PIEDMONT—Within an hour after the tornado hit, Piedmont, First had its doors open as a shelter.
The city of Piedmont was the victim of one of seven tornadoes which swept across the Oklahoma landscape during the late afternoon Tuesday, May 24.
The most deadly of the seven twisters touched down eight miles northwest of Binger, and destroyed homes in El Reno and Piedmont as it cut a 75-mile swath across the state before it lifted four miles north of Guthrie.
The Piedmont church building was not affected by the tornado, but quickly became the hub for recovery efforts in the area.
Sunday School classrooms were turned into makeshift hotel rooms as a temporary shelter for those who had lost their home, or for those who came from out-of-town to help.
“We averaged 10-12 people a night, with as many as 28 one night,” said Randy McCown, minister of education and administration.
The Piedmont, First staff, led by Pastor Gary Caldwell, was called to duty, meeting at 5 a.m. Wednesday to pray and plan how to be of service.
“One of the things we felt we needed to do as soon as possible was get cash into the hands of people who had lost everything,” said McCown. “We took $7,000 out of our general fund, and were giving $1,000 to members whose home was a total loss and $500 to those who had a partial loss.
When people heard about the give-away, they started bringing money to the church.
“So we expanded, and started giving the money to anyone in the community affected by the tornado,” McCown said. “So far, we have given away right at $60,000. It’s been a God thing. We put in the first $7,000 and the rest has been donated by people in the community, and even by people from out of state. And every dime that comes in is going right back out to tornado victims.”
McCown said there were 15 families in the church, including the church secretary, who had total property losses.
The church’s gym was sectioned off to provide areas for needed items, such as baby clothes, children’s and adult clothing, pet items, food, water and other non-perishable goods.
In conjunction with the Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief Team and the Red Cross, the church served three meals a day for 11 days.
Piedmont, First bought and prepared food for breakfast every day.
“We also had contributions from local restaurants and grocery stores,” said McCown. “Chick-fil-A brought 200 sandwiches twice, pizza establishments brought 40 pizzas at a time, Panera Bread furnished food, as did Williams Grocery. It has been a team effort of all the people in the community. We just happen to be the hub where most of the activity has been.”
Susan Keener, a member of Piedmont, First and one of the volunteers who helped prepare meals, said they made more than 600 sandwiches the Wednesday after Tuesday’s tornado.
“Sometimes we’d start running out of cheese or lunch meat, but the one thing in particular was the bread,” she said. “We got down to the last loaf of bread, and we were ready to send someone to the store. The words were hardly out of our mouths when here came about 40-50 loaves of bread. And we just kept right on making sandwiches.”
Then she said, they got low on chips, and here came a ton of chips.
“When we started to run out of things, there they would be,” she said. “It was like Jesus walked in the door with whatever we needed.”
Keener said Caldwell and McCown were at the church almost 24-7.
“They held it together,” she said. “They were faithful to stand in there and take care of everybody. They were the rocks that kept it going.”
The church, along with other volunteers, has sent crews out into the field to help clean up and sort through what’s left, McCown said. So far, they have cleaned up 42 home sites.
A group from Lawton—an American Legion baseball team with 18 members—came to do a sweep of a 70-acre wheat field, picking up debris from there.
The Oklahoma City Police Department, under the direction of Chaplains Jack and Phyllis Poe, have manned a lost and found area from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. McCown said people have brought in a variety of items they have found, including pictures, autographed baseballs and wedding rings.
The tornado struck just as Caldwell was preparing to leave for a month-long sabbatical the church provided for him. He postponed it until recovery efforts were almost complete.