Baptist disaster relief units set up post-tornado ministry in Okla., Kan.

by Dana Williamson, posted Wednesday, May 05, 1999 (20 years ago)

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)--Several Oklahoma Baptist churches opened their doors to victims, rescue workers and clean-up crews May 3 in the aftermath of one of the worst tornado onslaughts in the state’s history.

Nearly 1,000 people poured into the facilities of First Baptist Church, Moore, after a fierce mass of tornadoes -- one that reached F-5 status, up to a mile wide with winds of 260 mph -- leveled homes, churches and businesses in Bridge Creek, Moore, southwest Oklahoma City, Del City and Midwest City.

Also housing and feeding victims were First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, and First Baptist, Perry, which served as the central headquarters for those caught in the tornadoes that ripped through that part of the state.

Del City’s First Southern members were mourning the death of retired associate pastor Jake Self, who lost his life after the tornado picked up a van and dropped it on his house where he and his wife were huddled in a closet. Self suffered a head injury, but his wife survived.

Also destroyed was First Southern’s missionary house which, at the time, was occupied by Steve and Patsy Ellis.

First Southern pastor Tom Elliff, who lost his home to a fire in February, was wiped out again; this time by the devastating tornado which leveled the townhouse in which he and his wife were living.

Oklahoma Baptist disaster relief units were set up at both First Southern and First Baptist, Moore.

Additionally, a feeding unit from Texas and one from Arkansas are expected to arrive May 5 in the Oklahoma City area, to be followed by a shower unit operated by the North American Mission Board from Albany, Ga.

Donations for Baptist relief needs in Oklahoma can be sent to Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief, 3800 N. May, Oklahoma City, OK 73112-6506.

In Haysville, Kan., a town of 9,000 near Wichita, where three people were reported killed -- including a one-month-old baby -- in another outbreak of tornado destruction May 3, the Kansas-Nebraska Baptist feeding unit has set up operations at First Baptist Church. A Missouri Baptist feeding unit and a cleanup and recovery unit are expected to arrive in Haysville May 5, followed by a shower unit operated by Tennessee Baptists on May 6.

Donations for Baptist relief needs in Kansas can be sent to the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, Attn.: Disaster Relief, 5410 SW 7th St., Topeka, KS 66606.

Yet another Texas Baptist relief is talking post-storm ministry in DeKalb, Texas.

The May 3 tornadoes claimed at least 43 lives in Oklahoma and Kansas, injured nearly 700 others and destroyed an estimated 1,500 homes. In all, 76 tornadoes were counted by meteorologists in the two states and in Texas and Nebraska May 3.

Alan Cox, pastor of the Moore congregation, who lives in the southern part of the Oklahoma City suburb, said he saw the massive tornado coming, and it missed his house by about 300 to 400 yards.

“As I stood and watched its path after it passed our house, I realized it was headed straight for the church,” he said.

Cox also headed for the church, which took him almost two hours. When he got there, the church building was standing although there had been extensive damage to brickwork, windows and the roof. The sign out front was a crumpled mass. The only office in the church which was damaged was Cox’s which took two 2-by-4s through it.

The neighborhood across the street from the church where many of First Baptist’s members live was almost totally destroyed.

“There are hundreds of houses, not just damaged, but gone,” Cox said.

He said he realized the church needed to set up a command post because the building was the only one in Moore than could handle that kind of need. In minutes the Department of Civil Emergency Management, Highway Patrol and Red Cross set up stations at the facility.

Among other Oklahoma churches destroyed or damaged in the May 3 tornado onslaught, according to reports received by the Baptist Messenger newsjournal, were Pink Baptist Church in Pottawatomie-Lincoln Baptist Association; Regency Park Baptist Church, Moore; Sooner Baptist Church, Midwest City; and Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Grady Baptist Association.

In Mulhall in north central Oklahoma, reports were that 80 percent of the town was destroyed, including the Baptist parsonage which was just completed. The new pastor at Mulhall had been on the field one day.

In Moore, Cox said it is absolutely amazing what people are doing.

“We have had calls from all across the nation offering everything from money to food to clothing to water,” he said.

“Albertson’s has given us a truckload of food straight from its shelves, and Wal-Mart, Sam’s, restaurants continue to bring in supplies.”

Proof of that was hallways lined with food, hygiene items and other supplies.

Although electricity was out in the area, Bud Parrish, missions evangelism pastor, said the church was operating on a back-up generator.

Several deacons and members lost everything but the clothes on their backs, Cox said. He said, however, church leaders don’t believe there were any fatalities or serious injuries among the members.

Cox, who said he is from hurricane country in North Carolina, commented he has never seen anything like this.

“However, some people who have lived in Oklahoma all their lives have told me they haven’t experienced anything of this magnitude during their lifetimes either.”

The pastor said Gov. Frank Keating spent the morning at the church, and while in Cox’s office received a call from Texas Gov. George Bush who offered support. That night, Keating was interviewed on NBC’s “Dateline” in front of the church.

On Tuesday, May 4, the church bus was delivering people to the Marriott Hotel in Norman, which was offering 200 rooms for three nights for victims who had nowhere to go.

Cox, along with eight others on the pastoral staff as well as support staff, were at the church all night Monday and all day Tuesday.

Cox said they had opportunity to counsel with several who lost their homes.

He told about a Vietnamese man who stopped his car as the tornado was approaching. As he was holding his 3-year-old and 1-year old children, he wrapped his feet around a concrete post. His wife was attempting to move to a higher and safer place, when the tornado sucked her up and whirled her away.

“He came to the church in total shock,” Cox said.

Cox added a lot of people brought their pets with them to the church. “The health department came in and told them they had to get rid of the pets,” Cox said. “People were walking out asking what kind of church this was. I knew we couldn’t have that, so I called them back in, told the health department it wasn’t their business, and provided a place for the people with animals to stay.”

Health care worker Melody Hughes, a member of Eagle Heights Baptist Church in Oklahoma City who works with Oklahoma Orthopedics, said during search-and-rescue operations, she saw a house that was destroyed. But left was a shelf with a collection of angels on it.

“Not one angel was disturbed,” she said in amazement.

Hughes also said they found a fish tank in a destroyed house, and the fish had not been disturbed.

Cox said he estimates $3-4 million damage to First Baptist Church’s $15 million plant.

“I know we will have to have a new roof, and that will be $2 million alone.”

Asked if the church had prepared for a disaster like this, Cox said, “We weren’t prepared, but we were ready.”

Tom Duckett, pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church, Bridge Creek, was interviewed on NBC’s “Dateline” May 4 and in The Washington Post about weathering the tornado.

“My first thought was, I knew there had to be people dying,” Duckett recounted to The Post. “And my second thought was, if it gets our house -- even though I had my family in a closet -- I knew we were going home to God. It was so huge, I knew it wouldn’t leave anything.”

The twister missed his house but demolished the church.

“We’ll survive,” Duckett told The Post, concerning his congregation. “We’ll get together and have an opportunity for fellowship this week. We’ll see each other’s faces. And that will affirm that life is still present.”

Art Toalston, James Dotson & Ken Camp contributed to this article.

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