Remembered by God in Ravaged Iowa Town

May 29, 2024 • United States
Volunteers helped Greenfield homeowners clean up and salvage valuables after an EF-4 tornado.
Volunteers helped Greenfield homeowners clean up and salvage valuables after an EF4 tornado.

Residents of Greenfield recounted the town’s darkest day and God’s goodness in the wake of a deadly EF4 twister.

U.S. Disaster Relief

Driving through Fire Chief T.J. Oden’s neighborhood was like entering a war zone. Residents paced among the roof shingles and splintered beams. Artifacts of family histories–photographs, books, children’s clothes, and toys–were scattered across lawns and driveways.

For some families, the damage was complete, raking homes from their foundations.

For some families, the damage was complete, raking homes from their foundations.

Large Xs in orange spray paint marked the still-standing houses where rescuers found survivors. Bulldozers were already leveling dilapidated structures that families had called home only days before.

Many of the survivors of the catastrophic EF4 twister that struck Greenfield, Iowa, on May 21 were left only with memories of their community as they began trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. Many also have harrowing experiences to remember from the night of the storm.

The tornado effectively destroyed in minutes what had taken generations to build in the small Midwest community. Tragically, five town members were killed in the storm, and dozens more were injured. It shredded trees, smashed cars, and toppled power lines, leaving thousands across the state without power as search and rescue workers canvassed each house for survivors.

Standing in the basement of his former home, T.J. struggled to describe the past few days.

“My fire department tracked the tornado and saw it was going to hit. We sounded the sirens, and I sent my family to safety. Since then, it’s been nonstop cleanup,” he said. He lost his house and most of his belongings to the powerful twister. He’s just thankful, he said, that his family was alive.

“Just keep praying,” T.J. said. “We’ll get through it. We’ll rebuild.”

And T.J. was reminded, along with the rest of his town, that God had not forgotten them during this tragic time as Samaritan’s Purse teams began arriving almost immediately after the storm.

Demonstrating God’s Love

As our teams work to clean up properties and help families get back on their feet, volunteers and chaplains are sharing with hurting residents from God’s Word about the hope and peace offered to them through Jesus Christ.

Our teams arrived just days after the storm to help clean up and to minister in Jesus' Name.

Our teams arrived just days after the storm to help clean up and to minister in Jesus’ Name.

During the past week, an army of our volunteers, along with Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains, have been helping hurting Greenfield-area communities in Jesus’ Name by removing debris, cutting up fallen trees, assisting residents in salvaging valuable household items, and tarping damaged roofs—all while sharing the Gospel.

“It’s amazing,” T.J. said. “To see how many people come from all over just to help—it really is amazing.”

After a day of serving T.J. and his fiancé, Ashley, our teams presented them with a Bible and prayed with the couple. This moment brought the couple to tears as they realized it met one of the greatest needs of people grappling with such loss–being reminded that God had not forgotten them.

Tears streamed down her face as Ashley stood with T.J. holding her new Bible.

“That’s the tricky thing,” she said. “People ask what they can do. But really, it’s just prayer. We need prayer for peace right now—all of us.”

Helping Lives Turned Upside Down

Homeowner Becky Van Donselaar needed prayer as well.

Sweeping up glass and dragging ruined belongings to piles on her front lawn was not how she had planned to spend Memorial Day weekend. Her life, too, had been turned upside down in the tiny Iowa town.

Storms devastated the small Iowa town on May 21.

Storms devastated the small Iowa town on May 21.

As our volunteers worked to tarp the damaged roof of her rental property and clear debris out of the yard, the volunteer firefighter and community pillar, recounted the night of the catastrophic storm.

Becky and her husband took shelter in their basement as they heard warnings of the approaching storm. Then they heard the all-too-familiar freight train–the sound of an approaching tornado. They were experiencing what was then being broadcast on her fire station’s radio—chilling confirmation of a tornado on the ground in Greenfield.

“We should probably go to the basement,” Becky said, a necessary precaution but one they had rarely needed. This time, though, it saved their lives as, moments later, the storm began decimating their neighborhood.

Becky and her husband emerged from their safe room stunned by the extent of the damage. A boat lay wedged in their yard, trapping their cars. Soon after, Becky’s phone rang with a distress call from her church’s secretary who was trapped in her house amid shattered glass and debris.

Becky didn’t hesitate. She made her way to the woman’s house on foot, only to be diverted to help other neighbors with immediate medical needs.

“I drove ambulances all night,” she said, reflecting on the chaos she found during the long hours of calls and search and rescue efforts that night and into the following days.

Becky and other fire department personnel searched for missing persons and tended to the injured. She said it was unlike anything Greenfield had ever seen.

“There’s a lot of sorrow for lost lives and property,” Becky shared. “But there’s also humor and resilience. People here are still who they were, just coping with a new reality.”

Sharing God’s Love in the Wake of Loss

One of those many Greenfield residents was combat veteran Bill Spratt who was overlooking a field littered with debris where his uncle’s home had stood only days before. Tragically, his uncle, 73-year-old Michael Jenson, was among those killed on May 21.

Very few homes on Fire Chief T.J. Oden’s street survived the twister. Oden's home experienced the same destruction.

Very few homes on Fire Chief T.J. Oden’s street survived the twister. Oden’s home experienced the same destruction.

Bill took a break from the cleanup to share memories of his uncle with our team.

“He was a good guy. The kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” Bill said. He grinned as he recounted his uncle’s unique hobbies. “He was a collector of everything. Anything that made him smile, he collected.”

As Bill spoke, bulldozers carried away fallen trees and heaps of debris from the property, which he knew included some of those prized collections and mementos of his uncle’s life.

As sirens blared across town, Bill said, he called his uncle “several times, but we couldn’t get a hold of him.” Bill had a keen sense that something was wrong when his uncle didn’t pick up. After hours of trying to reach him, a local family friend eventually called Bill and shared the terrible news that his uncle’s body had been found.

“Just being here is exhausting, let alone doing the work,” Bill said reflecting on the work of volunteers and Billy Graham chaplains in the wake of Greenfield’s darkest day. “And you guys are doing all the work. It’s amazing. It’s awesome. For me and my family—it’s huge.”

Please continue to pray for the families of Iowa, as well as those in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere, as they face this year’s brutal tornado season. The physical and emotional scars left by these storms are profound, but the work of volunteers and chaplains serving in Jesus’ Name remind the people of Greenfield that they are not alone and that there is hope even in the darkest times.

Volunteers pray with Greenfield residents T.J. Oden and Ashley during our work following an EF-4 tornado.

Volunteers pray with Greenfield residents T.J. Oden and Ashley during our work following an EF4 tornado.

U.S. Disaster Relief Samaritan's Purse mobilizes and equips thousands of disaster relief volunteers to provide emergency aid to U.S. victims of wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. In the aftermath of major storms, we often stay behind to rebuild houses for people with nowhere else to turn for help.

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