By Blake Tommey
It was Sunday, May 19, 2013, and Jill Hatcher had spent most of her birthday inside watching baseball-sized hail total both of her family’s cars. In the nearby town of Shawnee, Okla., a series of tornadoes had caused the deaths of two men living in a mobile home community, but Hatcher and her family remained safe at their home south of Moore.
Monday morning followed with an ominous feeling in her stomach, and after pulling their children out of school for a birthday lunch, Hatcher and her husband, Kirk, returned home to a chilling weather forecast. An EF5 tornado, the highest damage classification a tornado can receive, had touched down in Newcastle and was barreling east toward their house. Knowing that finding cover was futile, the Hatchers gathered their kids in the bedroom and waited on further reports. In a flood of relief and horror, the Hatchers watched the tornado take a northerly path just four miles away through a heavily populated section of Moore.
As she would quickly learn, the EF5 had spent nearly an hour on the ground over a 17-mile path of destruction. At its widest, the tornado measured 1.3 miles across and produced winds estimated at 210 miles per hour, leaving the entire area south of Oklahoma City devastated in rubble and loss. After cautiously returning her kids to school the next day, Hatcher simply sat in silence, grieving and at a loss for what to do next. Then, the phone rang.
Local churches had already begun early relief efforts, including her home church, First Baptist Church of Norman, and a friend was calling on Hatcher to help. Though police had closed off the disaster area to vehicles, FBC Norman had begun running church vans in and out of the area as a shuttle for residents and volunteers. Hatcher said she was happy to drive.
“People were having to walk for miles because you couldn’t drive into the disaster area,” Hatcher said. “But they were allowing church vehicles to act as mass transit, so we would basically drive in a loop and pick people up all day. Sometimes they were local residents trying to find their home or their things. Sometimes they were volunteers trying to clean up. That day was crazy.”
After returning to the church one evening, Hatcher’s pastor informed her that Tommy Deal, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s disaster response director, and Steve Graham, coordinator of CBF of Oklahoma, were looking for a local resident to contract with as the volunteer coordinator for CBF Disaster Response. Hatcher, a professional project manager, had no hesitation in agreeing to serve, and by the next morning, Hatcher and Deal were driving around Moore forming relationships with local authorities and listening for the needs of the community.
“It’s easy to get what I call ‘compassion adrenaline’ in the early days of disaster relief,” Deal said. “Yet, we’ve learned how important it is to work within the systems that local authorities and communities have established. We can’t go in brandishing our flag, telling people that we’re here to solve all their problems. First of all, we can’t. But more importantly, we must determine what their situations are and what parts we can address alongside them.”
Hatcher and Deal quickly discovered that the more populated Moore area was heavily supported by the American Red Cross, yet many rural areas affected by the Sunday storm had little to no volunteer support or relief. After driving 40 minutes outside of Norman, they discovered the private mobile home community where the two deaths had occurred during Sunday’s storm. Not only had the tornado ravaged homes, but it also decimated the community’s water and electricity supply, both of which the city did not provide or service for private property.
In partnership with First Baptist Church of Shawnee and University Baptist Church of Shawnee, Hatcher and Deal began funneling volunteers and resources into the small community that had been without power and water for more than two weeks. Local residents had no resources or labor with which to replace their well house, until a group of farmers from Iowa suddenly contacted Hatcher looking for a place to serve. As experts in building their own houses and structures, the group of farmers had a new well house built within a week and began repairing water and electrical lines until the community had running water and power once again. Hatcher said she felt called to the communities that relief organizations had overlooked or neglected.
“The people in the margins of these disaster zones don’t want to be defined as people in the margins,” Hatcher said. “Many have no insurance and no way to replace what they’ve lost, but they’re not going to stand up with a louder voice and ask for more help than anybody else. So we come alongside them with the resources and labor that they need to begin rebuilding their lives.”
Following the rebuilding of the well house, the CBF team partnered with a local nonprofit organization to build houses in place of the mobile homes that were destroyed, assisting with three builds and fully funding one. As Hatcher received more volunteers, she began funneling them through local organizations and churches. CBF volunteers offered relief through Serve Moore, helped local residents burn piles of rubble that could not be hauled off and even assisted a furniture warehouse set up by First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City after it received a mass influx of furniture items.
“People would tell me I was doing a good job, and I could only tell them that I wasn’t doing any of it,” Hatcher explained. “There was never a moment when I was not assured that God was already present and at work. Every evening I would inevitably tell my husband a new story about resources somehow coming together at the right time. Sometimes it seemed like the answer came before the request. If I was doing it, it would be an even bigger disaster.”
Since May 2013, CBF Disaster Response has contributed more than $84,000 in direct aid to local churches and organizations in and around Moore. In addition, CBF continues to receive volunteers wishing to partner in rebuilding communities in the Moore area. Deal says that CBF Disaster Response will continue to come alongside communities affected by disaster to listen and partner together in rebuilding.
“We feel it is important that the community recognizes the local church as the one who has reached out to them, not some distant organization out of Decatur, Ga.,” Deal emphasized. “We want to go in and stand beside that local church. Sometimes we may have to help them see what they can do, but this situation was one in which God and the community were already at work. We only had to ask how we could help.”