After twisters, Oklahoma finds peace

BY DANIEL R. GANGLER | OKLAHOMA CITY, OK | December 13, 1999


OKLAHOMA CITY, OK (Dec. 13, 1999) -- A spirit of peace thrives in

tornado-torn Oklahoma this holiday season.

The opposite was true last spring when killer twisters crossed 100 miles of Oklahoma on May 3. One mile-wide tornado alone cut a 20-mile swath through Oklahoma City and surrounding towns. The fierce storms with winds surpassing 200 miles-per-hour destroyed some 10,000 homes and businesses, causing nearly $1 billion in damages. Twisters claimed 44 lives, injured more than 600, and left thousands homeless for weeks. President Clinton declared 11 counties federal disaster areas.

The small towns of Bridge Creek -- where 11 people died -- and Mulhall were

virtually leveled, while half of Monroe's 15,000 homes sustained damage or were destroyed.

Less than a month after the May tornadoes, more tornadoes claimed two lives

on June 1 -- one in Oklahoma and one in Illinois. Another series of storms hit Perry, Okla. on Dec. 2, producing high winds, hail and unusual December tornadoes. This latest storm damaged homes and toppled power lines, but no serious injuries or deaths were reported.

In the wake of this trauma, thousands of volunteers have given of themselves to make this holiday season memorable for Oklahoma's tornado survivors. For instance, this Christmas handmade ornaments from California will adorn the trees of 500 families who lost their homes.

The ornaments are the handiwork of 15 women of various faiths living in the

central California communities of Pleasanton and Danville, 95 miles southwest of Sacramento. The women spent five months making the ornaments, then sent them to Frances Gandy of Midwest City, near Oklahoma City, to give away. They contacted Gandy through family ties.

The ornaments were the brainchild of Cheryl Murray of Pleasanton. Her project

colleague, Beverly White of Danville, told The Oklahoman, "It was a very spiritually grounding project. What's so wonderful about it is how warmly the ornaments are being received. People are so touched by this that this will be an inspiration for others to think what can they do and how can they help."

With her husband Leon, Gandy traveled last month to Mulhall, a rural town

50 miles north of Oklahoma City, to give to Mulhall's Mayor John Pangburn 250 of the ornaments.

Mulhall, population 200, had about 80 percent of its homes and buildings damaged or destroyed.

The remaining ornaments will go into 250 Christmas memory boxes recently

prepared by some 100 members of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Midwest City, where Gandy lives, a town also hard hit by the twisters. The boxes will be hand-delivered to storm survivors in Midwest City, Del City, Moore, and Mulhall.

"Each plastic tub contains such things as a flash camera, tree skirt, Christmas lights, wrapping paper, candy canes, hot chocolate mix, popcorn, a small nativity set, story and coloring books, a wreath, and a Christmas mug," said Gandy.

Giving such spiritual relief has occupied much of the ministry of the Rev.

Greg Dobbins, outreach minister at Oakcrest Church of Christ in Moore, Okla., a community of 15,000 families just west of Oklahoma City, where half of the houses were severely damaged or destroyed.

Dobbins said the distribution of relief goods and services have slowed down quite a bit in the last month. "We are offering more spiritual relief now as survivors of the storm cope with their losses." He said that the pastoral staff counsels directly with 15 families, while 40 church members visit 30 to 50 storm survivors' homes a month. Dobbins roughly estimates that only ten percent of the properties destroyed have been rebuilt or replaced. Some lots are standing empty.

The questions most heard by Dobbins and the other pastors of his church are:

"Why did God let this happen to us?" and "What do we do now?" He said that he helps people discover answers to these questions, assuring them that God did not cause their misery.

"It really amazes me what has gone on here as peoples' spirits pull together

in such adversity." Dobbins' congregation has worked closely with First Baptist, Central Church of Christ, and other Moore churches to coordinate relief efforts and to protect donated funds from being abused.

In January, said Dobbins, the church will sponsor and build a Habitat for

Humanity house for a family that lost its home. The church has received and continues to distribute $500,000 in relief contributions to those who lost their homes or whose homes were severely damaged.

Like Oakcrest Church, First Baptist Church of Moore continues to help tornado

survivors spiritually and financially, too. According to the church's administrator,

Rick Whitaker, the congregation has recently hired someone to respond to survivors' needs. He said the church assists up to 30 families a week and plans to do so until next summer.

Since May, the church has received nearly $300,000 in relief funds from

across the country to aid families whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged. "The money is used to assist families with transitional expenses such as rent payment and deposits, to buy furniture and clothing, and to provide down payments on vehicles and homes. We have even purchased a few Christmas trees and presents for the children of survivors," Whitaker said.

For eight weeks this summer, First Baptist hosted 1,100 youths ages 12 through 18 from across the country. Coordinated by Cathy Whitaker, Rick's wife, the church dispatched 100 to 150 kids a week, in groups of 10 to 20 with an adult sponsor, to assist residents in cleaning up, repairing, and rebuilding their homes.

A few miles southwest of Moore in hard hit Bridge Creek, one new home has

been completed by a number of churches working together with the Oklahoma United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (VIM) program based in Oklahoma City. According to VIM staff member Paula Kelcy, "six more families in Bridge Creek and a family in Mulhall will be moving into new homes by Christmas."

Kelcy said, "volunteers are greatly needed to complete these houses this winter." Those interested in volunteering their time are requested to call the Oklahoma VIM office at (800) 231-4166.

United Methodists in Oklahoma have committed themselves to completing 25 new

homes for tornado survivors. Kelcy and Susan Hunt coordinate the efforts of hundreds of volunteers from across the country in building these new homes and in repairing existing homes.

Building supplies at Bridge Creek come from a distribution center in the

midst of a field near town. Volunteers have created an unfinished barn to house donated construction supplies such as wallboard, siding, and insulation. Outside, several storage trailers are stocked with construction goods.

The land was donated for use by Ridgecrest Baptist Church. That congregration's building was leveled by the mile-wide May twister. The Rev. Tom Duckett, the church's pastor, helps caseworkers unite with families in need and visits construction sites.

Also actively participating in the reconstruction of Bridge Creek is the

Oklahoma Lumbermen's Association. Volunteers of the association, from 22 states, meet weekly for assignments. The association launched "Project Rebuild" in July to obtain donations of cash and materials from major lumber companies for rebuilding homes.

Work with church and other nonprofit organizations in Oklahoma has been overseen by Linda Soos-Davis, human services coordinator of the Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management. From the start of tornado relief efforts in May, she has directed the Oklahoma Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD).

"She has worked well to help set up and coordinate volunteer teams, insurance

settlements and help provide for the unmet needs of people," said Albert Ashwood, state director of civil emergency management in Oklahoma City.

Ashwood said VOAD meets biweekly and continues to coordinate efforts so two charities aren't working on the same case. He said the groups have worked well together.

Ashwood said Oklahoma is now in long-term recovery, assisting citizens with

family and individual assessments, public assistance, mitigation, and debris removal. The department is also promoting the construction of safe rooms and underground shelters, so people have a safe haven during a tornado. So far 14,000 callers have used the department's telephone hotline for more information on how to obtain a $2,000 state rebate for constructing a safe room or shelter. The

federal government has granted $12 million to the program, which will end Dec.

31, 2001.

Ashwood further said state and federal sources have so far granted $175 million in tornado relief funds to 9,000 applicants.

Posted Dec. 13, 1999


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