Catastrophic damage redefines tornadoes


OKLAHOMA CITY (May 6, 1999) -- Like most long-time Oklahomans, Larry

Bishop used to take tornadoes in stride.

"Down here, we don't think very much about tornadoes," he said. "They're

just something that happens every spring and a few people get their houses


After Monday's devastating string of tornadoes through the region known as

"Tornado Alley" - leaving at least 38 people dead, more than 600 injured

and entire neighborhoods demolished - no one is going to consider twisters

the same way again.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Bishop, a disaster resource

coordinator for Church World Service (CWS), as he began assessments

in the communities hit by the storm.

Others said the 19-mile long by half mile wide swath of devastation wrought

by the killer storm resembled a war zone. Officials rated the storm an F5,

the most powerful, with winds starting at 260 miles per hour and which can

top 300 mph.

Houses were blown off their foundations, trees were uprooted or snapped

like match sticks, and cars and trucks were tossed through the air like

toys, some ending up miles from where they were originally located. Small

towns in several outlying areas were virtually wiped out, officials


Officials also feared that the death toll could go higher because of people

who were still missing.

"I think there's a good possibility that we still have some folks (dead)

out there," said Ray Blakeney of the Oklahoma medical examiner's office.

Damage estimates have ranged from more than $225 million all the way to $1

billion. Nearly 3,000 homes and 47 businesses were destroyed.

President Clinton, expected to visit the stricken area on Saturday, has

declared 11 Oklahoma counties as disaster areas, clearing the way for

federal funds to aid in the recovery effort.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and James Lee Witt, head of the Federal

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), began touring the area the day after

the twisters hit.

"I couldn't imagine this devastation," Witt said. "This is unbelievable."

Relief efforts were swift in coming.

Churches opened their doors to provide shelter to people whose homes were

damaged or destroyed. Oklahoma Christian University was providing housing

in the dorms and hotels and motels were making rooms available. Faith-based

groups, along with charity organizations and others, were providing food,

clothing and other essentials to those affected by the storm.

"We're doing everything we can to help," said Pastor Alan Cox of the First

Baptist Church in Moore, a suburb where half of the 15,000 homes were

either destroyed or badly damaged.

The Salvation Army, Oklahoma Goodwill Industries and Memorial Road Church

of Christ were among those collecting food and supplies.

Feed the Children, an international, non-profit Christian relief

organization headquartered in Oklahoma City, was distributing truckloads of

food and supplies to shelters and to communities hard hit by the storm.

More than 100 volunteers were working at the organization to help the

relief effort.

A team of 12 people from the Texas Baptist Men's 18-wheeler disaster relief

unit traveled to Oklahoma and began serving meals with the help of local

church members.

Adventist Community Services (ACS) opened five relief centers near hard-hit

areas to provide water, food, new clothing and bedding, and toiletry items.

Volunteers from ACS also drove through affected areas to distribute donated


ACS volunteers were also managing a central warehouse where donated relief

supplies will be sorted, stored, and then distributed by ACS and other

disaster response agencies. ACS set up the warehouse at the request of the

Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency and FEMA.

"It's tremendous to see Oklahomans coming together and working together to

help people in need," said Birdie Stremlow, ACS director for the Southern

Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church. "Many agencies, corporations, and

residents are helping in any way they can."

Faith-based organizations appealed for donations, especially money, to aid

in disaster recovery. The United Way of Metro Oklahoma began collecting

contributions including credit card donations to help tornado victims.

Donations could be earmarked for specific United Way Partner Agencies such

as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Week of Compassion (Disciples of Christ) sent $15,000 to the Christian

Church in Oklahoma to assist its congregations in offering support to their

members who were affected. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA),

meantime, reported it had sent $10,000 from its One Great Hour of Sharing

offering to the Presbytery of Indian Nations. Church World Service sent 800

blankets to the Del City Christian Church (Christian Church/Disciples) in

Del City, Okla., to assist disaster survivors in that community.

Members of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Catastrophic

Disaster Response Team were dispatched to Oklahoma to help assess tornado

damage. Other faith-based groups, such as Lutheran Social Services, began

looking at how they could help in the long-term rebuilding and recovery

efforts. Johnny Wray, director of Week of Compassion, said he planned to

travel to both Oklahoma and Kansas to visit with local pastors and

congregations to see what other assistance Disciples could provide.

"We're barely getting started at this point," noted Carolyn B. Stephens,

executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Indian Nations when asked

Wednesday about formation of an interfaith.

The Rev. Pat Kennedy, pastor of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Amarillo,

Texas, and a member of the PDA Assistance Team, arrived Wednesday morning

in Oklahoma City to assist in damage assessments. Kennedy was involved with

the Presbytery of Indian Nations in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City

bombing in 1995.

Stephens and others said the relief efforts currently under way brought

back vivid and sometimes painful memories of the bombing of the Alfred P.

Murrah federal building that left 168 people dead. But she said the

experience gained by faith-based groups from that event was aiding in the

quick relief efforts in the wake of this week's tornadoes.

"After the bombing, the interfaith community had a number of organizations

that worked together to provide assistance of many different kinds," she

said. "Some of those groups are going to be able to be quickly called back

into service."

She said that as terrible as the bombing of the federal building was, the

situation with the tornadoes is even worse.

"In many respects this is - and I hate to say it -- this is worse than the

bombing," Stephens said. "Even though there were a greater number of people

killed...the people who were affected by the bombing at least had the

comfort of a home to go to. These people (hit by the storm) do not. And the

people who were affected by the bombing had neighbors who were not

affected. That's not the case here."

Posted May 6, 1999

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