Watch CBSN Live

Tornado victims seek comfort in Sunday services

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Macolee Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn't matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.

"If you came here to help, the only person who sent you was God," she said.

The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of pastors and parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.

So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared, to mourn the dead and to ponder impossible questions. Why did some survive without any explanation? Why did others die for no apparent reason?

Many people in this highly religious region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.

"God just put his big old arms around us," said Peggy Blevins, 59, of Rainsville, Ala. "I don't understand why he takes some people and leaves others. But I thank him just the same for protecting us."

South mourns victims of deadly tornadoes
Photos: Tornadoes' apocalyptic aftermath
Tornado experts dissect disaster for answers
Survivor stories: Escaping tornadoes' fury
South pulverized from deadly tornado outbreak

When the storm drew near, she and her family hid in a hallway of their house. She believes they survived only because some trees fell on the house, pinning it down and preventing the tornado from hurling it through the air.

"To some people it might sound cold, but God does have a plan," Blevins said. "I know I sound like one of those Southern Baptists, but I am."

Other developments:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said 17 Alabama counties now qualify for disaster assistance to homes and businesses damaged by tornadoes and storms. Aid can include help paying for temporary housing, home repairs and other disaster-related expenses not covered by insurance or other assistance programs. Low-interest loans are also available from the Small Business Administration to cover losses not fully compensated by insurance.
  • Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Birmingham on Sunday to offer condolences and pledge support for local residents and emergency workers. She pledged continued federal government support for Alabama and several other southern states that were hit hard by the tornadoes. Napolitano told reporters: "I don't think words can fairly express the level of devastation. I'm not articulate enough."
  • Officials at the National Weather Service said the tornado that killed at least 25 people in the Alabama town of Hackleburg was packing winds stronger than 200 mph, giving the twister an EF5 rating - the highest possible. The report said the tornado was on the ground for more than 20 minutes, tearing a 25-mile-long path across Marion County. It was three-quarters of a mile wide. Weather service surveyors said the twister tossed cars as far as 200 yards and completely demolished a sturdy brick home.
  • On "Face the Nation" Sunday Alabama Governor Robert Bentley praised Alabamans for the volunteerism they have shown since the disaster hit. "We work together all over the state. We have people coming from southern part of the state to the northern part of the state to help out. And everywhere you go, we have volunteers. And we probably have more volunteers than we actually need. But that's a great sign and what it shows is the people of Alabama care about each other."
  • The University of Alabama in Huntsville has suspended final exams and graduation because the campus doesn't have electrical power due to tornado damage. The school issued a statement saying students can accept the letter grade they had as of April 27. Students choosing that option don't have to do anything. Students can also complete their remaining coursework and take a final exam that will be scheduled later in May. The university said more information will be available Wednesday about when students can take finals. UAH officials also announced that graduation ceremonies scheduled for May 6-7 will be rescheduled.

In most small towns around here, churches serve as community centers, town halls and gymnasiums. Besides Sunday services, they host Boy Scout troop meetings, neighborhood voting, bake sales, basketball games and Wednesday night prayer meetings.

Some churches were wiped out. Some of those left standing have become headquarters for rebuilding.

American Christian Academy, a private school in Tuscaloosa, hosted a service at a football stadium within walking distance of neighborhoods where several churches were wiped out. The school distributed food, clothes, Bibles and other supplies to residents who came to worship.

"We're hoping to feed them and give them some spiritual food," said Rob Cain, the school's athletic director and campus pastor.

Lisa Thompson, 37, her fiance and her daughter came to the service because they don't know if their church, College Hill Baptist Church, survived. They haven't made it past the police checkpoints that have sealed off the area.

"My faith is stronger now than ever," she said. "I know God will test you, but it can't be nothing but stronger."

Thompson, whose home in a different part of Tuscaloosa was destroyed by the tornado, said she has found strength in the help that her family has received from volunteers who flocked to the city after the storm. She hoped to volunteer her own time at the school.

"I had to do something," she said. "How can I not? We're still here."

The stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ stands at the edge of a tent as Dan Davis of Smithville, Miss. cries in his vehicle during services at the destroyed Smithville Baptist Church in Smithville, Miss. on Sunday, May 1, 2011. The church building was destroyed by an F5 tornado and the stained glass pane was one of the few items that emerged undamaged from the storm. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Rogelio V. Solis

The stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ stands at the edge of a tent, as Dan Davis of Smithville, Miss. cries in his vehicle during services at the destroyed Smithville Baptist Church in Smithville, Miss., Sunday, May 1, 2011. The stained glass pane was one of the few items that emerged undamaged from the storm. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Pictures: Deadly storms ravage South
Deadly Southern tornadoes: Amazing local videos
Raw video of huge Tuscaloosa tornado

Disaster-relief groups from various denominations were quick to arrive in shattered neighborhoods. For Muhammed, the first volunteer who emerged was Dustin Casey from Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.

Muhammed, 61, was full of worries: Were the power lines strewn around the neighborhood live? Can the federal government help her? She told Casey she hoped she wasn't going insane.

"I haven't slept since April 27th," she said.

Casey assured her that her reaction was normal for the circumstances.

"There is hope," Casey said. "One day at a time is what you're going to have to do. This is a life-changing experience."

Muhammed said she had no job or insurance for her house: "For me to start all over, it would be like me being a hobo."

Casey suggested they pray, and Muhammed agreed. Casey thanked God for sparing her life and prayed she would be given hope and see "there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

"Amen," Muhammed said.

Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Ringgold, Ga., has been transformed into an informal help center, dispatching volunteer chainsaw crews to saw down trees, handing out bottled water and feeding people who are without food and electricity.

Pastor Chris Petty said church members started to understand the destruction as they sent members to assist widows in the congregation after the storm.

"We just showed up at the church and started putting things together and sending people out and saying, `What do you need?"' said Petty, who had just guided a tractor-trailer carrying bottled water into the church parking lot.

In Cordova, Ala., about 40 people gathered Saturday around the wrecked Cordova Church of God trying to repair enough of the building to hold Sunday services.

Most of the roof was shorn off by the twister, and a gaping hole let sunshine through the ceiling of the modest sanctuary. Volunteers sat in the pews quietly watching a worker try to patch up the hole. Others swept up debris and covered the roof with tarps.

When the storm approached, the reverend's family gathered neighbors and took refuge in a church hallway. The pastor tried to alert the four families who lived in nearby trailer homes by blaring his car horn.

"You could hear crackling as the roof came off the kitchen," said Gail Witmer, the reverend's wife.

At the edge of town, the storm punched a hole through a mural of the local high school's "blue devil" mascot. A mural of the U.S. flag was spared.

"Everybody in town is talking about that," said Rachel Mitchell, a 19-year-old college student who grew up in Cordova.

In Rainsville, smashed masonry littered the parking lot of Victory Baptist Church. In the wreckage was an unbroken mirror with a picture of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. In the debris-littered sanctuary, a large sign with the church's Articles of Faith was also untouched.

Deacon Calvin Thomas said leaders of the Victory Baptist Church were still searching for a place to hold Sunday services. He believed the storm would strengthen members' faith.

"You might say, `Where was God in all of this?' But I think he's still providing protection. God didn't kill those people. The storm did. He preserves lives."

"I do have questions about why some people were taken, but those are questions I can't answer." he said. "I just know we're all in God's hands."