Some 500 members and friends of First Baptist Church Wetumpka packed the Wetumpka Civic Center this morning (Jan. 20) for worship as daylight revealed the extent of the damage to the church and surrounding area by a tornado that struck around 3 p.m. Jan. 19.
FBC Wetumpka pastor James Troglen brought a message from Job to those gathered, reminding them that “we have seen a lot of good things from the Lord, so we shouldn’t be too disappointed when bad things happen.”
Unofficial reports from the National Weather Service indicate a high-end EF-2 tornado some 300 yards wide with winds of 120-130 miles per hour was the cause of the damage. Another brief EF-1 tornado was confirmed near Tyler in Dallas County before crossing into Autauga County and dissipating, the National Weather Service reported on Twitter.
The damage to the church’s buildings was extensive, Troglen confirmed in a phone interview with The Alabama Baptist Jan. 20.
The church’s Impact Building, a two-story multipurpose space used primarily for youth activities and classroom space, is a total loss, Troglen said. The tornado ripped through the center of the five-year-old building, leaving three of its four walls leaning inward.
The structure was too unstable for workers to enter and attempt to salvage any contents, said church member Jill Corbin.
The roof of the church’s historic chapel, which dates to 1852, also was torn off, Troglen said.
“It’s missing its entire roof and is open to the air. We’ve moved some of the most precious items out of there, but we can’t do anything until the insurance adjuster looks at it,” he said.
The church’s main sanctuary and educational space is mostly intact, and Troglen said he expects the congregation will be able to worship there next Sunday, Jan. 27. The church’s steeple was blown off and found about four streets away from the church, Troglen said.
“We told them just to keep it,” he said with a laugh.
The church’s Child Development Center, which provides preschool education for approximately 150 children, was mostly unharmed, though some windows were blown out. Troglen said assessment and repair will begin on Jan. 21, and he hopes the center will be able to open within a few days.
The preschool is an important fixture in the community, Troglen said.
“Some of the parents depend upon us so they can work, and some of the ladies who work there depend on that for a living,” he said.
He told the story of a man whose child attends the school who contacted the church immediately following the storm.
“He said, ‘My son has learned so much and the teachers have been so good, the church has been so good to us, we’re going to continue paying his tuition no matter what so no teacher has to go without.’”
A small church bus was destroyed, and several cars in the church parking lot were heavily damaged. FBC Wetumpka youth were at a conference, and many of the vehicles belonged to them. The last photo taken in the Impact Center was of the youth before they departed for Tennessee, Corbin said.
The students know about the damage, but at the same time, they have felt God’s amazing presence, Corbin said.
“Everyone at the conference has uplifted them in prayer,” she said. “It’s a neat way they have seen God move through the fellowship of believers around them.”
That community support is what Troglen says has already shown up strong in Wetumpka: “They know you need help, and they show up,” he said.
Troglen praised the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions who responded quickly to begin the cleanup.
One church family whose home was damaged said a yellow shirt volunteer from Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief (ABDR) knocked on their door while they were eating breakfast before church. They showed up before anyone else, Troglen said, which is making an impression in the community.
Mark Wakefield, disaster relief strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said he is currently working with ministry leaders in the area as well as city officials to determine the best way for Alabama Baptist DR to help the community and the people.
Disaster relief teams from Autauga, Elmore, Chilton and Montgomery Baptist associations worked throughout the day Jan. 20. More teams were on alert, according to Mark Wakefield, disaster relief strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
“We are communicating with EMA in the county and trying to determine where to plug in,” he said, noting the area around the church took a hard hit, with local news outlets estimating some 35 houses damaged.
The downtown Wetumpka community sustained significant damage and the First Presbyterian Church, which sat across from FBC Wetumpka, was totally destroyed.