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Mission leader keeps in contact during Alabama tornadoes

Some 70 missionaries from the Alabama Birmingham Mission found themselves potentially in the path of the April 27 cluster of destructive tornadoes. Mission President Richard Holzapfel endured several anxious hours fretting and praying for the welfare of the impacted elders and sisters in his charge. But thanks to the technology of the day, he was able to maintain nearly uninterrupted contact during the historic storms with each missionary companionship, worried parents and authorities at Church headquarters.

President Holzapfel said his mission was given permission to utilize cell phone text messaging. Texting allows the missionaries to maintain frequent contact with their investigators while staying up on day-to-day mission business. But the modern communication tool also proved invaluable during the recent tornadoes. Throughout the disaster, the mission president was able to text message real-time information to each missionary, helping them stay informed, safe and out of harm's way.

"It was a godsend to be able to communicate with the missionaries," said President Holzapfel.

Each missionary is given a packet when they arrive in the tornado-prone mission detailing what to do in an emergency and outlining a system of coordination with the mission president and other mission leaders. On the day of the disaster, President Holzapfel dispatched a mission-wide text alerting that missionaries of tornado warnings and reminding them to stay prepared. As the evening evolved, he monitored online weather maps and noted each tornado that formed and touched ground. He then texted the companionships that were potentially in the path of the tornado. "I might send a text that said 'You have 10 minutes — leave your apartment and go somewhere else.' "

The missionaries would then acknowledge the text, inform President Holzapfel of their movements and, when the twister passed, pass along an "all's well" missive.

The ongoing texting with the missionaries helped ease the mission leader's understandable anxiety. "Despite the situation, I was surprised at just how calm I was through this," he said.

President Holzapfel also utilized texting, e-mail and his personal blog to keep worried parents and priesthood leaders at Church headquarters informed of the evening's developments. When the last tornado had passed, all were able to retire for the night knowing the Alabama Birmingham missionaries were safe.

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