One town that refuses to give in to disaster

Even though Stroud, Okla., lost its two main employers in the tornado,

If the test of character is overcoming adversity, give Stroud, Okla., a "P" - for pluck.

When last week's tornado downed the community's main electric line and plunged its 3,000 residents into darkness, volunteer crews had City Hall up and running on generators within hours.

The following day's Lion's Club lunch went off as scheduled, except that everyone in town was invited because no one had power to cook at home. Even the local newspaper managed to come out on time despite the outage, a partially torn roof, and water that barely missed the neatly laid out pages of the week's edition.

In short, Stroud took its disaster in stride. But the tornado, which damaged homes and caused minor injuries, also knocked out the city's two largest employers. Stroud's economic livelihood looks threatened.

"One minute this is all here and the next minute 500 jobs are gone," says Betty Thompson, president of the Stroud Conference Center. "The homes - they're still here for the most part. But the people who live in them have no job."

It's not just jobs that are at stake; it's city revenue. The storm has put two-thirds of Stroud's general fund at risk because it won't be able to collect sales taxes from the Tanger Factory Outlet Center north of town.

Tanger and the city's second-largest employer, SYGMA Network Inc., were also major consumers of electricity, which the city bought at wholesale and resold at a profit. It will take several months to get either facility running again. "We need to rebuild our tax structure," says Mayor Joe Hankins. "We've been down before, but we'll be back."

Stroud nearly shriveled away in the mid-1980s, when oil prices collapsed and a major refinery closed here. "Really for a few years there was just one $20 bill in town and everyone was passing it back and forth," jokes Mike Brown, the local newspaper editor.

Other residents say Stroud was almost a ghost town back then. What brought the community back was the Tanger mall in the early 1990s.

The malling of Stroud

Located on the Interstate highway halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the mall proved a big success. Tax revenues helped Stroud build an industrial park and a new softball diamond, which had just been finished before the storm hit.

Some residents worry that the companies might not rebuild at all and move somewhere else. But so far, those fears seem unfounded. On the day after the storm, Tanger's corporate headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., issued a press release saying the company intended "at this time" to rebuild the mall.

SYSCO Corp., whose SYGMA food-distribution subsidiary was partially damaged by the storm, echoes the sentiment. "It will probably take us four to six months to rebuild, but that's what we plan to do," says spokeswoman Toni Spigelmyer.

The company has already moved its 136 employees to other plants in its network and is paying for their temporary housing while the recovery goes on in Stroud.

Any doubts about the community's economic future haven't dampened local relief efforts. With the help of volunteers from surrounding towns and donations pouring in from everywhere, the city's churches have set about to help Stroud's new homeless.

Here, there are free lunches

The local Methodist church cooked free lunches for hundreds of residents and volunteers. The Seventh-day Adventists on Main Street collect donated clothing, while up the street the New Covenant Church sorts through boxes of food and baby items. (The storm damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes, most of them in two trailer parks in town.)

"People haven't let church stand in their way; they've just banded together," says Gladys Harris, a member of the Assembly of God helping out at the New Covenant Church. Like many in town, she worked at the mall and doesn't yet know what she'll do to make ends meet. "All we can say is God's good for us," she says.

Outside, the Rev. Jerry Murfin loads a pickup truck with donations. "You can just about ask anybody for help and, if they aren't busy, they'll probably help," he says. "I've stopped about five different people I didn't even know with pickups."

He turns to the owner of the truck he's currently loading. "I don't know your name," he says. David James Tyler, an unemployed young man, says he came over to help while he looks for friends who lost their home in the storm. Another man stopped by the church and handed over $200 as a donation to the relief effort.

The storm "is bringing this stuff out," Mr. Murfin says. "It was there. It just needed a tragic thing to bring it out."

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