By CNS | Published May 23, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY (CNS)—Even after the initial death toll was cut by more than half, the human and material devastation of a string of tornadoes that buffeted areas of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City May 19-20 was incalculable.
“Our first concern is for the victims who have lost their lives or loved ones and suffered injury or loss of property,” said a May 21 statement by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City. “We are moved by the efforts of the first responders who have put their own lives on hold to help in this time of need. We owe them a debt of gratitude and assure them of our prayers,” Archbishop Coakley said.
St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb that bore the brunt of the EF-5 tornado that hit mid-afternoon May 20, was spared, although it had lost its telephone service in the wake of the twister. Archbishop Coakley told Catholic News Service in a May 21 telephone interview he was planning to visit the site at the conclusion of the interview, adding the church had also lost power and water.
The revised number of those confirmed dead stood at 24, including at least seven children, as of midday May 21, down from the original estimate of 51. A spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner at one point had put the death toll at 91 with more than 140 injured, nearly half of them children.
Moore, Okla., native and Atlanta priest, Father Victor Galier learned about the devastating tornado that shredded his hometown by a text message. His brother let him know his family was safe, said Father Galier.
Looking at the devastation brought back memories of the May 1999 storm that wrecked his mother’s home. “I started thinking, Oh, God, not again,” he said May 21.
For his family, it means picking up debris. The storm stopped about a mile and a half away from his mother’s home, where some of his family gathered to wait out the storm. The size of this storm is the talk of the community.
“Everyone is talking how different this storm is. It’s the loudest they have ever heard,” he said.
Father Galier is using his Facebook page to keep his social network informed about events in Oklahoma.
Rhonda Boyle moved to Oklahoma in 2012 from the metro Atlanta area. Her family worshipped at St. Matthew Church, Tyrone, and St. Mary Magdalene Church, Newnan.
Monday afternoon her family watched the approaching tornado. “We went to the bathroom, the safest place in the house. I have never been so scared in my life,” she said. But when her husband didn’t huddle with the family, she ran to find him. “I was looking out the window and there it was. It was absolutely dead calm. It was raining, hailing. No wind,” she said. “It sounded like a billion bees’ wings. It was quieter than I thought. Everything was dead still around it,” she said.
“We were just numb. We were scared,” said Boyle.
The tornado changed its path, so her family escaped harm. The most severe damage is about three miles away, she said. She asked people to pray for the people and the community in the months ahead as the town rebuilds. They attend St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Norman, Okla.
Archbishop Coakley said the consensus is that this twister “even surpasses the one that’s become even the most well-known one in Oklahoma—May 3, 1999. They’re saying that this one appears to have been even greater in terms of damage and property that has been destroyed.”
Officials with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul were expected to arrive in Norman by midday May 21 to meet with members of the society’s local conferences in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to assess needs of tornado victims throughout the state.
“We’re trying to make a determination of unmet needs and what our appeal will be,” Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, executive director of the society’s south-central region, told Catholic News Service as her three-member team traveled from West, Texas, where she was assisting families who lost homes in a mammoth fertilizer factory explosion April 17.
“We go in and work with the local authorities and integrate into the process. Within the first 72 hours, it’s a fact-gathering mission to determine where we can be most effective,” she said. Plans call for the agency to bring in specialists in a rapid response team, she added.
Disco-Shearer has been scrambling of late. Her office also was assisting families in the north Texas communities of Granbury and Cleburne struck by violent tornados in mid-May. “In the south-central region, we certainly need a lot of prayers right now,” she said.
“Catholic Charities OKC and we as an archdiocese will work with many others to ensure a smooth and comprehensive response not only to the immediate needs of those affected by the violent storms, but also to their long-term needs as they rebuild their lives,” Archbishop Coakley said in his statement. He told CNS, “We’re not as evident as other first responders,” citing the American Red Cross as an example. “We focus on the long-term recovery efforts to help people rebuild their lives long after the disaster’s struck.”
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City planned to send teams into the ravaged areas as soon as possible, said Sonny Wilkinson, associate director for mission advancement. The May 20 twister left a 20-mile path of death and destruction.
In addition to Moore, Wilkinson said teams were planning to head to Edmond and Shawnee.
“None of our parishes suffered any damage,” he said. “We’ll do the assessment and help with immediate needs.”
Meanwhile, Catholic Charities USA’s disaster response program has contacted the local agency asking about the assistance it can offer, but Wilkinson said he will not know what is needed until the initial assessments are made.
“They’ve been great in offering assistance,” he said. “We haven’t asked them to come but I imagine that is on the horizon.
“We’ve heard from Catholic Charities in Joplin (Mo.), Tulsa (Okla.), Las Vegas, Baton Rouge (La.). The Catholic Charities network is really responding to this and wanting to help.”
Nationally, the Knights of Columbus has sent $10,000 to the Oklahoma state council to assist with the relief effort.
Pope Francis offered a special prayer for the victims during his early morning Mass May 21, offering his condolences through his Twitter account and through a message to the city’s archbishop.
“Let us pray for the victims … and the missing, especially the children, struck by the violent tornado that hit Oklahoma City yesterday. Hear us, O Lord,” the pope said during the prayers of the faithful at his morning Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae where he lives.
A few hours after the Mass, Pope Francis also used his @Pontifex Twitter account to express his concern for the Oklahoma victims and survivors.
“I am close to the families of all who died in the Oklahoma tornado, especially those who lost young children. Join me in praying for them,” he told the 2.5 million people who follow his English-language Twitter account and the 2.4 million who follow his Spanish-language account
“Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today. And we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes,” President Barack Obama said in remarks at the White House May 21, a day after he signed a major disaster declaration covering the state of Oklahoma and committing federal aid and resources to five Oklahoma counties.
“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” Obama said.
“There are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention,” he added.
Contributing to this story were Mark Pattison, Dennis Sadowski and Patricia Zapor in Washington and Andrew Nelson in Atlanta.