By Morgan Bryce
Reflecting on the last 24 days, Rusty Sowell said he has seen the tragedy of the March 3 tornadoes be turned into an overwhelming positive, galvanizing the community, area and nation in ways beyond his imagination.
“I like to say that what started as organized chaos has become chaos organized. Our community has been through hard times before, and we’ve seen it come together in glimpses,” Sowell said. “But this moment brought it all together to pass.”
Sowell said he and his wife Gina are fortunate to have avoided being on the list of the 23 lives claimed by the storm.
Notified in advance of that day’s incoming severe weather by Beauregard Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Holden, Sowell said he and his staff decided to cancel that evening’s services and later open the church’s west campus as a storm shelter.
Following that morning’s services, the Sowells returned home and spent the early afternoon keeping a vigilant eye on the weather. Later, with reports of a confirmed tornado on the ground, Sowell he said he knew the storm was close once the walls of his log cabin-style home began to vibrate.
“Passing my front door, I looked out and saw some good-sized trees flying across the yard. Once the vibrations started and got worse, I told my wife to get down and I started to get down too, wondering if the storm was about to cause my windows to explode,” Sowell said.
As soon as it had come, the tornado had departed. Sowell soon walked outside to witness the devastation, with some neighbors losing barns and the roofs of their homes.
Calls from church members began pouring in, but Sowell said his prior first responder experience and knowledge prompted him to stay home and out of the way of medical vehicles attempting to drive into the hardest hit areas to find and save lives.
The church’s west campus was immediately mobilized and opened as a recovery operations center shortly after the storm had passed. Stationed at Sanford Middle School, Sowell spent a good portion of that afternoon and evening in shock, processing what had happened to his beloved community.
“I’ve been a hospital chaplain for 40 years, and when we’re called in, it’s typically a tragedy and a trip to the hospital’s emergency room or intensive care unit. As a former first responder, you never forget what you see, smell and feel, and I was thinking about what those guys were experiencing in mass,” Sowell said.
Expected to climb to as high as 40 people, the final death toll was confirmed at 23 on the afternoon of March 4. Later in the week, Sowell, along with Lee County coroner Bill Harris, was tasked with meeting with the victim’s families to inform them of their loved one’s passing.
“They were hoping against hope, but we knew the reality of what was going on. When I thought about that moment, I just told myself to ‘breathe, breathe,’” Sowell said. “We tried to carry and possess true compassion, because there was no making this situation okay or it’s going to get better. It was just a ministry of presence because we were identifying with them in the midst of their trauma.”
On Wednesday, search-and-rescue efforts were moved to recovery. Emergency management nonprofits and organizations, as well as caring individuals from across the state, Southeast and country, began pouring in to help.
Two days later, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania visited the hardest hit areas, and made a stop at the church. There, they meet with Sowell, victim’s families and Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland, whose city also received severe damage from the storms.
“To have he and his wife come to our little corner of the world was big. It was no political show,” Sowell said. “You could tell from our initial conversation that he was deeply moved by what he saw out on the field as he met and talked with families (who experienced loss).”
Providence’s recovery operations center will begin trending away from material items today, according to Sowell, and begin assisting those who suffered property damage but retained their homes.
Sowell said he is “beyond humbled” by the outpouring of love and support that they have received during this process, including that of the Beauregard community itself.
“Kids, students, football players, volleyball players, baseball, softball players were going out and willing to do things to help in whatever way they could. People brought food, their grills to help feed survivors, volunteers and first responders,” Sowell said. “It was just a beautiful picture.”