(Photos and story by yours truly)
Gary Hunley is used to disaster. Hunley is a member of Oronogo Baptist Church and a Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief (DR) “Blue Hat” (site boss), which means he normally seeks disaster out, chainsaw in hand. This time, the disaster found him.
He and his wife Twila were in their home on the east edge of Joplin when the May 22 tornado struck town, destroying 8,000 homes and business, and killing at least 125. The Hunleys huddled in the utility room, with Gary pressing against the door with all his might to keep it closed.
“We put a quilt over us and it hit,” he said. “Your ears start feeling all this pressure and hear things pulling apart all around you. It felt like there were ten people pushing on the door behind me. I thought we were going to go flying any time. I could feel the water coming in, so I knew the roof was gone.
“The whole time we were just praying, ‘Save us Lord! Save us Lord!’” he said. “He held our hands and kept us there.”
Except for the four walls of the utility room, the rest of the house looks like it went through a blender. Glass is everywhere and the home’s floorplan is unrecognizable.
“People are going to think I don’t keep this place clean,” Twila joked.
For someone as exhausted as he is, Hunley remains joyful in his Lord.
“The Lord gives us these things, and they’re His. If He wants to take them, that’s His choice. We’re His kids, too, and if He wanted to take us, we were prepared. Now I feel like I can still do more for Him, and I guess He does too.”
Hunley said he has a new perspective on the way victims react to a disaster, now that he has lived through one.
“It’s always bothered me to see how they hurt, and not know what to say,” he said. “I wanted to offer help, but didn’t realize what kind of state they were in. Now I guess I’ll have something to say. It’s just total confusion; they’re overwhelmed. That’s how I feel. My insurance company has been good, but it’s all just so… frustrating.
“I believe the Lord let us experience this and survive so that when we do go on call-outs again, I’ll be able to relate better to them,” he said.
It didn’t take long to get the chance to relate.
Twila said Gary pulled several neighbors out of the wreckage of their homes and prayed with one woman, even as she lay dying.
“Even in his own disaster, he was still there for others,” she said.
Hunley has only been a Christian for six years. Soon after accepting Christ, he leapt headfirst into Disaster Relief ministry with Spring River Baptist Association’s chainsaw unit. He served in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ivan in Florida, and ice storms and tornadoes all over Missouri. Each call-out was represented by a pin on his blue DR hat.
While showing me around town two days after the tornado (remember I’m working press, not just a lookie-loo), fellow DR Blue Hat Ron Crow went to the Hunley home to see his friend he’d only recently learned was OK. They weren’t home, but with no walls, Crow could see a yellow piece of fabric peeking out from under a pile of debris. He climbed over a fallen wall and pulled it out from under an upended big-screen TV; it was Hunley’s Disaster Relief jacket. He hung it on a jutting wall stud, so Gary would find it when he came home.
“I wish I could find his DR hat,’ Crow said. “It was so heavy from the all pins.”
The next day, Crow returned with North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell to check again, this time finding Hunley loading a trailer with all the tools he could find.
“I couldn’t get a hold of you,” Crow said as he hugged Hunley. “I called, I texted, I screamed ‘Where’s Gary?’ I was so glad when I heard you were OK. You can replace houses, but you can’t replace Gary.”
Twila had found the jacket, and was wearing it when she, Gary, and Crow did a brief video interview with Ezell. Gary’s blue DR hat was still missing, so Crow gave him his. Pins and all.