Trained Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers and chaplains responded immediately to victims and survivors of the worst outbreak of tornadoes since May 1999 after several twisters slashed through the eastern and northeastern sections of the state May 10.
Some of the worst damage, and most of the deaths, were reported in northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Oklahoma since May 3, 1999 when 44 people were killed in the state.
In Picher, a confirmed F 3 tornado that was reported as “a half-mile wide in some places,” ripped through 20 square blocks of the town.
Disaster relief feeding units were set up in Picher and Albion. The Northeast Zone Disaster Relief Team staged itself in Picher, where at least eight persons were killed and 200 injured by the tornado. More than 30 people were taken to Integris Baptist Hospital in nearby Miami, according to an Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokesman.
The team, which set up the feeding unit alongside the Picher City Hall, is headquartered at Picher, First, which was spared. The church is located at the north end of town, while the area hit hardest by the tornado is the south end of the community, reported feeding unit Blue Cap David Johnson of Vian.
Johnson said the unit worked hard to set up and prepare 450 meals for lunch and dinner May 12. They are serving meals on site and providing meals being delivered by the Red Cross to a makeshift shelter in town and another shelter at the First Christian Church in nearby Miami as well.
Paul Bettis, chaplaincy specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, also dispatched a team of five chaplains to Picher to help minister to the victims of the storm.
The chaplains were making their way out into the community by vehicle and, when necessary, on foot.
Don Hunter of Oklahoma City, who is leading the team of chaplains, said the aftermath of the storm is heartbreaking.
“If ever I have seen hopeless looks on people’s faces, it has been here in Picher,” Hunter said. “This is just like the May 3 tornado, but on a smaller scale.”
Hunter said the effects of the storm have been magnified by the pending buyout of the homes of many residents. He said local officials told him that 90 homes which still had people living in them were destroyed by the tornado.
Picher was once a thriving mine town, but it is now a rural city of about 1,600 residents at the edge of a 40-square-mile Superfund site, where acid, a by-product of the lead and zinc once mined there, have turned the Tar Creek red. Considered one of the most toxic regions of the country, much of the town has been proposed for a government buyout.
“These people were in the middle of that buyout, and they are confused,” Hunter said. “They don’t know if they can still get a buyout, and many of them didn’t have insurance.”
He spoke with a 28-year-old widow whose husband had died recently of cancer.
“She is a single mom with a 10-year-old daughter whose home wasn’t completely destroyed, but she can’t rebuild and she can’t afford to move. She just doesn’t know what to do,” he said.
Still, the chaplains and the feeding crew in their bright yellow T-shirts have become beacons of hope in the aftermath of the storm.
“All we can do is comfort them, pray with them and get them something to eat,” Hunter said. “They’re very receptive to that. They’re grateful to see that someone cares about them.”
The LeFlore Association, meanwhile, sent its feeding unit to Albion, which is about 25 miles southeast of McAlester. Three tornadoes reportedly swept through the McAlester area the evening of May 10, including one in Albion.