Oklahoma in 'deep recovery'


OKLAHOMA CITY (Sept. 1, 1999) -- Charlene Stone remembers watching the huge, black funnel cloud rumble down a gully and across the back of her family's wooded two-and-a-half acres in Bridge Creek. The tornado picked their trailer up -- with she and her husband, daughter and two grandchildren screaming inside -- and set it down a short distance from its foundation blocks.

The twister also demolished a neighbor's garage and a water pump house. But it left them alive.

"My daughter said, 'Mama, the only thing I can say is God put His hand on it and said 'No they can't go.'' Because by rights, we should've been gone," she said.

A series of early May tornadoes took the lives of more than 40 residents and destroyed thousands of homes in the Oklahoma City area. Now people are trying to restore some order to their lives.

"We're into what's called fairly deep recovery," said Linda Soos-Davis, executive secretary of Oklahoma Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and human services coordinator at the Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management.

"You can kind of keep up with where you are in the disaster by listening to the requests coming through the Unmet Needs Committee, and there's no immediate requests coming through for clothing and food and things like that. They're into trying to reconstruct their lives."

For the Stones, rebuilding came slowly. Their home, though not obliterated, was essentially destroyed because it could not be put back on its foundation. The family purchased a used trailer with $2,500 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Stone admits that, in the desperation of the moment, they bought the first thing they saw. The trailer, they would discover, had problems: holes in the floor, rotting walls. It would be nearly two months before their water was restored, and then it ran only in the bathroom. They had no gas for cooking. All of these problems were compounded by the fact that Stone's husband, Tommy, is terminally ill. She is also disabled from cancer surgery she had several years back and can't cope with the physical demands of a disaster.

"It got to be almost too much," Stone said. Eventually, she contacted Karen Baker, the Bridge Creek case manager working through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Then things started to look up.

UMCOR coordinated a team of U.S. Navy volunteers from Georgia who wanted to help people like Stone.

"When they showed up it was just, you know, a blessing," Baker said of the team's arrival. "They came in and fixed her floors, replaced toilets, put a bathroom sink in. They re-plumbed the trailer and put in a gas line so she could cook. And a hot water heater-they had no hot water."

Still, the trailer was in such bad shape that fixing it up did not represent a good long-term solution. So Baker decided the best course was to build them a house. "And so now they have a house that's all framed up. It's kind of on hold right now, but that's because all of the volunteers dropped off," she said.

Stone said she had been told that the start of the school year was responsible for the lull, and that some Mennonite work teams are scheduled to recommence work on her house early this month.

But Baker thinks volunteer numbers are decreasing as the spotlight fades. "They're just starting to drop off anyway. You know, it's not in people's minds anymore. There's a real need for skilled volunteer laborers out here," she said.

Soos-Davis echoed the need for more volunteer teams to help with the construction effort. "Basically, what we need now are builders," she said.

Of a projected 100 houses to be built, roughly a dozen have been completed. And each one has a "safe room" where family members can seek shelter during future storms, Soos-Davis said.

Faith-based groups involved in the building process include Mennonite Disaster Service, Lutheran Disaster Response, Southern Baptists and United Methodists, she said. Others involved in the long-term recovery process include Church World Service, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Catholic Charities, Adventist Disaster Response, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Week of Compassion (Disciples of Christ), United Church of Christ, Salvation Army and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.

About half of those are involved in case management, Soos-Davis said. Case managers do more than approve people for rebuilding of their homes. Dianna Horn, a case manager working out of Southern Hills Seventh Day Adventist Church, explained: "We're basically taking a financial picture of where people were before the disaster. And then we take a financial picture of where they're at right now, and we try to help them get back to where they were."

Case managers might help people negotiate with hospitals and creditors to reduce debts, locate lawyers, or find automobiles, she said.

In one case Horn has been working on this past week, a woman injured in the tornadoes owes $24,800 to one hospital, not including doctor bills and others. She had no insurance. "And she's quit doing therapy because she's running up bills she can't pay," Horn said. Horn said she thinks she's got the bills reduced to around $8,000, except for the big tab at the hospital.

Often, funds from Oklahoma VOAD are available to help people pay their medical bills. Hospitals and doctors have demonstrated a willingness to cut bills as well, Horn said. "So everybody working together, we wipe those bills out, so the people can live," she said.

"You know what the greatest thing is, I think, of working this job? I have gotten to meet people of other faiths and we trade information and we see each other's personalities and how dedicated everybody is. It's just beautiful to see everybody working for one common goal. I think that is the most beautiful blessing out of this whole thing."

Posted Sept. 1, 1999

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