“Texas Tornado: Saints Lose Homes But Gain Faith,” Ensign, June 1979, 75
The Wichita Falls, Texas, Second Ward was holding Primary that Tuesday afternoon when the warning came: tornado.
And the tornado that tore through the city on April 10 at 6:12 P.M. left 55 dead, 1,500 injured, and 25,000 homeless.
No members of the Church died in the disaster—in fact, the only injury among members was a broken arm sustained by one teenage member. However, twelve families in the Wichita Falls First Ward lost their homes. The occupants of three homes and two apartments in the Second Ward lost their residences.
“The weather was a little bad before we got to Primary,” says Sister Maxine Carmoney, wife of Second Ward Bishop Walter J. Carmoney, Jr. “The wind was blowing, and I thought to myself during opening exercises, ‘Sisters, let’s just go home.’” They didn’t go home, though. As the meeting progressed, the warning came that a tornado was on its way.
Residents of Wichita Falls are used to thinking of themselves as being in a tornado belt. But they didn’t expect a tornado to rip through the city.
The Primary children were kept inside as the tornado approached. Several adults watched with them. Sister Carmoney relates: “The tornado came within about a half-mile of the church, headed straight for us. Then it lifted and swerved. I was a personal witness.”
One of the homes destroyed as the tornado hit a residential area was that of Stake President Ralph E. Siebach of the Lawton Oklahoma Stake. He, like the others whose homes were hit, received help from Church members in storing salvaged belongings and finding housing.
Both bishops were busy after the tornado. First Ward Bishop George G. Maw lost his home in the tornado. Bishop Carmoney, a physician, spent the night of the tornado and the next two days (except for four hours of sleep) at the hospital, helping the injured. The counselors in both bishoprics gave hours of service in helping ward members and others.
Church members not only assisted other members, but they helped neighbors as well. The full-time missionaries spent the first few weeks after the disaster helping with the clean-up. Youth from the wards also helped, as did some families. Elders quorums worked on projects to help individual families.
Many Church members felt they had more than mortal help in coping with the tornado. Those attending the Primary meeting were glad the tornado came when it did. “If we had already left the building before the tornado came, we might have been in its path,” says Sister Carmoney.
Some members who felt impending danger were able to protect themselves and their families by taking precautions before the tornado hit.
Two Wichita Falls couples visiting in Provo, Utah, had faith in prayer strengthened through the disaster. At the time the tornado hit, they were beginning a session at the Provo Temple. Each later said he or she felt impressed to list several Wichita Falls people on the temple prayer list. Since none of those listed were people the couples had known to be having difficulty, the impressions were puzzling.
As they arrived back at the home of their hosts, they learned of the tornado. Some of those persons the couples had added to the prayer list were affected by the tornado.
Such incidents, says Bishop Carmoney, were common. Knowing that the Lord helped them through the disaster has helped them since, too. “Everything has been organized and well done. It’s a matter of cleaning and establishing new goals. And rebuilding some homes.
“Everybody has responded like a good Latter-day Saint should.”
The Sunday after the disaster was Easter. The two wards met in a combined sacrament service. President Seibach spoke on the hope of the Atonement and the Resurrection. He spoke of the need to reactivate inactive members, to do missionary work, to be a good neighbor.
One-third of Wichita Fall’s residents were being relocated in permanent housing; those in hospitals were healing; the community was cleaning up and rebuilding. But people were changed.
“It strengthened everybody concerned,” says Bishop Carmoney. “And it humbled them.”