Rebuilding in Oklahoma
Clyde Grover, a theology teacher at Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City and a member of St. Andrew Council 9901 in Moore, was at home with his wife, Ann, and his mother-in-law as a tornado with winds exceeding 200 mph approached May 20. They huddled in an underground storm shelter beneath the garage while the powerful funnel roared overhead.
Nature’s fury had started the previous day, with tornadoes affecting towns east of Oklahoma City. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed, and two people were killed. The weather conditions that spawned those deadly storms continued, and the tornado that ripped a wide path through the suburban city of Moore was classified as a rare EF5 (the strongest of six categories, representing increasing degrees of damage). Twenty-four people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands of residents were left without power, transportation and shelter. Initial estimates placed the damage at $2 billion.
Recognizing the Order’s commitment to charity, Knights of Columbus state officers began to formulate a statewide plan to participate in the relief effort alongside other groups and government agencies. The Supreme Council also lent its support, with an immediate donation of $10,000 from its disaster relief fund and then $35,000 from the initial appeal for donations to Knights of Columbus Charities.
“As an organization whose first principle is charity, the Knights of Columbus is pleased to be able to assist those who have had their lives so disrupted by this tornado,” said Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. “We continue to pray for those affected — both the living and the deceased — and look forward to continuing to help the survivors as they rebuild their towns and their lives.”
AFTER THE STORM
The Grover family had been through a similar experience on May 3, 1999, when parts of Moore were severely damaged by a tornado of similar strength that claimed 36 lives.
“That time, my family hid under a dining room table, and I vowed I wouldn’t do that again,” Clyde Grover said.
Although the family’s home made it safely through the 1999 storm, it didn’t fare as well this past May. From the underground shelter, Grover could hear the storm pass by, then saw light at the edges of the shelter doors.
“I knew then that the garage was gone,” he said.
The house was severely damaged and uninhabitable. Both the front and back of the property were littered with debris from the Grovers’ home and from other houses in the neighborhood. Nails and glass were strewn everywhere, and the smell of mold and insulation particles hung heavy in the air.
Days later, the family returned to gather what valuables they could to place in storage. Immediate family members offered support, including their son, Danny, a seminarian and fellow member of Council 9901.
At the time of the storm, Danny was assigned to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and School in Oklahoma City, where he took shelter with the students and teachers.
Nearly a week later, Danny was still in shock from seeing the destruction at his parents’ home, as well as on block after block of his neighborhood.
“When I saw this, all I could say was, ‘Wow,’” he said.
In response to the destruction, the state council went into action to assist the Grover family and others like them. The morning after the storms subsided, then-State Deputy Daniel P. Hogan called the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. While church buildings were left undamaged, the archdiocese would need assistance helping all of the families who were affected.
First, the Knights secured a base of operations. Father Jack Feehily, pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Moore, allowed council members to gather at the church to coordinate volunteer efforts and meet with families affected by the storm.
A bit further south, the Knights partnered with Catholic Charities to establish a distribution center at All Saints Elementary School in Norman, providing assistance to as many people as possible. The St. Andrew’s site would assess needs, while the All Saints location would store and distribute relief supplies.
In cooperation with the Supreme Council and Catholic Charities, Oklahoma Knights were able to provide assistance immediately.
On May 24, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley expressed his gratitude to the Knights via Twitter, writing: “Many thanks to the Knights of Columbus! The response of the Supreme, state and local councils to the Oklahoma tornado effort is outstanding.”
AN ORGANIZED RESPONSE
The Oklahoma Knights’ coordinated efforts have been part of the Order’s Second Responders program, an initiative launched in 2011 to help councils support their communities when faced with natural or man-made disasters.
Registering as a volunteer for the disaster response program allows state councils to receive a list of Knights who are willing to offer relief assistance.
Based on the current need, state officers have urged even more members to participate. For example, prior to an exemplification in Edmond, near Oklahoma City, State Advocate John Pierce encouraged candidates to sign up for the Second Responders initiative on the Order’s website.
While additional support is recruited, hundreds of K of C volunteers and their families have already been helping in whatever way they can.
At the distribution center in Norman, Knights have helped by escorting storm victims to supplies and assessing what they needed. Rick Buschelman of Edmond Council 6477 was one of many Knights who volunteered for a full day at the center.
“These families would come in and they’re still pretty numb, not knowing what they need. Some of them are starting from zero,” Buschelman said.
He recalled seeing one family whose little girl he recognized from a newspaper photograph. She was one of the children pulled from Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School by a firefighter. Seven of her classmates had not survived.
“She’s been through a lot but looked happy yesterday,” Buschelman said.
In addition to providing volunteer and moral support, the Knights have worked to meet families’ financial and material needs. Along with the Supreme Council’s support, State Deputy-elect Ron Schwarz said that the state council received more than $20,000 after its first appeal for donations.
The initial donations went toward the purchase of gift cards for families registering for assistance. Knights set up alongside other groups at four multi-agency resource centers around the devastated areas to contribute to immediate needs such as gas, food and clothing.
The distribution center has also continued to receive relief supplies from individuals and groups. “There are all kinds of people driving from Indiana, Louisiana and Texas,” Buschelman said. “It’s been incredible.”
Meanwhile, Garth Christian, general program director for the state council, has made frequent trips to Moore to coordinate additional volunteers.
“Yesterday, we quickly gave out 12 chainsaws,” he noted. “And they were all needed.”
While Moore sustained the most damage, other towns have been on the Knights radar.
“Our council in Stillwater helped people in Shawnee, and we had volunteers in Carney as well,” Past State Deputy Hogan said.
In Little Axe, District Deputy Dennis Kunnanz handed out $50 gift cards to those affected.
“A lot of times they were using them for gas — either for their chainsaws or cars,” he said. “The people were very appreciative.”
By early June, the Oklahoma State Council was reviewing a May 31 rash of five more tornadoes that ripped through the Oklahoma City metro area. An EF5 tornado in El Reno measured 2.6 miles across, the widest ever recorded. These storms again caused damage and deaths, and were followed by flooding.
While immediate needs were being met shortly after the disaster, everyone at the state council knew that full recovery was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And they have made their commitment clear. When the nation’s attention and the headlines shift away from the Oklahoma tornadoes, the Knights will still be helping those affected, whether it takes months or years.
In one case, Knights learned of an apartment complex in Moore that will be torn down, leaving even more people without a home. “Through Catholic Charities, we know of an elderly Catholic woman who will eventually have to be relocated,” Hogan explained. “We will be working to make that happen.”
In providing assistance to those in need, the Knights are motivated by faith to fulfill the Gospel mandate of charity, bearing witness to God’s presence amid tragedy.
“We’ve had donations from people out of state, and we’ve asked them: ‘What made you come to us?’” noted State Deputy Schwarz. “And they said, ‘We got in the car and prayed, and God led us to you guys.’ It’s the miracle of how some things come into play without us even having to ask.”
Oklahoma Knights have distributed tens of thousands of dollars in direct relief of families from the Knights of Columbus Charities fund. Donations continue to be collected at www.kofc.org/disaster.
The Grovers, like other families who lost their homes, know the recovery will take some time. A case manager, coordinated by Catholic Charities, will further assess the Grovers’ long-term plans. For now, Clyde and his wife are living in housing provided by Oklahoma City University.
“The community, especially the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Charities, has been extremely supportive of the family and willing to help in any way, shape or form as we begin this new journey in life,” said Danny Grover, who is currently spending two months in Mexico to learn Spanish.
“This has been a real lesson in humility,” Clyde added. “I’m used to giving help, not receiving it. But it’s important to allow others to be Christ to you.”
STEVE GUST is a member of Edmond Council 6477 and editor of the state publication The Oklahoma Knight.