Members of a volunteer team working out of First United Methodist Church in Moore, Okla., remove concrete rubble from the home of Ronald Samaniego. From left are Jennifer Morgan, Mel Rogers and Stephanie Birdwell.
The shelter at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Moore, Okla., set up for survivors of the May 20 tornado, shut down at 4 p.m. May 31.
Six hours later, the shelter reopened after yet another EF-5 level twister swept through the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.
"They really had not gotten everything out of the door when the storm started hitting," said the Rev. D.A. Bennett, St. Andrew's pastor.
To the west of Oklahoma City, his cousin, the Rev. Barry Bennett, had no doubt the approaching storm would be bad.
"I grew up in Oklahoma, and I've seen many tornadoes," Barry Bennett, the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in El Reno, explained. "But I've never seen the sky so dark. I knew this thing had to be huge."
He and others crowded into the shelter at the El Reno church, which escaped with minor damage as the twister veered from the center to the south side of town. Several church members did lose their homes, he said.
On the north side of Moore, the Rev. Richard Norman was ushered into a shelter in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's joint field office. The tornado skipped over the mostly shuttered shopping mall where the office is located. Norman serves in twin roles as the Oklahoma Conference's disaster coordinator and president of the statewide Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters.
A man picks his way among tornado debris in Oklahoma City.
Widest tornado on record
The 2.6-mile wide El Reno tornado later was confirmed as the widest U.S. tornado on record.
The cycle of extreme weather, which drew national attention with the May 20 tornado that destroyed a good part of Moore and accounted for 24 storm-related deaths, continued with torrential rains and flash floods in the Upper Midwest and northeastern United States.
Forty-four people died in the two weeks of storms in Oklahoma alone and thousands of homes were damaged or reduced to mere piles of sticks over cement foundations. Every one of the 27 residents of Fallis, Okla., was affected.
"It wasn't just one tornado, it wasn't just one day and it wasn't just one area," noted the Rev. Jeremy Basset, the Oklahoma Conference's director of mission.
As a result, Oklahomans, generally accustomed to tornado season, were on edge. The Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, is among the many who admitted to being rattled even as he assisted those whose homes were damaged or destroyed.
"Normally, we are used to this," he said. "But just because there have been so many... it's been very challenging for us to deal with."
Oklahoma's United Methodists are appreciative of support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief as well as the financial donations and prayers that have come from across the United States and as far away as Japan.
D.A. Bennett was thankful to hear that other churches were praying for Oklahoma because "they're really praying in our place."
Relief efforts begin
As of June 4, 5,500 of the 6,600 relief cases registered with FEMA were in Cleveland County, where Moore is located, with the other cases scattered through four other counties. The final tally could range from 10,000 to 12,000 cases, Basset estimated.
Tornadoes caused heavy damage in the rural Little Axe, Okla., community.
Working with other community and faith-based groups, United Methodist are taking the lead in the Oklahoma tornado response. Already, the state's two conferences, with support from UMCOR, are:
Dispatching teams for debris removal and rebuilding (register at www.okumc.org).
Participating in multi-agency resource centers that provide "stopgap" assistance to storm survivors.
Coordinating with FEMA and working with other volunteer organizations on donations management, volunteer placement, project management and spiritual care.
As soon as Oklahoma Bishop Robert E. Hayes requested it, an initial $10,000 emergency grant was on its way to the state. Additional funding will respond to a joint grant application from the Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Missionary conferences.
Greg Forrester, head of UMCOR's U.S. Disaster Response, spent three days touring El Reno, Moore, Shawnee, Carney and tiny Fallis. "For us, the response will be two-fold," Forrester said after his visit. "We're looking at probably a two-year response; one year in some of the areas and two years in others." UMCOR will focus its efforts on the most vulnerable communities affected by the storms—those where residents have little to no insurance coverage and few resources to rebuild.
The Rev. Bob Younts, pastor of Yukon First United Methodist Church, remains concerned about tornado damage in nearby Banner. "Most of the people lived in trailer homes, and they're just totally destroyed," he explained. "Many of them didn't have insurance."
Following the May 31 storm, a church member who teaches at the Banner school "put us in touch with a number of the families in that community who lost everything," Younts said. "We started sending teams out Sunday afternoon to clean up. People are responding with cash and with gift cards and that helps."
Homeowner Connie Boevers (right) is comforted by the Rev. Tish Malloy after a tornado swept through Boevers' neighborhood in Oklahoma City. At left is the Rev. Adam Shahan. Malloy is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Moore, Okla.
The tribal area of the Absentee Shawnee tribe also is very rural, but an estimated 20 to 25 homes were damaged or destroyed. In past disasters, native people "often have been left out of the equation," Wilson noted.
Experienced in disaster relief, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference is networking within the native community and making initial needs assessments. "Every day, I think we get a couple of new calls," he said.
In El Reno, it took a few days to get over the shock of the massive tornado, said Barry Bennett, who also chairs the Oklahoma Conference's mission and service ministry team.
Visiting a multi-agency recovery center set up in the high school gym on June 4, Bennett said, "We were able to put some funding and supplies in the hands of families."
But that's just the beginning of United Methodist participation in Oklahoma's recovery. "We will be here until the last shingle is laid," he predicted. "We will be here through to the end."
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Linda Unger, a writer with the General Board of Global Ministries in New York, contributed to this story.
Prayer, money, time help
The tornadoes in Oklahoma are one of several recent disasters which UMCOR's U.S. Disaster Response team is addressing. UMCOR is also responding to widespread flooding in Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and other states, tornadoes in Texas and Arkansas, and the April 17 explosion in West, Texas. The Hurricane Sandy recovery is also continuing.
Oklahoma Bishop Robert E. Hayes (left) visits volunteers David and Geraldine Gill of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference in the Native American Disaster Response Center at New Life United Methodist Church in Moore, Okla.
Here are ways to help
GiveYour gift to U.S. Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670 will support UMCOR's work in Oklahoma and across the United States. One hundred percent of your gift will assist survivors. Give:
Through your local church. Designate your gift for U.S. Disaster Response #901670.
By calling 888-252-6174.
By check payable to Advance GCFA, P. O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068 (include the Advance number).
To make an immediate $10 donation, text the word RESPONSE to 80888.
Volunteer. Register as an individual or team at the Oklahoma Conference website, www.okumc.org. You will be contacted to make arrangements for your trip. Visit other annual conference websites for information about volunteering there.
Assemble relief kits
Recent emergencies in the United States and overseas are quickly exhausting UMCOR's supply of relief kits—from cleaning buckets to layette kits, school kits and more. The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and will run through Nov. 30, is forecasted to be particularly active. See how to assemble cleaning buckets and more, http://www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Relief-Supplies
For directions for assembling kits and shipping them to UMCOR Sager Brown in Baldwin, La., and UMCOR West in Salt Lake City, Utah, visit www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Relief-Supplies.