On the evening of Sunday, May 19, tornadoes damaged hundreds of homes in Shawnee, Newcastle, Carney, and Little Axe, Okla. As The Salvation Army was actively responding, with food, hydration, and emotional and spiritual care, the unimaginable happened and an EF5 tornado, nearly four miles wide in some places, dropped only 25 miles away from Sunday’s damage.
Many of the resources that had been in Shawnee and Little Axe immediately left, heading to the area of greater damage on the other side of Oklahoma City. The Salvation Army was one of those agencies that had to pull out resources--but it was only temporary. By Tuesday afternoon more Salvation Army canteens (mobile feeding units) and staff had been mobilized and Salvation Army relief care of the lesser-hit areas resumed. I visited one of these areas, Little Axe, on Wednesday May 29; 10 days after this small town lost so many homes.
My guides for the day were Salvation Army Emotional & Spiritual Care (ESC) counselors--Major Marion Durham, Captain Chris Farrell and Lieutenant Michael Missey, all of whom traveled from Florida to help Oklahomans. This was their seventh day on the ground in the Little Axe community, and most of the homes on we visited were repeat visits, daily check-ins to offer water, ice, Gatorade, snacks and spiritual care.
The Little Axe community was devastated; many of the dwellings impacted were mobile homes with lightweight walls, no foundation and roofs with very little support. The tornado spread debris across pastures and red dirt roads, over hills and through valleys.
The ESC team I was shadowing knew each homeowner by name. Many were still trying to get access to basic needs, others were on the road to recovery, and most were just trying to clear the debris from their land.
When we pulled up to the home of a man named Robert, it didn’t look like anyone was home. The mobile home looked almost untouched from the front yard, though there a pile of debris by the curb. The ESC team headed to the back of the lot, which was when I discovered that the back half of the home was missing. Robert fed his chickens while he updated the team on his family’s situation. He was angry: the insurance agency had valued his home and the land it sat upon for less than he owed. Using “colorful” language, Robert shared his feelings with the ESCs, and they did what they are trained to do; they listened.
He was frustrated that looting was becoming problem along his country road. Although all of his metal debris, appliances, lawn mowers, etc. had been earmarked for the city to pick up and sell for money that would benefit his community, others kept coming by and trying to take it. “It’s spoken for,” he said angrily to us. Even if these items were damaged and piled in the front yard, he was still the owner, and he felt violated when others stopped to rifle through his belongings. “People can be real mean at times,” he said.
Robert was alone that day because his wife, Catherine, and his daughter had traveled into town to visit the Multi-Agency Resource Center at Little Axe High School. He was glad there was a place where they could go to visit with FEMA, The Salvation Army, and other agencies as well as pick up the household items they needed. He was honest about the situation he was in--a realist in the face of insurmountable odds: “I’ve got my family and I’m going to keep on going,” he said. “I know it’s gonna be hard. We all have bills to pay. I don’t know how to do it.”
Near the end of the visit, after they’d delivering a bag of ice and some snacks, the ESCs asked Robert how they could pray for him that day. His response, with gray swirling skies above: “That the Lord doesn’t let us get hit again,” he pleaded.
The ESCs—specially trained and deployed by The Salvation Army--gathered in a small circle, laying hands upon Robert. They prayed for clear skies, strength, faith, and the Lord’s blessing up Robert’s home, family, and neighbors. When the “Amen” was spoken, Robert removed his glasses and wiped away his tears.
“We offer a man like Robert, who may not be a church-going man, something he doesn’t know he needs,” Major Durham explained. “He’s a self-reliant man. It’s hard to get men like that to stop, even for a minute, because they want to keep going and don’t know how to be still and hear the Lord. He was just blessed.”
The visit with Robert was the last one of my day of shadowing. What I learned that day—what will never leave me—is the deep impact The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services can have on survivor, particularly through the Emotional and Spiritual Care counselors. They offer more than the necessities; they deliver hugs and stability, day-by-day building relationships that are laid on the foundation of a cold bottle of water delivered by a warm and open heart.