Severe weather forecast for Palm Sunday puts churches on alert

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DULUTH — 11Alive chief meteorologist Chris Holcomb remembers well the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak that happened 25 years ago on March 27, 1994. And while he doesn’t want to scare anyone, Holcomb nevertheless urges church leaders to be vigilant this upcoming Sunday.

On Thursday night 11Alive chief meteorologist Chris Holcomb gave the forecast and answered questions regarding Sunday’s weather threat in a 27-minute Facebook video. CHRIS HOLCOMB 11ALIVE/Facebook

As of this afternoon, forecasts called for the northern half of Georgia on a line extending from Augusta to Columbus to be in a “Level 3” (out of 5) zone with widespread severe storms possible Sunday. What’s more, those storms are expected to roll through during the late morning to early afternoon hours. That would be during a time many churches with higher-than-normal crowds on Palm Sunday would be letting out.

“All churches should have a plan,” Holcomb, a member of North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, told The Christian Index. “You need to know what you’re going to do before [severe weather hits] versus when it’s happening.”

On that Palm Sunday in 1994, 29 tornadoes struck Texas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, killing 40 and injuring nearly 500. The deadliest tornado measured F4 on the Fujita scale and destroyed Goshen United Methodist Church near Piedmont, Alabama. Striking the church as a children’s play was taking place on stage, it killed 20 people, including the pastor’s daughter.

Have a plan for response

At Holcomb’s church attendees would make their way to the lowest floor, in this case the children’s area, to safety during a severe weather threat. Holcomb acknowledged, though, that churches come in various structures. Nevertheless, some basic steps will help no matter the setting.

“Number 1, be aware of the weather. Assign someone to keep an eye on it during church. The best way to do this is having a National Weather Service radio, which you can get anywhere like a Target or Walgreens. It’s very easy to program your county into it as well as the counties next to you.”

This map tweeted out today by 11Alive’s Wes Peery illustrates the potential for storms this Sunday. WES PERRY/Twitter

Phone apps can also be useful for congregants in tracking radar and warnings, but Holcomb still advises having someone outside of the service monitoring conditions.

“You’ll have that large group of people cut off from the outside, so it’s important to have someone designated and on alert,” he said.

And should severe weather become imminent, that individual would need to be ready to interrupt the service so others can get to safety.

“The best place to be is a downstairs hallway away from windows, if possible,” Holcomb added. “Be on the lowest floor in the centermost part, putting as many walls between yourself and the outside.”

The structure of many churches consists of the sanctuary with an area in the back designated as classroom space. Even if the sanctuary exterior is brick, Holcomb still prefers the back hallway for safety, especially when considering the possibility of flying glass.

The overall integrity of the structure must be considered, he stressed.

“Have a plan in case a tornado watch is issued. If one is issued and you don’t think your structure is safe and don’t have a place nearby to take cover, you might have to consider cancelling services.”

Holcomb’s strongest warning is reserved for any dependance on weather sirens. “Those are designed for people who are outside. Not everyone has them and not everyone can hear them, especially if you’re inside with music [from worship] happening.”

Holcomb said he and the 11Alive team will be among those giving regular updates throughout the weekend. Find him on Twitter or Facebook.

“This is a situation people need to take seriously,” he said.

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