2019, March 3: Miracle in Alabama

The first week of March 2019 saw several states within the United States assaulted by major tornadoes. Twenty-three people were killed by the tornadoes, which was more than twice the number of people killed this way in the whole year of 2018. These deaths were caused by just one devastating tornado, that cut a swath of destruction from Beauregard, Alambama, to Talbotton, Georgia on March 3. Amid the ruins of this terrifying tornado, however, shone out some strange survivals.

        The matter was first noted publicly on March 14, 2019, in a Facebook post by Jason Smith, who traveled to the area of devastation as a Chaplain, as part of a rapid response team. Smith posted:

"Listen to me please. I just left a family who survived the tornado in this house and the only left standing is this closet. It's the grandmother's prayer closet, and the whole family survived. Are you kiddin me!!! My God is awesome!!! Shout somebody! --Jason--"

Picture 1

Picture 2
Jason Smith's posted photos of the house. [Larger versions here]

In a comment to the original post, Smith later clarified that the pictures were from Alabama; but no further location is given for the house, nor indication of who the family were.

        As of March 25, 2019, when I first ran across the story, the original post had been shared around 100,000 times. The event was labeled a 'miracle,' and I won't argue against that; but I do have some observations and questions regarding the event and the report because, miracle or not, it's a claim of a paranormal occurrence.

Observations and Questions

        First off, note that Smith states he's just visited the site on March 14, which is almost two weeks after the tornado struck. Also, it's very clear that the debris of the house has been cleared from the area previous to his visit; the clean appearance of the picture is not due to a tornado carrying everything off, as they don't do that. So I'm wondering what shape the closet was in immediately after the tornado, since the currently shown two walls would not have protected people fully exposed on two sides.

        That the family would huddle in the closet is not a surprise; many other people in the area did also. The lack of warning and reaction to the incoming weather system meant that by the time most people were aware of the tornado, it was already too late to try to find shelter somewhere other than where they were. Closets are a logical choice, because they are often in the middle of the house, and have no direct perceived opening to the outside of the structure... but their value only lies in how strong the house itself is in the weather.

        The March 3 tornado brought windspeeds of 170 mph; and the youngest person to die in the tornado had been hiding in a closet with his father and grandfather when the house itself disintegrated around them.

        So, yes, other people hid in their closets and, no, that is not automatic protection. What's intriguing in this case is the apparent destruction of the house, but the relatively intact nature of the remaining closet. I would guess that the house was not directly hit by the tornado; that the main funnel passed by the house on one side rather than across the center of the structure, which would cause more damage to one side.

        Clearly this is a case of fantastic luck, which is fair to call a miracle... though it's more likely the matter was labeled such because of the association with the space being a 'prayer closet,' which then carries the implication that this function had something to do with the family's survival. 

Another Miracle Survival?

        The only emergency shelter in Beauregard county is the Providence Baptist Church, which has a basement that can accommodate up to 150 people in the event of a tornado, which is located about two miles from the worst hit areas for the tornado of Sunday, March 3, 2019. 

        During morning services at the church that Sunday, an announcement was made to the gathered congregation that a tornado alert had been issued, and the church was therefore opening its shelter up for those who wanted to hide there. Many of the people in the church didn't take the warning very seriously, as they'd endured bad weather before, and there was no good reason to expect the day's storm would be any worse. Stephanie Dunson was among this crowd; and when services finished, just headed home to make lunch, have coffee, and spend the afternoon watching TV.

        While at home, her cellphone buzzed with a tornado warning. She checked a local news channel, and the forecaster was predicting the detected tornado would head for Beauregard, and specifically for Dunson's community area. Still Dunson felt it was no big deal, and that it would be a hassle to put everything on hold and waste a day sitting in the shelter.

        But she kept hearing a little voice in her head nag her to go to the shelter. So she reluctantly brought in her dogs and put them in crates in her living room to keep them inside the house, then told her daughter to get in the car, and off she drove back to the church to go to the shelter.

        As she drove the winds became stronger, and they started to push her car back and forth on the road. It was the first real indicator that this was not just a normal storm.

        Inside the church's basement, the crowd could hear the sounds of the wind above, as well as the shrill of sirens. This is when everyone realized that what was happening outside was powerful and horrific; and they all wondered what they would find when they emerged from the shelter.

        When things had quieted down, and the crowd was brave enough to go back outside, Dunson and her daughter drove home. Due to the condition of the roads, many blocked by fallen trees, it took hours to make the trip. They drove past many houses that had been destroyed by the tornado, so were mildly relieved to see that, although a tree had fallen on her house's roof, their home was still intact, and the dogs were all still fine in their crates inside the house.

        Interviewed for a news article later, Dunson was very specific that the voice in her head, the one that nagged her to go to the shelter, was the voice of God. “God protected me,” she said during the interview on March 6, and she started to cry also. “I feel guilty, because I don’t understand why He didn’t protect people somewhere else.”

Thoughts

        Was Dunson's survival a miracle or, as most skeptics would quickly state, an after-the-fact attribution of her reaction to the multiple warnings to a divine voice instead? Once again, I won't argue this point in either way, and the reason is simple: I wasn't there, and Dunson would have survived in both cases. Miracles are often subjective, which is to say they are only apparent to those who experience them... so they are almost always open to outside criticism. But the criticism must always be aware that the best it can do is provide a different person's opinion about someone else's experience, which is not proof of being correct.

        I will say one thing regarding such survivals though that I think is important to think about. If you, as a survivor, truly believe that a deity protected you above others to keep you alive, then guilt is not a feeling you should indulge. If a deity saved you, then it implies there is a reason for this action, whether or not you know what it is. So be grateful for the save and sorrowful for the losses... but don't waste time feeling guilty.