A tornado ripped apart a small country church tucked away on a rural road in southwest Lauderdale County on Saturday.
But it was what the tornado left behind that had the members of Green Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Chunky celebrating what they considered a miracle.
In the fellowship hall in the back of the church, an entire wall was ripped from its frames. Pine needles, limbs and other debris strewn throughout the hall cluttered the exposed room. The plastic tablecloths and napkins from a handful of tables littered the area.
Near the back of the room sat an undisturbed 4-foot table, known as the "pastor's table.” The wine glasses, table settings, crimson linens and tablecloth were all neatly in place. A few plastic rose pedals rested near the center of the table.
Less than five feet from the table were the crumbled remains of the wall.
"It's truly amazing," said Gail Hall, 45, a lifelong member of the 50-person congregation. "That is God right there. There's no other way to explain it. I've seen this type of thing on television ... but I never thought I'd see it in person. It's just incredible."
Despite the storm, no injuries were reported in East Mississippi. The church is located on a sparsely populated road — Point Wanita Lake Road — about five miles off Highway 80 near the Newton County line. Emergency officials on the scene said they believed the damage to the church —which included multiple snapped trees, a roof that was peeled back, doors and windows blown open, and pine limbs
and debris strewn throughout the building — was caused by a tornado that touched down. A heavy line of severe storms that swept through East Mississippi on Saturday, officials said, produced the tornado.
"Basically we had about six or seven structures with minor damage (and) one church that was heavily damaged," said David Sharp, director of the Lauderdale Emergency Management Agency. "Other than that, as far as we could tell, everything else was just timberland."
Using photographs of the affected areas and models, Sharp and John Baxter with the National Weather Service said that the tornado was likely a "low-end EF 2," with winds ranging from 100 mph-120 mph. Sharp said the tornado was about 1/4 mile wide, and moved across the county "probably six to eight miles."
"It didn't stay on the ground the whole time," Sharp said. "It kind of skipped.”
Touching down at Point Wanita Lake Road, Sharp said the tornado dissipated after passing Arundel Road, crossing Interstate 59 at the 145 mile marker. Stormy weather throughout the day disrupted electric lines for residents of the county.
Mississippi Power reported it had 350 customers whose power had been cut off, though all had been returned power before the end of the day. East Mississippi Electric Power Association estimated it had about 1,200 out, and most of its customers had also been restored power.
"We came out of it pretty good compared to other areas in the state, but we did have some pretty significant damage in Lauderdale County," Baxter said.
On Arundel Road south of Meridian, a handful of trees were snapped and uprooted, causing minor damage to a few homes.
Dennis Watson stood in flip-flops in his front yard Saturday morning as it rained and surveyed the damage to his 4861 Arundel Road home. Watson was asleep when the storm struck, snapping trees in his yard and causing minor roof damage to his garage.
"I heard my dog going crazy and then two seconds later be house shook and boom it hit," Watson said. "I've never heard anything that loud."
Watson said he was thankful he didn't have more damage. His brother removed some trees from his yard a few weeks ago, he said.
A few miles to the southwest of Watson, members of Green Grove Missionary Baptist Church continued to marvel at the undisturbed pastor's table in the fellowship hall on Saturday, hours after the storm had passed.
But that wasn't the only thing the members considered to be a miracle.
Less than 20 feet from the church's front door stood an 8-foot by 4-foot wooden cross. Tree limbs and snapped pine trees were scattered around it. The cross, however, withstood the fury.
"That cross never budged," said Hall. "What more can you say? I think it speaks volumes for the power of God."
Byron Wilkes contributed to this story.