The United Methodist disaster and development agency moved to meet widespread weather-related problems by providing five emergency grants plus disaster response workers for several storm-struck areas.
Tornadoes and flash floods caused at least 43 deaths in Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Illinois in the first half of May. Tornadoes, floods and hail heavily damaged areas in those and other states.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief sent emergency grants to Kansas, Southwest Texas and North Georgia annual (regional) conferences at the request of the bishops in those areas. Earlier, the agency awarded grants to the Missouri and Memphis conferences. Several of the most-affected areas were collecting special offerings in their conferences, and volunteers stepped in to clear debris, carry food and water to people in need, and care for the bereaved.
According to weather reports, the 384 tornadoes that hit 19 states during the week of May 4 set the U.S. record for number of twisters in a single week. Flooding was especially severe in parts of Georgia and Alabama but also affected other areas.
UMCOR disaster workers and teams of volunteers were quick to help in cleanup efforts. In several areas, the volunteers had to keep an eye on the sky as storms continued.
On the evening of May 15, at least two tornadoes hit Seward County in southwestern Kansas. Hail, wind and rain caused damage and locally heavy flooding in the county, which includes the city of Liberal. Meade, Clark and Ford counties to the east and northeast of Seward County also experienced severe storms.
Cherri and Bob Baer, UMCOR disaster response staff, had already been working for a week with Kansas East Conference disaster response coordinator Julie Pohl by that time. Super-cell storms on May 4 had taken a toll within the conference boundaries: seven people killed, more than 50 injured, 166 homes destroyed and nearly 600 homes damaged.
"Don’t forget these people," said Cherri Baer. "They will need help for a long time."
In an article for the Kansas East Connection newspaper, Karen Robertson pointed to another long-range consequence of the destructive weather.
"Although the storms that hit rural areas did not receive the publicity given to those that hit Kansas City and Lawrence, they will likely have a more devastating long-term effect. When a tornado hits a farm, it not only destroys the home but also the means of livelihood. Equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars is lost, fields can’t be worked until all debris is removed, (and) scattered livestock must be found and taken care of even though fences and feed are gone."
In Missouri, the Rev. Max Marble, who works with conference disaster response, said the damage is still being assessed. As of May 16, the totals were 2,935 homes affected and 800 destroyed.
"Tornadoes hit the four corners of the state, and 39 counties were affected," he said. "Right now, we are concentrating our work in six areas that sustained major damage."
The conference has been approved for an initial $50,000 grant and is taking a special offering throughout the state. The special offering will be used first to assist three churches that were destroyed or heavily damaged, but only after all insurance is pursued. The offering will also help fund the rebuilding of homes that did not have adequate insurance coverage. UMCOR has sent two workers to assist in Missouri.
In Oklahoma, tornadoes raked the Oklahoma City area May 8-9, damaging or destroying at least 3,000 homes and businesses. The 47 United Methodist churches in the paths of the twisters were not damaged, nor were any of the parsonages, according to conference insurance officials.
Richard Whetsell, who heads the Oklahoma Conference disaster recovery ministry, noted that conference participation is greatest after the emergency phase has passed. United Methodist agencies work during relief, the second phase, and during recovery, the third phase. His agency’s work is closely coordinated with that of other relief agencies, he added.
"Working with other organizations sometimes means waiting to respond until decisions are made about who is going to do what, but it minimizes waste and duplications of services and enhances our ability to help more people in more ways," Whetsell explained.
United Methodist teams are helping clear debris and are pulling together plans to repair and rebuild homes if necessary for people who have no other source of help. Following tornadoes in 1999 that devastated wide areas in central Oklahoma, several thousand volunteers from 27 states and five countries helped United Methodists build 21 homes and repair several hundred.
Because the recent storms may trigger trauma associated with the 1999 tornadoes, a counselor is contacting congregations to help them assess this need and offer counseling.
The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference is also responding to needs in the area. Four members of Norman First American United Methodist Church, outside Oklahoma City, lost their homes. For one family, this was the second time. They were in the cellar of their home, built after the 1999 tornadoes. The church is again helping them relocate.
Another tornado struck Oklahoma on May 16, ripping off portions of the roof of Oak Park United Methodist Church in Bartlesville. The surrounding community sustained heavy damage. Church work teams are canvassing the community, assisting in cleanup and assessing damage. A May 16 storm also hit Knoxville, Tenn., with 100-mile-per-hour winds and tennis ball-sized hail that injured at least four people in Loudon County.
UMCOR has sent three people to the Memphis Conference to help set up long-term recovery programs for communities in western Tennessee, including Jackson, where both First United Methodist and Northside United Methodist churches were heavily damaged. The parsonage at Key’s Chapel-Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church was destroyed.
Bishop William W. Morris of the Nashville (Tenn.) Area noted that $10,000 in emergency funds had been received for the Memphis Conference, and he had requested a similar grant for the Tennessee Conference, where tornado damage in three countries has been estimated at $3 million. His area includes both conferences.
UMCOR expects to make an emergency grant to the Kentucky Conference, where a tornado hit at least two towns. Cleanup is ongoing there and in Illinois, where tornadoes moved along a 130-mile stretch that included at least 20 towns. Southwest Texas received a grant to address needs resulting from a tornado that hit a Hispanic community, near Mission, Texas, in April.
Flooding damaged about 900 homes in central and north Alabama. UMCOR has been sending "flood buckets" from its Sager-Brown Depot in Baldwin, La.
UMCOR is reporting that its funding is running low due to the storms. Checks can be made out to UMCOR, designated for Advance Special #901680 "Spring Storms 2003" and placed in church offering plates or mailed to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Credit-card contributions may be made by calling (800) 554-8583.