OKLAHOMA CITY: Even after the initial death toll was cut by more than half, the human and material devastation of a string of tornadoes that buffeted areas of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City on May 19-20 was incalculable.
“Our first concern is for the victims who have lost their lives or loved ones and suffered injury or loss of property,” statement by Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City said.
“We are moved by the efforts of the first responders who have put their own lives on hold to help in this time of need.
“We owe them a debt of gratitude and assure them of our prayers.”
St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb that bore the brunt of the EF-5 tornado that hit mid-afternoon May 20, was spared, although it had lost its telephone service in the wake of the twister.
Archbishop Coakley said he was planning to visit the site and that the church had also lost power and water.
Archbishop Coakley said he had been in Wichita attending to matters dealing with the estate of his recently deceased father when he got word of the first round of storms.
“I immediately returned, soon after the storms had gone through. But it was impossible to get into Moore. I-35 has been closed down,” Archbishop Coakley told CNS.
“It was just utter chaos there. There was a lot of debris in the roads and utter gridlock.”
The revised number of those confirmed dead stands at 24, including at least seven children, as of noon on May 21, down from the original estimate of 51.
A spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner at one point had put the death toll at 91 with more than 140 injured, nearly half of them children.
Archbishop Coakley said the consensus is that this twister “even surpasses the one that’s become even the most well-known one in Oklahoma – May 3, 1999. They’re saying that this one appears to have been even great in terms of damage and property that has been destroyed.”
Officials with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul were expected to arrive in Norman by May 21 to meet with members of the society’s local conferences in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to assess needs of tornado victims throughout the state.
“We’re trying to make a determination of unmet needs and what our appeal will be,” Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, executive director of the society’s south-central region, said as her three-member team travelled from West, Texas, where she was assisting families who lost homes in a mammoth fertilizer factory explosion April 17.
“We go in and work with the local authorities and integrate into the process. Within the first 72 hours, it’s a fact-gathering mission to determine where we can be most effective,” she said.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City planned to send teams into the ravaged areas as soon as possible, said Sonny Wilkinson, associate director for mission advancement. The May 20 twister left a 40km path of death and destruction.
“None of our parishes suffered any damage,” he said.
“We’ll do the assessment and help with immediate needs.”
Meanwhile, Catholic Charities USA’s disaster response program has contact the local agency asking about the assistance it can offer, but Wilkinson said he would not know what is needed until the initial assessments were made.
“They’ve been great in offering assistance,” he said. “We haven’t asked them to come but I imagine that is on the horizon.
The Knights of Columbus has sent $10,000 to the Oklahoma state council to assist with the relief effort.
“Our prayers are with the people of Oklahoma today. And we will back up those prayers with deeds for as long as it takes,” President Barack Obama said in remarks at the White House on May 21, a day after he signed a major disaster declaration covering the state of Oklahoma and committing federal aid and resources to five Oklahoma counties.
“As a nation, our full focus right now is on the urgent work of rescue, and the hard work of recovery and rebuilding that lies ahead,” Mr Obama said.
“There are homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen, there are parents to console, first responders to comfort, and, of course, frightened children who will need our continued love and attention.”