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Deadly Tornado Outbreak

Pastor in Arkansas Town Hit by Twisters: 'We Don't Understand Why'

VILONIA, Ark. — On Sunday morning, Wade Lentz, the pastor of the local Baptist church, was handing over the keys for a new donated home to a mother and her disabled son. Hours later, his own family was homeless.

The church had raised money to build a new home for Marcy Eubanks and son Dylan, who is 18 and severely disabled, through gofundme.com. At the morning service, Lentz and congregation presented them the keys.

Little did he know then that later that evening he would hear a familiar low roar, which he knew well from past experience.

In 2011, a powerful tornado tore a path through this small Arkansas town that Lentz and his family have called home for close to 20 years.

Image: Wade Lentz stands next to his wrecked 1980 Chevy Silverado in Vilonia, Ark.
Wade Lentz stands next to his wrecked 1980 Chevy Silverado in Vilonia, Ark. A tornado wiped out his house and blew the truck 150 yards away. John Brecher / NBC News

That storm did $40,000 in damage to his modest brick house, but it withstood.

Not so on Sunday, when a huge twister carved a nearly identical route through this flat patch of land north of Little Rock. Lentz’s home was wiped off its foundation.

Lentz, 37, has only worked as pastor for six months after a career with the local utility company. Now he is overseeing a ministry-turned-shelter for Vilonia’s shell-shocked residents as well as grappling with the realization that his family of five could have been among the dead here.

In all, eight people died in Vilonia, Police Chief Brad McNew said.

“When I heard the siren, I didn’t think we had to go,” Lentz said, standing where his kitchen would have been 24 hours earlier. “I was being a typical stubborn man. What are the odds another tornado takes the same path?”

It took Lentz’s wife of 17 years, Amanda, to snap him out of complacency.

"What are the odds another tornado takes the same path?"

Lentz gathered his three sons — ages 8 months to 10 — and packed up the family van to go to his parents' house.

“We lived through this once before, and it was the same roar then,” he said.

Twenty minutes later, the storm had passed, but not before leaving a trail of destruction incomparable to the 2011 twister. “We went back to check out my house and I saw right away that I didn’t have a house,” Lentz said.

Lost in the chaos of evacuation was the Lentz family dog, Oreo. The family is praying for a miracle, he said, but knows that Oreo’s chances of surviving the powerful storm are slim.

In Monday’s daylight, the extent of the damage was clear. The pastor’s beloved 1980 royal blue Chevy Silverado had come to rest on its roof about 150 yards away from the carport. His 2005 white Toyota Corolla fared worse — It was almost unrecognizable as a car. His refrigerator, freezer and washing machine are yet to be found.

The Lentz’s home, built in 2005, did not require either a safe room or tornado shelter, which have become the norm in homes built in this area after the 2011 tornado.

Lentz said that if he rebuilds, it will not be without a safe room. But that question of whether to rebuild is raw, even to a man whose ties to the community run so deep.

“Do we even want to rebuild here? How many times are we going to go through this?”

For now, the mission is relatively straightforward: clean up, salvage the things that can be salvaged.

“We don’t understand why the Lord has allowed us to go through this again, but I also know that our God does not make any mistakes,” Lentz said.