president Chuck Kelley started the service with an announcement about the potential storms and a prayer for the region. The weather intensified and about five minutes into the service a member of the campus police interrupted the service and students sheltered in place. The severe weather passed quickly and the service resumed after about 10-15 minutes. The seminary campus was not damaged in the storm.
Louisiana Disaster Relief workers gathered at the NOBTS Leavell Center for Church Growth and Evangelism Feb. 8 in preparation for assessing the damage in the area hit.
“We go as a mercy visit to try to help people who are hurting,” Gibbie McMillan, men’s ministry and disaster relief strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, told the volunteer team. “What we’re trying to do is be the hands and feet of Jesus to them and let them know we care in a tangible way.”
Suburban Baptist Church and its neighborhood sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Katrina,2005.
Jeffery Friend, NOBTS alumnus and senior pastor, thanked the group for their support and encouragement, telling them they helped him sleep last night, though his home is inhabitable. He quipped, “You are my ‘NyQuil.’”
In facing rebuilding yet again, Friend is quick to see God’s hand at work.
“We believe ‘all things work for the good’,” Friend said. “When it says all, we really believe in the word all. That means not just the good things, but bad.”
Friend said that after Hurricane Katrina, many rushed into church. “We were broken. We crawled to the Lord.”
The fervor for serving the Lord “dissipated” as life returned to normal, Friend said, adding that
“Sometimes the Lord has to remind us.”
Stephanie Friend said that though she is anxious regarding the rebuilding process that lies ahead, she is trusting God. “I know who Jesus is, so I’m not concerned about my well-being. I’m just trusting Him to do what He does.”
Jack Hunter, director of missions for New Orleans Baptist Association, noted that while the association continues to work with homes impacted by the historic flooding on the Northshore, the association will rally to the families impacted by the tornado and look for open doors to share the Gospel.
“God opens doors [during disasters],” Hunter said. “Through those open doors we can go in and demonstrate great love and compassion.”
While waterspouts and weaker tornadoes are somewhat common in the New Orleans metro area, strong tornadoes are rare. Though officials are still assessing the damage from the Feb. 7 storm, the damage is unprecedented in scope and severity for a tornado in the New Orleans city limits. Outside New Orleans, tornadoes touched down in at least four other parishes.
In addition to the damage to the Friend family’s home, at least one other NOBTS family was impacted by the storm. The New Orleans East home of NOBTS professor Dennis Cole received damaged. The Dean of Students Office at NOBTS is working to assess how many students were impacted by the tornadoes.
With reporting by Gary D. Myers.