Surviving an EF-5 tornado: Gary Dobbs story

Surviving an EF-5 tornado: Gary Dobbs story

(WMC) - In a small north Alabama town, my friend and eventual co-worker Gary Dobbs did something pretty incredible; he survived an EF-5 tornado on April 27, 2011. He told me this story when we first started working together, and I've heard him tell it to others a number of times.

This is the first time I've seen him write it out. It's still as intriguing and jaw-dropping as the first time I heard it. And I'm so glad he is still here to tell the story. The spiritual aspect is just as fascinating as what he went through. God really had His hand of protection on Gary that day. Here is his account of that day in his own words:

" The recent bout of tornadoes here in Florida and in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia has spurred me to do something I’ve wanted to do for over five years now. And that is, to sit down and put in writing the most important story of my life. I wouldn’t bore you with the story of my entire life, only the most important chapter or two.

As a born-again Christian, I see the hand of our Lord every day of my life. In a child that is born, in the beautiful and vast panorama of His creation from my perch overlooking one of His great oceans, in feeling His comfort during times of grief, including the loss of one of my sons at what I believed was a way too early age. And then there is the incredulous looks I get from my doctors as to how I am so healthy to be living with only one kidney that only works at ten percent function for so long. And I just tell them, it’s the power of prayer. The same power that will find me a replacement kidney when the time is right. But, there have been two times in my life when I not only felt God’s presence, but I actually felt Him brush up against me.

I was “saved” and “baptized” when I was 16 years old at one of those hellfire and brimstone revival meetings in my little hometown of Childersburg, Alabama. So, I thought I had THAT done. Trouble was that I never had a real change in my heart or purpose that night. Now, let’s move through the years, past two failed marriages and lots of ups and downs in life to April of 1998. I was the chief meteorologist for the ABC affiliate television station, WAAY in Huntsville, Alabama. After each night’s newscast, I’d get back home around 11:30 p.m. to find my loving wife, Belinda, (now, on May 30, about to celebrate our 30th anniversary) sitting in bed with her nose stuck in one of her Bibles. I would joke with her about all the time she was spending doing that and she would always say, “perhaps you should do the same."

One evening, as I was home between newscasts, a knock at the door revealed two men I’d never met. They were “visiting” from Whitesburg Baptist church and invited us to join them Sunday. I already knew a little about their pastor, Jimmy Jackson, having seen him on television as Belinda would watch him when she couldn’t talk me into going to Huntsville First Baptist. I had joined there just before we got married, but rarely went to services. So, late in 1997 we moved our membership, pretty much under her orders, over to Whitesburg. We started attending services most every Sunday. And then in February of 1998 I received a phone call from the minister of music at Whitesburg. I had never personally met him although I watched him direct the choir every Sunday. He said the choir, about 150 members, had met and decided to ask me to be the narrator of the upcoming Passion Play at the church. I had no idea why they came up with me to do this, but he said after much prayer my name kept topping their list of who they wanted to play this very important role. I was to play Simon Peter, and pretty much walk the audience through the various scenes of that time of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. I was flabbergasted they would even ask me to do such a thing, but since I had enjoyed being in a musical play at Town and Gown theatre in Birmingham, years before, I thought this might be a fun project, so I accepted. Little did I know what I had bitten off.

Rehearsals were every night for 45 nights, and they arranged rehearsal hours so I could do the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, rush over to the church for practice and then leave in time to get back to the 10 p.m. newscast. However, from the first night of practice and for every night thereafter, something “unusual” started happening. Four or five different members of the choir and cast would take me aside just before I left for the 10 o’clock news, and would “have prayer” with me. I was astounded at their love and sincerity in support of my role in the upcoming production. It deeply touched me, and I found that I was wanting whatever it was they had that gave them such care and devotion. Finally, the time came for the actual production. It ran for five nights and one on Sunday. What happened on the second night of the play changed my life and purpose for the rest of my life.

It was a scene in the garden of Gethsemane when the disciples were all falling asleep while Jesus was praying. The person playing the role of Jesus walked over to me, Peter, and reached his hand toward me saying “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” And that is the moment it happened. The actor didn’t touch me, but God did. I felt Him holding my outreached hand and I felt a love and peace and supreme forgiveness that I had never experienced in all my life. God was with me and was saying without words He was there to be with me forever. Chills ran up and down my spine and my heart immediately said to Him, "I am yours from this night on." I don’t remember what I said at that night’s newscast, but I do remember Heather Burns, the news anchor, asking me why I had a glow that night. I could hardly wait to get home to share with Belinda what had happened. The next Sunday I “walked the aisle” again to publicly give my heart to our Lord, only this time it was for real. My life took an entirely different direction from that moment in the second night of the Passion play. What I especially remember about it was the peace “beyond all understanding” I felt.

Now, forward through with me to April 27, 2011. We were living in Mount Hope, Alabama, where we had purchased and added on to a little house that Belinda’s family had lived in. It was probably over a hundred years old when we bought it. Belinda agreed to move there only if I promised to build a tornado shelter there. The original one was caved in and unusable, and since that part of Lawrence County had a long history of enduring tornadic weather, and Belinda was and is terrified of severe weather, I had no choice but to agree. In Mount Hope I had to get up every morning at 2 a.m. to get to my morning radio show in Madison and to the TV station to do the morning newscast. It began at 4:30 each morning. It was an hour drive each way.

On this particular morning, I jumped out of bed and turned on my various computers at home to check on weather conditions. As any meteorologist could have told you that day, we were all expecting a very active day of likely tornado outbreaks. The weather the day before was full of tornadoes in Mississippi and Louisiana and it was obvious that same area of extreme instability in the atmosphere was heading straight toward west and north Alabama. When I checked, I could see tornadoes were already forming, at that early hour, over in Mississippi, about to move into Alabama. I had a strange feeling about it all, so much so, I did something I’ve never done before or since. I felt compelled to wake Belinda and our little dog Emma Katherine and insist they ride with me toward my stations and let me drop them off at her parent’s home in Decatur. When I mentioned likely tornadoes in our area later in the day, I didn’t get much argument. I am so happy I did this!

I got to the TV station around 4 a.m. and by 4:15 a.m. I was already on the air with wall-to-wall coverage of tornado warnings already coming across the state line heading our way in north Alabama. Most of these warnings, in the early hours were for the northwest corner of the state and further south down toward Tuscaloosa. It wasn’t long until our chief meteorologist, Brad Huffines, joined me and then Dale Bader and Chris Davis filtered in right behind them, so we had a full weather staff and covered the weather nonstop all morning. Finally, around 2 p.m., Brad told me to get back home and get some rest because we figured it would be a long night and I needed to be fresh to pick back up with our coverage early the next morning. So, leaving Belinda with her parents, I made the hour drive back to Mount Hope, got there at about 3:15 p.m. and laid down on the couch with our station’s weather coverage on. It was then I heard Brad say, “Our Doppler radar has indicated extreme rotation and likely tornado on the ground in Phil Campbell and Hackleburg, Alabama. That certainly got my attention since that is due southwest of Mount Hope and would likely see such activity would be moving toward me. Then he said, “and our Baron scale of intensity, this is a ten on our scale of ten, and we’ve never seen this before.” So, I jumped up, grabbed my cellphone and called the TV station. Told Brad to patch me through “on air” capability from my phone. I told him since it looked like I might be able to do a ground confirmation of a tornado heading my way, which is the most important bit of real data we can get under such radar indications, I could now become a significant storm spotter for our TV audience.

So, I immediately went to the front porch of my house and started watching my perfect view of the southwestern sky across my neighbor’s pasture and to the foothills of the mountains of Bankhead National Forrest. It wasn’t but a minute or two and I witnessed the most massive wall cloud of swirling movement in the sky, covering my entire view, coming over the Bankhead Forrest. That’s when Brad started talking with me live on the air as to what I could report. The wall cloud extended all the way down to the ground as it came into the pasture and I could not see a funnel or a debris field. Then the lightning was dancing all around me in my front yard and I could not move off the porch to get a better view beyond the pecan trees that partially obstructed my ability to discern where a funnel might be.

In the meantime, my neighbor next door to the west, Tina and Brittney Tubb were at work and school that day, but my neighbor to the east was the very popular OH BRYAN’S steakhouse restaurant, where four young people were there working. No customers at that time of the afternoon, thank God! But as I was talking to Brad on the phone and on the air, I saw one of them come out into the parking lot and I yelled at them to get in my tornado shelter. I had for a long time had an agreement with the owner, Brian, that if we ever had a really severe threat coming our way, to tell his people to get in my shelter, since they didn’t have one.

About that time I’m trying to describe to the TV audience what I am seeing, still thinking in my mind, what are the chances a tornado will hit me directly? I’d watched so many smaller tornadoes pass over and around Mount Hope in years past, I couldn’t actually believe one could zero in on my little two acre piece of property. All the while Brad, Dale and Chris were telling me, on air, to get to my shelter, that the radar was showing the tornado right on top of me. I assured them I was close to the shelter, but actually it was located at the rear of the house, just down the steps of my backdoor deck. And about that time, the hail started falling harder, the lightning got even more frequent….and then the rain wrapped wall cloud cleared just enough for me to witness the largest, nastiest, forceful tornado I could ever imagine just 50 yards in front of me and heading straight toward me. That’s when I told Brad, “I gotta go now!!” and started running through my house, trying to get to my backdoor and in the shelter. But this tornado was moving too fast. As I was running through my front bedroom I heard my car hit the top of the house, I heard the pecan trees ripping through the front windows and I glanced back to see the walls exploding inward and outward. I made it to the family room we had built on to the house and those walls started imploding as I ran past them. Now I am in our master bedroom thinking I have waited too late to get to the shelter because the house was coming apart and would be totally gone by the time I got to the back door. So, now what!? I’m thinking I can jump in the master bathroom tub to my left OR I can jump in the walk-in closet to my right. Something told me to go the closet because, and I thought this in milliseconds, that since my house was already mostly destroyed and the closet is on the northeastern corner, that if I could get in it and hunker down, then the tornado would get to me last after most of the house had already blown over me. That turned out to be the best decision, because that tub was found one mile south of my house later by my neighbors.

But now, the point of my story. I got in that closet, got on my knees, put my hands over my head and started talking to my Lord. Had only two seconds, but I said “Lord, I love you and if this is how you want to take me home, then I am ready.” Now comes my second brush with God’s actual hands. At that moment I felt it again…..that peace beyond all understanding. I felt the Lord put His arms around me and assure me that all would be fine. He picked me up, through the 200 mph winds, and gently lifted me through swirling pieces of my house and put me down in my backyard where debris started falling on me. And I got hit on the back by my washer and then my dryer and what felt like most of my house, and I must have said over and over “Lord, that really hurt, but I’m still here, so thank you.” My house was built with a tin sheet metal roof and my barn out back was the same. There was so much flying tin during those moments that one piece could have decapitated me easily. When the tornado passed over I uncoiled from my fetal position to see dozens of ten inch nails through lumber pointing at me. Huge cement blocks and bricks from our fireplace never touched me, even though they were piled up all around me. Limbs from the gigantic oak trees we had in the backyard had fallen all around me.

As I crawled out of the debris pile, the only external injury I came away with was gashing my arm on the corner of a piece of tin. Later hospital visits showed only bruised ribs and no internal organ injury. I helped to get the four young folks out of my tornado shelter and they only suffered shock from the event itself. All my neighbors, who were at home, died that day.

But my memory of that day centers on one thing. My Lord was with me and was protecting me, and I know that because I FELT his arms around me and He once again gave me a peace that I really don’t know how to put in words.

For those of you who might read ALL of this. I can only hope and pray you have some opportunity to experience that same peace I did twice in my life. God bless you all! " - Gary Dobbs

Spencer Denton
WMC Action News 5 Morning Meteorologist
First Alert Storm Tracking Team
Meteorologist Spencer Denton
Twitter: @spencerstorm5

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