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Prayer closet the only part of Alabama home left standing after it was obliterated by last month's EF4 tornado

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
April 01, 2019, 3:13:27 PM EDT


Some might say it was nothing short of a miracle that beneath the rubble of a home almost completely obliterated by the deadly EF4 tornado that whipped through Lee County, Alabama, on March 3 were four survivors.

The family members somehow endured the powerful twister even after the surrounding walls of the bathroom in which they huddled and prayed, frightened for their lives, crumbled amid the roaring winds.

As the house began to shudder and the roof collapsed, the force of the debris slammed the family downward -- a presence one of the survivors described as the hand of God holding them down.

When it was over, just about every inch of 72-year-old Earnestine Reese’s home, the place where she has lived for decades and raised her family, was destroyed. A nearby family trailer was also ruined.

That she and her other family members in the home – Earnestine’s daughter, LaShawn Wilson; her son-in-law, Kolaya Wilson; and her grandson, Qumran Wilson – made it through the traumatic event was amazing in and of itself.

“It was like a bomb had exploded,” LaShawn recalled in an interview with 11 Alive News.

All the more incredible was that a single, tiny area still stands on the foundation long after the tornado ravaged the rest of the house -- Earnestine’s closet, used as her prayer space for many years, her family told AL.com.

Earnestine’s church attire, including hats and purses, all hung in that very closet –- and they all weathered the storm.

“This is my childhood home, this is a family street,” wrote Earnestine’s other daughter, Renee Frazier, in a Facebook video post that features Earnestine, sitting in a chair atop the remains of her house while telling a relative on a phone call to thank God for sparing their lives.

“This tornado took a lot,” Renee wrote. “I’m thankful for the lives that were saved, but I’m also saddened by the family members we lost.”

(Photo/Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Pulling back the blue tarp inside Earnestine Reese's prayer closet reveals the prayers and Bible verses written with a Sharpie by disaster relief volunteers since the tornado on March 3, 2019.

(Photo/Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Earnestine Reese's prayer closet still stands on the otherwise empty slab where a tornado destroyed her home on March 3, 2019.

(Photo/Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Kolaya Wilson and his wife, LaShawn Wilson, daughter of Earnestine Reese, survived the March 3 tornado that destroyed their home.

(Photo/Greg Garrison/AL.com)

A United States flag and a cross carved from a log by chainsaw mark the front of the home of Earnestine Reese, whose prayer closet is still standing on the otherwise empty slab of her house.

(Photo/Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Disaster relief volunteers left Bible verses and prayers written on the wall of Earnestine Reese's prayer closet. The rest of the home was destroyed by a tornado on March 3, 2019.

(Photo/Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

A man breaks down in front of the 23 crosses that were set up at Providence Baptist Church in Beauregard, Alabama, to honor each person who lost their life in the storm.

(Photo/Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

Some homes were completely destroyed in the March 3 storms. This home faced both twisters that went through Lee County, Alabama.


Renee revealed in an emotional interview with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that Earnestine’s family lost seven relatives in the tornado outbreak, along with 15 neighbors on the street where only her prayer closet still stands. At least 23 people were killed during at least four confirmed tornadoes.

“My mom was buried under the debris,” Renee said in the interview. “Soon as they brought her out of the debris, her first response was, ‘Tell the Lord thank you!’”

Earnestine underwent surgery for the broken hip she suffered during the chaos and is now recuperating, but she has remained in good spirits, her family has said.

The video of Earnestine, a devout Christian, expressing her thanks to her Lord while coping with a broken hip, wrapped up in coats and blankets to keep warm and surrounded by her home’s ruins was initially published on Facebook by her nephew, Delrico Eiland.

“’I thank the Lord! You tell God, ‘Thank you, God!’ You hear me?’” Earnestine exclaimed in the video.


Delrico told the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Radio Canada that he was 15 miles away in Opelika, Alabama, at the time of the tornado. Delrico said he arrived at his aunt’s house before the first responders did, but it was a struggle to get within a mile of the place.

“There were trees down, power lines down, so I had to walk maybe a mile or two to get to their house,” he said in the interview. “It’s a blessing that they survived that ordeal. All the surrounding neighbors across the street, behind them, beside them, they lost their lives.”

The clip he posted to Facebook earlier in March has since gone viral.

A little over a week later, a chaplain with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team that responded to the devastation in Lee County posted two photos to Facebook that showed just how miraculous it was that Earnestine and her family made it out of the rubble alive.

“I just left a family who survived the tornado in this house, and the only [thing] left standing is this closet,” Chaplain Jason Smith wrote. “It's the grandmother's prayer closet, and the whole family survived. Are you kiddin’ me? My God is awesome!”

The photos have attracted much media interest -- attention that has helped the family so far raise more than $30,000 on a Go Fund Me page created to help them bounce back after losing nearly everything they had.

“Over the years since we have been deploying to disasters all around the world since 9/11, I would have to say that this was one of the top miraculous experiences of people surviving and giving testimony to something that not many people probably have, and that’s a devoted closet or a place in their home for prayer,” Jack Munday, the international director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, told AccuWeather.

The organization's role and mission is to provide emotional and spiritual care to those who are directly affected by traumatic disasters.

“I think it’s a great testimony to the prayer that has happened in that home, that people would have such a heart to have a place to have consistent prayer in their home,” Munday said.

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Earnestine’s family members are in the process of recovery after the devastation that turned their lives upside down last month. In the aftermath, an unexpected glimmer of hope has appeared for some family members, including LaShawn, who was in the house with her mom during the tornado.

A few family items, including cherished family photos, were discovered up to 50 miles away in Georgia and have since been returned to them via the help of a "Lost Treasures and Photographs for Beauregard Tornado Victims" Facebook group, according to 11 Alive News.

“To know that I still have something … it may seem like nothing, but it’s something,” LaShawn said of one partially torn image of herself with which she was recently reunited.

Today, the inside of Earnestine’s miraculous prayer closet is covered with the prayers and Bible verses written by disaster relief responders since the devastating tornadoes.

“Anytime the enemy tries to bring something into my mind that’s negative, I keep thinking, ‘Tell the Lord, thank you,’” Earnestine’s daughter Renee tearfully said in an interview, echoing her mother’s words. “And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep telling God, ‘Thank you! Thank you for the storm, thank you for the recovery, thank you for the spirit of the Holy Ghost. Thank you, God!’”

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