“We just started saying yes”

An oral history of Living Hope rising to serve Bowling Green

In the early morning hour of December 11, 2021, Bowling Green awoke to the terrors of the most devastating tornado to ever hit Southcentral Kentucky. The death toll reached 17 in Warren County, a number of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged, displacing families for months. Living Hope Baptist Church immediately joined the community efforts to serve the needs of the city. By the end of January, Living Hope coordinated over 4,000 volunteers from all over the country to help clean up and rebuild the city.

One year after the tragic event, several church staff and members discuss their memory of the storm and recall how the church, within 48 hours, took over the city’s entire volunteer operation system. It was an evident outpouring of God’s blessings upon the city through the local church. One year later, the impact is still making a difference. Their voices tell the story.

Jason Pettus, Senior Pastor of Living Hope: “That Friday night we were at a basketball game about an hour and a half west of Bowling Green. They were in warmups and they put us all in the locker rooms. They emptied the stands. We all had to go. We were like ‘Wow, this is really crazy.’ So, we’re driving home and we go home and we think we’ll have big storms tonight and we’ll go to bed. You know, typically, we’re in the Bowling Green bubble. We don’t get hit by stuff.”

Isaac Anthony, Captain of Bowling Green Fire Department, Station 1: “We actually had a pretty busy day, kind of before the storms even got here. We had a little fire about 10:00 or 10:30 at night. We got back and got cleaned up from the fire. Emergency management had sent out some notices that we were potentially going to get severe weather. At one point the power blinks. We went on generator power but right in there somewhere WBKO went off the air, so we kind of switched and started watching online for a little while. It was kind of still online, but not on television. Of course, the (tornado sirens) are going off and all that stuff. We always joke about the Bowling Green bubble, how everything kind of splits and goes around Bowling Green and we’ve had some storms where they’re working, but nothing real severe.”

Clay Mullins, Global Missions Pastor at Living Hope: “It was the strangest site I’ve ever seen. I mean everything was completely whited out. There’s so much water in the air you couldn’t see anything and you just hear the wind swirling and the lightning flashing and all that so we knew it was a really bad storm but had no idea how bad it was until the next morning so.

Joe Harbin, Captain of Bowling Green Fire Department, Station 1: “I was off duty that night. We piled the kids under the steps in a closet. Being a man, I went out on the front porch to see what was going on and we’ve got a camera on our front porch and we’ve got video of it. I stepped outside with my wife kind of right behind me and I said, ‘Do you hear that?’ And she said, ‘Is that a train?’ I said that’s not a train, that’s a tornado.”

Anthony: “There weren’t really any runs until we finally were dispatched for a structure fire with collapse in the Creekwood area. The calls are coming from the Creekwood area, so it’s been two or three minutes since the storm rolled through there. I don’t remember how many or all the units that were that were dispatched because at that point everything all communications were pretty much down. We rolled out of the station and started down the bypass. Once we got to Broadway, there was a pickup truck with a board in the windshield and there’s debris in the roadway. We worked our way down the bypass by pushing and heat and air units out of the way. Like, rooftop air conditioner units were all in the in the roadway. High tension electrical lines were down everywhere, which generally we you know we’re really careful to avoid, but the whole city was black, so we were pretty confident that it wasn’t a power or anything.

“So, we’re driving over wires and just we’re having to get out of the rig to move wires up and down and to hold things out of the way and push stuff out of the roads just so we can get the fire trucks down through the through the road. As it turned out that my fire truck one ended up getting 10 new tires. At some point we’re like halfway down the bypass and I realized that we’ve been hit pretty hard.

“So, I use voice to text. When I was sending out the alert, I was trying to say the city’s been hit really hard. We need everybody to come in. It’s bad. And my phone translated that into the city’s been hit really hard. We need everybody to come in it’s Carlsbad.”

Harbin: “I 100 percent got the notification when Isaac aid Carlsbad. I’ve got the sticker on my helmet now that says #Carlsbad. I just think that’s really funny. That I saw the notification and I was like, “Carlsbad? Where is Carlsbad? I’ve never heard of this neighborhood.’”

Anthony: “Now we have #Carlsbad stickers on our helmets. The unofficial codeword for everything falling apart.”

Harbin: “I jump in the truck, pull out of my driveway and there’s half a tree down across my driveway and I had to get out in the pouring rain and move it out of the way and start driving to headquarters like I do every day. It’s about a six to seven-minute drive. Went up Smallhouse Road and tried to turn left on Broadway and there was a big box truck in the middle of the road, half a house in the middle of the road. I end up having to backtrack all the way around by the Convention Center, the Holiday Inn and go over through Bent Tree. It took me 45 minutes for what is normally a six to seven-minute drive. I still didn’t comprehend the magnitude of what had happened.”

“Finally made it to the fire station, got my gear and jumped in the truck and went straight to the Creekwood area. At this point we’re starting to realize the magnitude of what has happened.

I sent a text to my wife saying, ‘I’m ok, but we’re going out to search this neighborhood. It’s really bad. I don’t know how long we’re going to be here, but you’re probably not going to hear from me for a little while.”

Joe harbin

Anthony: “On my rig we came in Creekwood and got almost to the actual creek and there was a huge oak tree across the road. We started cutting trees because we weren’t going to be able to get engines in and out. We start cutting that tree and it’s raining really hard.”

Harbin: “I mean there was like 10 trees across the road right there and there were there was no getting through there. So, we just started hoofing it carried as much equipment as we could. Flashlights and saws and medical bags and started walking and came up the road there and see the first real destruction and realize how bad this really is. It’s still pitch black. It’s still storming. That’s the thing, when we started our search, there were still several rounds of storms that came. It’s pouring rain, lightning and thundering – it was like something out of a movie.

“Destruction everywhere. It looked like a war zone, I mean, and then you know, kind of the first thing that you hear really the only thing that you hear other than the thunder is smoke detectors going off. Through the entire next three days or so, that’s all you can hear is smoke detectors. So, so even now, like a lot of the guys talk about how you know you hear a smoke detector going off and it takes you right back.

“And it just kind of went downhill from there. We didn’t find a lot of living wounded from that point on. They were either perfectly fine or they were, you know, deceased. You’re talking about 10 to 12 of the 16 (deceased) that were in that neighborhood. That’s just something that you can’t prepare for. It’s something I obviously never want to see again. I wouldn’t wish for anybody else to have to experience it.”

Anthony: “There’s already kind of this big movement for mental health and taking care of people who have been traumatized. They say most people see four to five traumatic incidents in their life and we see 300. I think you learn to deal with it, mostly in a healthy way. They’re bringing all these mental health people, but for us on the line and the guys doing the work, the best therapy is when we come back and we sit down and we eat dinner and we all talk it out. We’re the only ones that really understand.”

At dusk, the sun illuminated the tragedy to Bowling Green. The EF-3 tornado cut a diagonal path going northeast at 160 mph, bringing devastating damage to the Creekwood subdivision, Russellville Road, Cedar Ridge Avenue, US-31W Bypass, Magnolia Street, Nutwood Street, Covington Street, Briarwood and Indian Hills area residents, McFadden Station Road and Louisville Road north of the city. First responders began search and recovery in Creekwood. The Cabell Street Substation damage meant significant power outages for large portions of the city. Clean-up started immediately.

Pettus: “I started praying and began to think through, Lord, what are we going to do? My first concern was for our congregation. I first wanted to figure out a way to find out who within our church family needed help. At some point in that prayer time, the Lord really impressed upon me that we would need Clay to lead. He had at that point really started doing a lot of work with our men’s ministry. He has a construction management background and you know he’s led so many mission trips all over the world. So, for him to take on a project of this magnitude, it just seemed right.

Mullins: “He asked me to plan on organizing a bunch of volunteers. I thought I needed to try to figure out where we can go and what we can do. I made it over to Magnolia Street and I’m standing there in the middle of the road and there are power lines and trees down, and I’ve never seen anything like what I saw. It was literally unreal. You know, it’s kind of like when you look at the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is so big that you just you can’t take it in and that’s the way all of the damage was that day, it just there was so much you just you just couldn’t take it in just overwhelming.”

Pettus: “We were getting a lot of calls and then I had a lot of friends that were checking in. I was getting a lot of those from churches saying we don’t think we can get up there this week, but I’m sure we can get (there to help) next week and I was naively thinking we’ll have it down. My mindset was this was not going to take long. We’ll have it knocked out in a few days. I didn’t know till Sunday but I remember Pastor Bill Wade and I talked on Saturday and he this is really bad. Him working as a police chaplain, he had a lot more insight information. He said it’s really heartbreaking what’s happened over there and they don’t yet know the full extent.

Mullins: Basically, what I did is I reached out to (Bowling Green City Manager) Jeff Meisel with an arbitrary question, ‘Hey, we’re going to send out teams tomorrow. Where’s the best place to send so we don’t get in anybody’s way? It was almost immediately he was replying back to me with where we can work.”

Sunday morning came. Pastor Jason changed the scheduled sermon for the morning to Jeremiah 29:7 and charged the congregation to seek the welfare of the city. Meanwhile in the Rec Center, Pastor Clay led a team of staff members who organized volunteer groups with assignments for the day.

Mullins: “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to serve and we’re going to create pathways. We’re going to help people get access to their vehicles and get access into their homes by just going and cleaning this stuff up and stacking stuff up by the road. We just kept a really simple vision of what we wanted to do and asked people just to follow these very simple tasks.”

Jeremie Wade, Groups and Membership Pastor at Living Hope: “We’re assessing two things: We’re assessing the needs and assessing what we have available to help meet those needs. We’re putting together groups of volunteers to go out to help meet these needs. This fit right along the lines of my spiritual gifts. I put together groups all the time. That’s what I’ve been doing for years is putting together groups of individuals to accomplish some sort of thing within the groups ministry with discipleship. With this, these were serving groups, and so they were going out and meeting these needs by serving the community and serving their church family.”

Pettus: “I literally thought by the time the last service is over I’ll head down there and we’ll have a pretty good idea of where things are going. I went down there and I couldn’t believe how many people were down there. It was of course just inspiring just to see our people answer the call to serve and I was so thankful for Clay and Jeremie to have the leadership, skill and administrative ability to be able to handle them. You’ve got hundreds of people coming in and you’re basically saying, ‘Hey, just go do your best.’ I was inspired by the magnitude of the response. It was such a beautiful sunny blue-sky day, you know, and it was a Sunday and so everything else was pretty much shut down. So, people really had the opportunity and had the time. So they were able to get out there and do it.”

Mullins: This is Sunday evening. My phone rings and it’s Jeff Meisel. He asked if we would be willing to help manage volunteers. They had a lot of the volunteer calls that were coming in and said their social media and telephones were just being flooded with calls from people with equipment. I said let me check with Pastor Jason and see if that’s something that we can dedicate the time to. Jason said, ‘Absolutely.’

“That’s when I started getting nervous. We started down this road of just managing and all of a sudden we’re managing a much, much bigger thing. We’re not just kind of helping our own people. We’re going to be helping all kinds of other. This was a larger mission.”

Living Hope deployed around 300 volunteers to work well into the evening. The mission resumed Monday morning, starting with a whiteboard and index cards fellowship hall of the church. By 10:30 a.m., Meisel invited Pastor Clay and others to visit the command center at Bowling Green City Police headquarters with a request.

Jeff Meisel, Bowling Green City Manager: “We set up a meeting first thing Monday morning, Day 3, he brought a group with him from Living Hope. We had maps prepared of the areas where the greatest damage was and had assigned zone numbers to those areas. Zone 1 was ground zero and we told him we had to keep volunteers out of that zone in order to not disturb the police and fire efforts of rescue and recovery. I had gotten word that WKU was willing to offer up the old mall. I contacted Buddy Steen and his staff to get their permission to use the lobby. They agreed and so by the early afternoon of Day 3 Living Hope had set up an intake center for volunteers to assign them work zones for clean-up assistance in the areas that were safe to go into.”

Mullins: “He tells us, ‘Here’s our plan. We want you to handle all of the volunteers. All the volunteers that we’re getting on our web traffic, social media, and telephone. We’ll send them to you and you send them out, and by this time he had said they had procured a space at the old mall, the WKU Research Center. We agree right there. We’re going to do it. He says, ‘Can you be there by 12:30?”

“And so that basically ended up being the mantra over the next over the next couple of weeks.

While things were so tense we were just finding ways to say yes.”

Clay mullins

Pettus: “Clay comes back and says, ‘If it’s alright with you, we’re going to take over the whole operation.’ I didn’t even understand the words that were coming out of his mouth. He said they want us to set up in the mall and I didn’t understand any of these words he was using, but it made perfect sense. I could not define the words and put them in proper context like old mall and skid steer.. But Clay had complete confidence that he knew that this was the right thing, and he already had a vision for it. You know, he explained it and Jeremie had a vision for it, too.

“I had my truck and so I literally took the whiteboard and had all the boxes of stuff water and everything piled in my truck. I’m making my way to the mall and I’m just praying, ‘Lord, this is a big deal.’ I’m just praying for Clay and Jeremie and I’m thinking we don’t know what we’re doing but I know you’re going to guide us. Jeremie took the board started positioning it immediately. There’s the side room where we’re going to have … strong administration with my daughter (Mackenzie), Debbie Robb, Glenda (Logan). A lot of our administrative folks were over there just helping us get things done.”

“I mean, there wasn’t any law enforcement. There weren’t any city officials, it was just like y’all got this and people started just piling in.”

Bob Smith, retired police chief and public safety director in Tampa, Florida; now Living Hope member: “For the last 10 years of my career I managed to fire the police and the paramedics. I did have a pretty good view and understanding of how disasters are handled around the country. I just made an incorrect assumption that (the city government) would probably send somebody over to sort of observe and have an official presence there in that command center command. It became very obvious that that wasn’t the way it’s going to work. Clay was the man in charge.

“Based upon years of experience, I’ve been in the command post in Tampa and Hillsborough County for hurricanes. I’ve worked very large disorders associated with some concerts with about 70,000 people that at some point decided to misbehave. So I mean, I’ve observed it all.

I’ve never been anywhere or even heard of a major event where a city would just simply say to a large church where you have the leadership and you have the skills and you have the ability to pull this off.

Bob Smith

So, I think we went to set up the command somewhere around 11:30, and by high noon it was already functioning and never skipped a beat. Thousands and thousands of volunteers went through that command post. It was just beautiful. It was just a very well-oiled, smooth operation.”

Meisel: “This helping hand from Living Hope was tremendous in that the city had maxed out its manpower resources to manage that activity.”

Wade: “All the pastors, all the administrators were coming in and supporting. It was a team effort. It was amazing to see. You know God used his church and God used each of these individuals who are gifted to perform certain tasks and certain functions within that process to help meet those needs.”

Mullins: “It was just nonstop. “There were no breaks, you just went.”

Over the next several days, over 4,000 volunteers from many states were sent out from the command center into the city and county for clean-up. The command center became the city’s designated volunteer headquarters. When the National Guard moved in to protect the Creekwood subdivision from unauthorized persons, the code word they adopted for volunteer interest was “LivingHope.” As each need arose, God uniquely provided at the right time.

Mullins: “I would tell you that I’ve watched God pour his grace out on the city. I mean he just did. We hardly we hardly told anyone no. I can remember one time in particular where I had to tell someone, ‘No, I’m sorry we can’t do this right now.’ I felt terrible for saying no, we can’t do this specific thing right now because we don’t have the right team there with the right equipment. It was within two or three minutes. I kid you not two or three minutes and someone pulled up with the equipment to meet the need. And there’s story after story after story of how God, just in the right moment, would provide the right people for the right place.”

Anthony: We had a guy show up from Arkansas or something that was in the Air Force and had a cadaver dog. I remember that he wasn’t getting paid, he just showed up and he was like, ‘How can I help?’ I felt like we almost got a hurricane response for a tornado.”

Ron Morehead, storm management team leader with Servpro, Living Hope member: “Servpro provides is exactly what that devastation was. There were moments where I was going to offer some advice. I would bring up something (to Clay), but they had already made that decision or already did something very similar to what I was going to talk about. It’s all about resource management. You know, getting materials, getting people, getting resources to the hard-hit areas and then dispersing them and managing them. But a lot of that, even before I could offer up some of that advice or Clay would ask me, they had already made those same decisions I would have made if I was, you know, managing a large loss project or a storm situation. So again, It’s the giftedness and the work of the Holy Spirit and in what they were asked to do. It was a bright light in a dark place.”

God’s hand so visibly at work in every little thing.

Jason Pettus

Clay said something and I won’t forget this.

He says, ‘We just started saying yes to things, trusting that the Lord was going to provide it.’

There were other groups just going through and praying with and encouraging and comforting the people who had had loss. And those kinds of conversations were happening.”

Harbin: “I found myself through those days as I’m walking around digging through rubble talking to God the whole time like, ‘How does this happen? Like I don’t understand. How or why something like this happens right?’ But then also just leaning into I don’t have to understand, I just got to trust God that he’s in control. He knows better than I do. I don’t have to understand the why. I just have to lean in and trust him and that’s kind of how I got through it. How somebody who doesn’t have that assurance of faith could get through that I don’t know. I mean something as traumatic as that, I don’t know how you get through that without that assurance.

“One of those days (searching for a missing person) I was feeling defeated and I turned around and I saw Clay and Will Burnham. They could maybe tell that I was exhausted and defeated and talked to him a little bit and I kind of filled him in on how I was doing and how everything was going. They prayed for me and for our team and, and that was encouraging. And then they said. ‘You know? I know this is difficult and I know that it’s been a struggle, but we just want you to know that there’s been no less than 15 gospel conversations that have happened today with residents in this neighborhood and that God is working here. Just be encouraged by that.’ It really, it really perked me up. I feel like God knew that I needed those two men at that moment, and so that was really cool and it kind of gave me some energy to continue.”

Anthony: “There were a lot of opportunities provided for ministry.

Living Hope made connections through the tornado that would not have been made otherwise where people were put in a situation where they were in need of help.

The tornado was used to definitely open doors and hearts in ways that are probably still being measured. People are still being impacted.”

Wade: “When we looked at scripture and see the mission of the church, the call of God’s people there has always been a consistent theme. God wants to use us to be a blessing to those around us. Love all the people around us. And I guess in that moment when (the city) asked us to take over, it was like ‘Well, of course if we can help our community, then absolutely.’ It was an opportunity for Living Hope to be a blessing to the community, so why not do this? It makes complete sense.”

Smith: “God has been preparing the leadership. Not only Living Hope but other churches. Like Eastwood, I had a chance to observe their volunteers in action on Magnolia and Nutwood. I was extremely impressed with just the different churches and how they pulled together and worked together. Nobody was worried about who gets credit.”

(Living Hope stayed at the command center just over 30 days until EMA came in and started working out of the main mall. The church moved operation there or two days before realizing their work was complete).

Pettus: “All of it was great until we went to the main mall and then when we began to release the control of it, and it was going out from our authority into other hands. You did not feel the favor of God. You didn’t see the favor of God in it. You began to see matter-of-fact bureaucratic. You know, here’s the paperwork. And it stopped being what we had, which really felt like a divine supernatural experience versus very cold, very matter of fact. The part that I think God had for us, we had done. You know, we had cared for I don’t know how many people. And we had, you know we had led thousands of people to serve, and so it was clear to us the need has been met and you could just sense God releasing us from it.”

Mullins: “I don’t know how many times I was brought to tears, particularly in that first week. I’ll never be the same. Just seeing how the Lord worked and just how he provided. And I just I watched as he just worked in the team members. So many strangers came together in different places and there was so much opportunity for conflict. There’s so much opportunity for physical injury. There’s so much opportunity in that organized chaos for something to go wrong. And it didn’t go wrong. People didn’t get hurt, injured, killed. People didn’t fight. I mean it was one of those things where even in the middle of the rush and the hurry, the fruit of the spirit was just evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. It was all there in those moments. I’ll never be the same.”

“What I saw more than more than anything else was unity. You think about John Chapter 17 and when Jesus is praying his high priestly prayer and he’s praying for the disciples that are there in the garden with him. But he’s also praying for every disciple that’s following behind those initial guys. Something that he prayed for them is that they would be unified. I saw unity. I saw the church become a unit.”