Hit by havoc, Oklahoma responds

Minutes after the storm blew through, state patrolman Jerry Cason set up a temporary command center from his car on Interstate 35. Then the cars began to stop. Spontaneously.

Someone volunteered his tow trucks to clear the highway. Another offered his forklift. "A guy pulled up with rubber gloves" for cleanup crews, he recalls. "Oklahomans say: 'Hey, we know how to deal with adversity ... I will cry, I will hurt. Now let's get on with the cleanup.' "

Quickly and with remarkable smoothness, Oklahoma City and its suburbs have begun to pick up the pieces in the wake of the city's worst-ever tornado.

Like other devastated areas across America's tornado belt, the Monday storm that cut a 19-mile swath through the metropolitan area - and claimed at least 43 lives in two states - is producing that strange mix of grief and Good Samaritanism that often trails tragedy.

Natural disasters everywhere do that. But here, the volunteer spirit comes with a special keenness. Four years ago, the terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building brought this community together and forged attitudes and taught lessons that residents have not forgotten. In the face of this disaster, they came especially well-prepared to help.

"We had extra stuff and we figured they needed it more than we did," says Melissa Ingram as she and her family dropped off clothes, diapers, and baby food for tornado victims at the First Baptist Church in suburban Moore, Okla. After the bombing four years ago, "seeing everything coming from other states, [outsiders] helping us when they didn't even know us, I think that opened up people's heart."

In Moore, one of the hardest-hit of the suburban communities, donations came so thick and fast that several rooms and the hallway in a church were brimming with supplies 24 hours after the storm struck. "We just keep getting sacks and boxes," says Shannon Neeley, a volunteer.

Someone brought in 20 mattresses. A woman dropped off a brand new child's car seat. A little girl folded up her Lion King sleeping bag for donation, while her father struggled with sacks of clothes to be given away.

By Tuesday evening, some drop-off centers in Oklahoma City had received so many donations they were urging residents to hold off giving more until volunteers had a chance to process all that had been received.

According to the latest estimates, fatalities reached 38 in this state and another five in Kansas and there were hundreds of injuries. Early Tuesday, President Clinton declared Oklahoma a federal disaster area, allowing federal officials and money to begin flowing to the neediest communities for cleanup and repairs.

At least 1,000 structures were destroyed in greater Oklahoma City but officials said it was too early to assess property damage.

"This is the worst disaster I have been on," says Gary Redburn, a volunteer with the Ministry of Oklahoma Baptist Men. One hundred paces away lie the remains of a neighborhood, where winds in excess of 200 m.p.h. ripped off roofs, toppled walls, and tossed cars and vans with impunity.

Painted on the side of one of the ministry's trucks is a list that marks the 12 floods, 11 tornadoes, seven hurricanes, and four earthquakes the group has been involved in over the years. Another category, explosion, shows one entry: Oklahoma City, 1995.

"In a way it did make a change," adds Mr. Redburn, who also served as a volunteer then. "It pulled people together to realize we have a common goal that we need to reach."

But this relief effort is different, adds Peter Teahen, a spokesman for the American Red Cross who also volunteered in the aftermath of the bombing. "There was lots of anger because of the bombing and because it was an act of violence by another human being. Here we realize it's not the brutality of a terrorist attack."

"This is a very loving, close community that made it through one major disaster," he adds. "They developed strong relationships in '95 that will help them through this disaster."

On Tuesday, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating toured the command center set up in suburban Moore. "All of these things steel us to be more community-spirited and more focused on our neighbors," he said. "Look at that!"

He points to a truck with a homemade sign offering refreshments to victims of the storm.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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