OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Darrell Brooks tried to paint a word picture of the destruction wreaked by the most powerful tornado ever to hit the nation. His words were futile. The devastation, really, can not be adequately described.
No one has ever seen anything like the tornado that churned through south Oklahoma City on May 3. It was so powerful that the National Weather Service created a new category, F6, to rank its magnitude. A Doppler radar registered the tornado's speed at 318 mph at its funnel. The previous record of any tornado was 286 mph, in Red Rock, Okla., in 1991. In the latest disaster, at least 26 tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma, including the F6 tornado that left a 40-mile path of destruction. The F6 twister was up to a mile wide in places.
The storm killed 41 people, including a member of the Church, Hugh Underwood of the Tuttle Branch, Oklahoma City Oklahoma South Stake. His wife, Lily Pauline, who was not a member of the Church, also was killed. Homes of 18 LDS families were destroyed and homes of more than a dozen other LDS families were severely damaged. None of the LDS meetinghouses was damaged.
"Nothing was left standing higher than a table top," Brother Brooks said of what had been the home he and his wife, Alice Faye, shared with their daughter, Catie McCallister, and their 5-year-old grandson, Baylor. They are members of the Moore Ward.
Brother and Sister Brooks and their grandson had been away from home on a brief vacation and were returning when they heard on the news that a storm was heading their direction. In a cellular phone conversation with their daughter, Catie, they learned that she and another daughter, Chris, and her husband had planned to take refuge in a closet. Brother Brooks told them to "get in that vehicle and drive as fast as you can south on I-35." There's no telling, he said, what would have happened to them had they stayed in the house.
From the steady gaze in his clear eyes and the level tone of his voice, it seemed that he was coping rather well with the destruction of his house and most of his belongings. There came moments, however, when he choked up; at other times he wept. The tears he shed were not those of lament over what he had lost but joy for what remained. "That is only stuff," he said. Burying his face in his hands, he struggled to regain composure and then continued. "I came into this world without that stuff and I'll go out of this world without that stuff. It's not important. The important things are my family and the gospel. I still have those, and that's all that matters. I can say that I'm a happy man."
Bishop Gordon J. Bean of the Moore Ward and his family live in one of the hardest-hit areas. Sixteen families in the Moore Ward lost their homes. The Beans' home was severely damaged, but by the weekend it was habitable. What Bishop and Sister Bean experienced could be an object lesson in the blessings of heeding the counsel of Church leaders.
Before the storm, Bishop and Sister Bean had made an appointment to meet with builders of a new home; the only time their schedules corresponded was the evening of Monday, May 3. The Beans felt that, just once, it would be OK to forego family home evening. At stake conference the previous day, Elder Merrill C. Oaks of the Seventy counseled members to not let anything get in the way of holding family home evening. The Beans rescheduled their appointment. "If we had gone ahead to meet the builders our sons — ages 10, 8, 5 and 2 — would have been in our home with a 15-year-old sitter," Bishop Bean said.
As it was, Bishop and Sister Bean were home to load their children into the car and outrun the storm in "a frightening drive in heavy rain to Edmond," about 30 minutes away.
"As we returned and pulled into our area, we saw that we were about a block from an area that was totally leveled. We had tremendous concern for members who live there. We knew that there was a strong possibility that some had been injured or killed and that there would be serious damage to property. I grabbed the ward roster and began the process of trying to find out what the status was for everybody. Remarkably, there were no serious injuries among our members."
Because communications were out and roads were blocked by police, much of the discovery process had to be by foot. He started by checking on members who lived nearby. "I went to members' homes. If they weren't there, I'd ask neighbors if they had seen them. Then, later, we went to membership records and called parents, asking if they'd heard from their sons or daughters, or we'd call where they worked to find out if anyone had heard from them. It was a challenge to track everybody down.
"One home that was leveled was the home of Jerry and Karen Doshier. He is the assistant fire chief in Moore. When the word went out that the storm was going to be severe, he was called away from home. That left Karen home alone. She took shelter in a closet next to the bathroom. The storm completely wiped out the house. She had to dig herself out from underneath the rubble. She had scrapes and bruises — minor injuries.
"When I saw her the day after the storm, she was sifting through the rubble. It is miraculous that anybody in that home could have survived. There was not a single wall standing; it was just a pile of bricks and rubble. When I came down her street, she saw me first and called out, 'Bishop!' We both burst into tears."
Within hours of the disaster, the Church "moved into action." At the center of the maelstrom was Oklahoma City Oklahoma South Stake Pres. David L. Lawton, a retired air traffic controller who, with characteristic level-headed calm, directed relief efforts, spending endless hours on the telephone to see to it that, first, all members were accounted for and taken care of and, second, to serve the needs of anyone else affected by the storm.
The stake center, which houses the Moore Ward, was turned into a warehouse and distribution point as food, clothing, tools and other items needed to help people in a disaster came in from the Church's central storehouse in Salt Lake City, regional bishops storehouses and through individual contributions.
Scenes of human drama unfolded as victims of the storm came to the stake center not only for food and clothing, but also for comfort and companionship. One family seemed to represent the throngs of victims: a mother and father selected clothing for themselves and their children. Before leaving, the mother stopped at a table piled high with toys. A doll topped off the bundle of items she carried from the stake center. The smile on her little girl's face was all the thanks volunteers could hope for.
Pres. Lawton presides over a stake that had been prepared for such an emergency. One of the first things he did after he was called as stake president in 1995 was to implement a plan to make members self-sufficient through fast offerings. In 1997, he requested that leaders and members go to the stake center every Tuesday evening for three months for vigorous training in disaster preparedness. The fruits of that training were evident as priesthood leaders, quorum members, Relief Society sisters and even youth smoothly went about tasks to see to it that people's needs were met.
R. Patrick Mihlfeld, a member of the stake high council, said, "If there's a hero in all this, it has to be Pres. Lawton. He has done a phenomenal job of coordinating the efforts of the members throughout the stake and organizing the hundreds of volunteers who have come to help. He has incredible foresight. I don't know how he did it, but he purchased a couple hundred sheets of plywood and plastic sheets that he staged in three different places in the stake by Wednesday morning, May 5, to help repair members' homes."
The Tuttle Branch meetinghouse also was a hub of relief activity, serving as a gathering point for volunteers who came from throughout Oklahoma and from other states. By Friday, May 7, LDS volunteers from other areas began arriving in large numbers. As of Saturday, some 1,300 Church members had come to help; about 250 came from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Thousands more volunteers from the Church are expected to come from several states.
Lending support to the army of volunteers coming in from all directions are some 150 missionaries in the Oklahoma Oklahoma City Mission.
Some members who became involved in the earliest relief efforts feel as though they were in a war. Don and Kathy Snart of the Tuttle Branch were among area residents who stepped forward to help victims pulled from the debris. "They were using a junior high school gym as an emergency center," Sister Snart said. "People like us just started helping in whatever way we could. There were so many people hurt and there were so few medics on site early on. We washed mud from the victims' eyes and mouths. We talked to them, trying to calm them down while the medics tended the more seriously injured people."
Sister Snart cried as she described the scene: "The hardest thing was seeing the little children. So many were brought in, some badly hurt. Some were separated from their families. No one knew where they were. It just broke my heart to see them like that.
"We didn't have enough ambulances at first; then the little towns all around sent their ambulances. After a while, there was a mile line of them."
As soon as officials allowed them into affected areas, LDS volunteers helped fellow Church members and their neighbors with the grim task of clearing sites where homes once stood. They also helped those whose homes had been damaged. The hard-hit area of Moore was off limits to most volunteers until Sunday afternoon, May 9. Church meetings in the stake were pared to sacrament meetings, which included talks in recognition of Mother's Day, and testimonies.
After sacrament meetings, local members and other volunteers changed into work clothes and resumed clean-up efforts. The task, which likely will take months to complete, seems insurmountable. The scene is incomprehensible: devastation as far as the eye can see in some areas; entire blocks of houses torn to bits; debris everywhere; cars wrapped around trees or poles with front and rear bumpers practically touching, as if some giant hand used them as ribbons; trees uprooted or left minus bark, limbs and leaves.
Many residents moved about the devastation as if still stunned. As a crew of 10 LDS volunteers from Plano, Texas, knocked down the one remaining wall of a home, an elderly man stood nearby with a vacant expression. His salvage work netted pitiful treasure: a kerosene lantern and some dishes.
Craig Hawkins of the Plano Texas Stake said that no one needs to ask why Church members came to help. "The question would be, 'Why wouldn't we come?' Our stake president called up here and asked if they could use some help. The answer was yes. Through the priesthood channels, calls went to home teachers and everybody was contacted by Wednesday night. Some came up Friday, others came Saturday. We gathered what supplies we could. Some contacted corporations they work for and got support from them. One member works for a contractor who donated the use of a truck and trailer, and sent two electric generators. He instructed that one be left here. He also gave $1,000 and said, 'Get whatever stuff you think people will need.' We brought two BobCats (small bulldozers) and every kind of tool we needed."
Pres. Lawton noted that the Church members are a minority in the Oklahoma City area, but their presence is greatly felt and appreciated. "The members have been levelheaded, supportive and have done their jobs," he said. "We gave volunteers T-shirts with the Church logo and the words 'Disaster Recovery' on them, which helps us identify one another and also helps the police and National Guard to recognize us as organized volunteers. People have been tearful and appreciative as we've shown up to help. Many stand where their homes used to be, in a daze, not knowing what to do. We go in with checklists of steps they need to take. They can't wait until we're able to go back."