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Church Shelters Tornado Victims Left Homeless in Moore

Church Shelters Tornado Victims Left Homeless in Moore, Oklahoma
A U.S. flag is seen amongst the debris of a house destroyed by a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

May 22 (Bloomberg) -- With his house destroyed by a deadly Oklahoma twister and his prized 1956 Pontiac riddled with dents, its windows smashed, Clyde Vance took refuge at a local church.

The 67-year-old retiree was at home when the tornado struck May 20 and the building collapsed on top of him. It took 20 minutes for neighbors to help free him.

“What really bothers me is my car,” said the former security chief at The Oklahoman newspaper. “That was my pride and joy.”

Vance was among several hundred people who turned Moore, Oklahoma’s First Baptist Church into part homeless shelter, part community bazaar following the storm that killed 24 residents and injured 237. Shannon Williams, 35, collected food and water for her brother, sister and four others she took in after the twister cut a mile-wide swath of devastation through their city.

“I told the volunteers we came for water, not food, but they said it didn’t matter and they loaded us with all kinds of snacks and food and toothpaste and deodorant,” said Williams, a mother and student at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman. “The people here are amazing, which is the reason we put up with these tornadoes and stay.”

More than 25 truckloads of donated water, generators, diapers, gloves and other items arrived at First Baptist less than a day after the storm swept through the Oklahoma City suburb, said Kyle Duncan, the church’s administrator. Houses of worship around the community of 55,000 residents opened their doors to those who lost homes or saw them damaged.

Bathtub Buddies

At the New Life Baptist Church in Norman, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away, truck-driving brothers Ronnie White, 50, and Lonnie, 52, took shelter overnight. They had huddled in their bathtub, covered by a mattress, as the tornado ripped off the roof of their house in Moore.

“Every church here is doing something, which means a lot can get done,” said Jason John, New Life’s associate pastor.

At First Baptist, a half-dozen people watched news reports on big-screen televisions while others milled around, munching on snacks. Several family groups played with dogs. Workers at the church handed out ham and turkey sandwiches, doughnuts, muffins and burritos sent by local restaurants, said Patty Koonce, who lost her home to the storm.

‘Life Saver’

Koonce, who works in Oklahoma City at Graham’s Central Station night club, said the church earned a reputation as a good place for those seeking relief following a deadly May 1999 tornado. Terri Grusendorf, a manager at a community college who was picking up apples, peanuts, bananas and bath items for a friend left homeless, said First Baptist “is a life saver” in times like these.

Parked outside stood a large truck trailer fitted out with stoves to cook meals for people in need in the community. Nearby, representatives of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Shelter Insurance Cos. and more than a dozen other insurers waited to discuss storm claims with survivors.

Vance took some solace in that he could still use his prized Pontiac. “At least I was able to drive it here.”

To contact the reporter on this story: David Mildenberg in Moore, Oklahoma, at dmildenberg@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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