The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is digging in its heels and preparing for a recovery effort that could take up to two years to complete in tornado-ravaged communities in and around Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Greg Forrester, head of UMCOR’s US Disaster Response unit, spent three days this week touring the towns of El Reno, Moore, Shawnee, Carney, and the tiny community of Fallis (pop. 27), which had been struck by fierce tornadoes last month, including two EF-5 level storms, the most severe.
Forty-four people died in the storms and thousands of homes were damaged or reduced to mere piles of sticks over cement foundations. Every one of Fallis’ few residents was affected by the tornadoes, and several saw their homes utterly destroyed.
In El Reno, where a 2.6 mile-wide tornado, the largest ever recorded, struck on May 31, utility lines were left in shambles. “It hit a monster power-line system and left metal poles just folded over and twisted like noodles,” Forrester said.
Destruction left by another EF-5 tornado, on May 20, in the town of Moore was “just devastating,” he reported. “It took out the middle of an entire community, right down to the foundations.” The same town was hit again in the May 31 event in a sector just north of this damage.
While in Oklahoma, Forrester met with United Methodist Bishop Robert E. Hayes, Jr., who presides over the Oklahoma Area, which encompasses both the Oklahoma Annual Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC). The state is home to 39 federally recognized Native American tribes.
Forrester visited impacted communities with Rev. Richard Norman of the Oklahoma Annual Conference and Oklahoma Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters; Rev. Jeremy Bassett, head of the conference’s Missions Office; and Rev. Dr. David Wilson, superintendent of the OIMC.
“There’s a large Native American community living in all of these areas,” Forrester said. “The OIMC has already identified about 60 Native American families throughout the region that were impacted by these storms.” Forrester and his United Methodist colleagues met with Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) executives to assess needs in the wake of the storms and advance a collaborative response that will help survivors recover over the long term.
“We’re looking at probably a two-year response; one year in some of the areas and two years in others,” the UMCOR executive said.
Two-Fold Disaster Response
UMCOR will focus its efforts, as always, on the most vulnerable communities affected by the storms—those where residents have little to no insurance coverage and few resources to rebuild, Forrester said.
“I think the bulk of our work will be in the outlying areas of Shawnee, El Reno, Fallis, and parts of Moore, where families and individuals were already struggling economically,” he said.
“For us, the response will be two-fold: we’ll participate in the case management process for the area and in the establishment of two recovery centers—one in Moore and one in Shawnee. Through those centers, we’ll host volunteers to provide rebuilding assistance to families in the area,” he explained.
Forrester said that FEMA already had about 6,600 storm-affected registrants, and that the number will likely increase. For one thing, he said, the town of El Reno had not yet been assessed and declared a federal disaster area. He said the damage there was “just incredible,” with 50 to 60 homes damaged or completely destroyed.
He encouraged people who want to help to visit the Oklahoma Conference website for information on how to register to volunteer and to visit the UMCOR website for information about how to donate relief supplies that can be distributed effectively through the UMCOR Relief-Supply Network to meet current needs.
“Unsolicited material donations are a huge problem right now,” Forrester said. “I saw tractor trailers full of unrequested supplies circling Oklahoma City, trying to find someplace to deposit their supplies. There’s no centralized warehouse for these items—especially clothing—that have been given with good intentions but without a clear understanding of actual needs.” Learn more about appropriate donations.
One of Many Critical Situations
The tornado disaster in Oklahoma is one of many critical situations UMCOR’s US Disaster Response team is seeking to address at this moment. “I think we have 18 open grants right now,” Forrester said.
As the Atlantic hurricane season gets underway this week with its first named storm—Andrea—UMCOR also is working with United Methodist annual conferences, local churches, and humanitarian partners to respond to widespread flooding in Illinois, Missouri, and the Dakotas; tornadoes in Texas and Arkansas, and the April 17 explosion that stole lives and flattened homes in West, Texas, to name a few.
UMCOR continues to work with families affected by last year’s Superstorm Sandy and to provide training in disaster response and disaster case management to address recent crises and prepare for future ones. Recent trainings have been held in Alaska, Arkansas, and New Jersey.
“The most important thing for us is to equip annual conferences and local churches so that they know what to do when disaster strikes,” Forrester said. “We want to resource them the best we can so that they understand that they are UMCOR when disaster hits.”
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