[Episcopal News Service] Updated at 11:50 a.m. to include revised death toll, lowered from initial count. Bishop Ed Konieczny called for prayer, while staff and clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma reached out to the community, after violent tornadoes on May 20 left at least 24 dead, including 7 children, and more than 120 injured near Oklahoma City.
As rescuers continued to search for survivors amid the rubble of buildings and widespread debris, the death toll was expected to rise. An earlier figure of 51 deaths was revised down by the Oklahoma Medical Examiners Office, which said it had received 24 bodies, according to reports. “It’s been a pretty rough couple of days” with more storms possible on Tuesday, said Konieczny, during a Monday evening telephone call from his home in Edmond, a northern suburb of Oklahoma City.
“We’re still assessing where we are at today,” he said, just a few hours after a mile-wide tornado struck a hospital and two elementary schools in Moore, about 11 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. “Communications are difficult. Cell phone service is sparse. Even landlines are affected. The area where the tornado struck is blocked off, nobody can get in or out.”
He said that a storm system, created when cold and warm air masses collide, spawned six tornadoes Sunday and two or three on Monday, including the one in Moore. Winds of up to 200 miles an hour shredded homes and other buildings.
“Local clergy are trying to assess damage and to contact their members that live in the areas where tornadoes struck. They are waiting to hear back,” Konieczny said. “We know … that we have a number of members of churches who’ve lost their homes.”
A day earlier, on May 19, tornadoes struck Shawnee, about 37 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, killing at least one person.
“At this point, there’s been no significant damage to any church properties,” Konieczny said. “We have accounted for all clergy, staff and their families living in areas affected by the storms and tornadoes.”
He said that two schools sustained direct hits by the tornadoes while classes were in session. “In one of the schools, 75 students and teachers huddled in a hallway and there’s nothing left. They’re still looking for those persons.”
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a May 21 message that the prayers of Episcopalians “are with the people of Oklahoma in the midst of this tragic event. May the Spirit of God hover over the broken, lost, and grieving, and may they meet the love of God in their neighbors’ responses.”
Konieczny said he had been in touch with Episcopal Relief & Development as well as local disaster relief agencies. “We are putting things in place to respond to the immediate needs as they become aware to us and are coordinating with other emergency organizations, to work together as they try to respond to this.”
On a personal note, he said the roof on his home, in Edmond, Oklahoma, was destroyed by hail and wind damage, “but this is nothing compared to the devastation others have experienced.”
The Rev. Canon José McLoughlin, diocesan canon to the ordinary, said he and his family were forced to take shelter on Monday when warning sirens sounded near his suburban Oklahoma City home.
“The storm skirted us and went south and east” but this situation is very much still unfolding, McLoughlin said Monday evening. “Casualties are mounting, the devastation is widespread. We’ve been texting to try to communicate and assessing damages to parishioners.”
As rescue efforts unfold, “We’re prepared to do what we need to do and we’re going to do what we can,” he added.
Some relief efforts are already underway in Shawnee, the Rev. Bill Carroll, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Shawnee, wrote in a May 21 e-mail to Episcopal News Service.
“We have identified a couple of parishioners with family members who are injured or who have lost their homes,” he said. “We have no reported loss of life within our parish, but at least one fatality in our immediate community. Our church building is untouched. Our prayers are with people in Moore and southern Oklahoma City where the damage to human life and property was worst.
“In Shawnee, we are providing tangible assistance where that is needed and working through our diocese and the Red Cross. On Sunday we’ll be soliciting donations to help.”
Also, St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Edmond took to social media to begin relief efforts, inviting donations of children’s books, stuffed animals and other comfort items for the surviving children and families. “The teachers and staff will take the items as a symbol of Edmond’s generosity to the American Red Cross,” the posting said.
The Diocese of Oklahoma includes 70 congregations representing about 25,000 Episcopalians and encompasses the entire state. A link for those wishing to contribute to disaster relief efforts has been established on the diocesan website.
But Konieczny said that the biggest thing right now, “is prayers for everyone. There’s been significant loss, not only of physical properties, but with the loss of children and other family members. Prayers would really be appreciated for us. There’s the first couple of days of the news of the event, but the real work and the real need for people is going to be in the days ahead.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.