Restoring hope in Oklahoma

Lisa Mitchell thought nobody could help her family. Now volunteers are rebuilding her home. But can they restore her hope?

BY SUSAN KIM | DEWEY, Okla. | July 22, 2003



"Someone from FEMA called me and told me I was approved."

—Lisa Mitchell


Lisa Mitchell thought nobody could help her family. Now volunteers are rebuilding her home. But can they restore her hope?

Mitchell, her husband and their three children lost everything April 19 when a tornado hit the community of Dewey in northeastern Oklahoma.

In the weeks since then, she has fought an uphill battle for assistance. Now it may have a happy ending, thanks to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Mitchell never thought she'd need UMCOR to step in. When applications from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) circulated around Dewey, the Mitchells filled one out. They needed money because they had no homeowners insurance. "We let it lapse," said Mitchell. "It was a big mistake on our part. We've never done that before."

She was happy when she found out she was initially approved for a FEMA grant. "Someone from FEMA called me and told me I was approved," she said.

But the day before the check was supposed to arrive, another FEMA representative called her back. "I was told I could not have assistance because they didn't declare Washington County a disaster area for the April 19 damage," said Mitchell.

Washington County where Dewey is located had been federally declared only for damage that occurred May 8 through May 30. The Mitchells and several other families from Washington County were getting nothing.

But there was widespread belief from FEMA officials themselves down to local relief group leaders that the Mitchells were eligible for federal aid.

Three weeks after Lisa Mitchell was told she was ineligible, a FEMA official answering Oklahoma's toll-free assistance line still mistakenly thought Washington County's April 19 damage was covered. "Go ahead and fill out the application," said the telephone representative.

But after being encouraged to double-check, she came back with a sympathetic "no."

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's outside of the incident period. I'm so sorry."

Local church leaders were surprised to hear of the family's predicament. "We had been hearing these families would be eligible," said the Rev. Roland Youngberg at the Dewey United Methodist Church.

A Salvation Army representative in Dewey also mistakenly thought people who suffered April 19 tornado damage would receive federal aid. After double-checking with FEMA herself, she was told they weren't. "What a mess," she said.

Members of the Dewey ministerial alliance then began to discuss unmet needs resulting from this lack of federal declaration.

They found out the Mitchells weren't the only uninsured family in Washington County who lost everything.

"Thirteen to 15 uninsured homes were destroyed by the April 19 tornado," said Kary Cox, the county's director for emergency management.

Cox said he was worried that people in Dewey would feel forgotten. "But between volunteer organizations and faith-based groups we have been able to provide some relief," he said.

UMCOR, working through the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, is helping to ensure people in Dewey aren't overlooked.

"We are ready to help the Mitchells and other families who come forward with needs," said Paula Kelcy, who is coordinating volunteers through the United Methodist-affiliated Volunteers In Mission program. "We are prepared to build at least four to six homes," she said.

Kelcy has a track record in the state. After tornadoes that struck Oklahoma City in 1999, she managed volunteers that built 21 homes from the ground up, and handled countless repairs.

And as Lisa Mitchell works alongside volunteers in Dewey, she vows she'll be insured from now on, no matter what it takes. "You learn from your mistakes," she said.


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