Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are working with other religious groups and charity organizations to assist victims of a tornado that tore up to a two-mile-wide by 17-mile-long swath of destruction through the city of Moore, Oklahoma, on 20 May. The tornado claimed 24 lives and injured nearly 400 others.
Working with Moore city officials, local Church leaders quickly organized local volunteers and supplies shipped from Salt Lake City to help clear debris in the community’s neighborhoods. On Saturday, 25 May, hundreds of Mormon Helping Hands volunteers with shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows and chainsaws spread out across devastated areas.
In all, an estimated 2,500 Mormon Helping Hands volunteers assisted their neighbors over the Memorial Day weekend, working an estimated 15,000 hours. In several neighborhoods, Church volunteers worked shoulder-to-shoulder with other groups to assist tornado victims in a common effort.
“The focus of who we are in terms of wanting to give service to our fellow man really binds us together as a community,” said local Church leader, Kevin Graves. “You see people of great faith and a lot of love for their fellow being regardless of their religious denomination.”
Mormon Helping Hands volunteer Carlos Coronado said all of the groups were helping together because they believe in following the example of Christ.
“When Jesus Christ was here on the earth, He taught us … that we should help each other,” Coronado said. “To me that’s the most important thing; how can you pretend to say you love someone when you’re not suffering their pain or not doing anything to ease their pain? So that’s why we’re here.”
Latter-day Saints and volunteers from Operation Blessing teamed up to clear piles of debris and search for belongings in the home of Bennie Banning. Banning, her daughter and 10-month-old grandson escaped the tornado with just seconds to spare, returning to find the home completely destroyed.
Banning was emotional as she watched the two volunteer groups work on her behalf. “I can’t believe that people have this much compassion and love for total strangers,” she said. “It’s amazing. I look at them and I just cry… I thank God… for sending these people to help me.”
A sea of volunteers in yellow Mormon Helping Hands vests and tee-shirts could be seen at a Moore park where dozens of trees were uprooted and branches torn off. The echo of chainsaws slicing up fallen trees and the clatter of rakes and shovels could be heard as volunteers worked to clear mountains of debris.
On Sunday, hundreds of Church volunteers came to a Moore, Oklahoma Latter-day Saint church building — now serving as a volunteer operations center — for a brief worship service before heading out to continue cleanup efforts.
Local Church leader Michael Southward gave words of encouragement to the congregation.
“Today we will go and do service to those that are in great need, those who want to know that our Father in Heaven loves them,” he said. “Many may have given up hope because they have had their loved ones or possessions taken away from them, but you will be the messengers of hope to them today. You will bring strength and comfort to them by the manner in which you serve them, but also by the manner in which you treat them.”
Throughout the Memorial Day weekend, volunteer groups including the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Baptist charity groups and other organizations worked cooperatively to help tornado victims. Baptist charity Mercy Chefs served meals to the hungry including Mormon Helping Hands volunteers working in different parts of the devastation. The charity is made up of professional chefs who donate their time to prepare hot gourmet meals for victims and volunteers.
Mercy Chefs founder, Gary Le Blanc said he knows hot dogs and cold sandwiches are appreciated by victims, first responders and volunteers but his professional chefs from all over the country are working hard to offer something better.
“We’re coming to love on folks in the name of Jesus and so we do it in the very best way we know how,” said Le Blanc. “There are 500 folks (Mormon Helping Hands volunteers) that are working really, really hard under some trying circumstances. That’s the least we can do is set a quality table of hospitality.”
On Memorial Day, more volunteers turned out to help their neighbors. Karen Johnston and her husband Mark own several dozen head of cattle on 80 acres. The tornado spewed small debris (chunks of foam rubber, insulation and metal) into their pasture. The Johnstons needed to clear the debris so their cattle would not harm themselves by eating it. The couple felt overwhelmed at the prospect, and requested volunteer help.
When around 40 Church missionaries clad in Mormon Helping Hands vests and tee-shirts arrived on their property, Karen Johnston was overwhelmed with relief. “I was like, oh my… the army is here! The army in the yellow shirts!” she said.
A little while later, a group from the Journey Church from Norman, Oklahoma and the Fellowship church out of Dallas, Texas came to help too. Soon the “army of yellow shirts” was mixed with an army of people wearing red tee-shirts, all working together.
Pastor Andy Boyd said there are churches and faith-based groups all working for a greater cause to help people like Mark and Karen. “It’s not telling them the gospel it’s showing it to them,” said Pastor Boyd. “It’s a great opportunity to get to know each other. There are no walls. It’s great to work together and at the same time help the community.”
“It’s a relief off of our shoulders,” said Karen, “because there is no way we could have done it by ourselves.”
Relief efforts are expected to continue for the next several weeks. Church Emergency Response Coordinator Neils Ludlow says Church volunteers will continue to organize service projects until there is no longer a need.
“Many of these people are so devastated; they are traumatized by this,” Ludlow said. “If we can go in and help at least a little bit to get things cleaned up for them and get started in helping to rebuild, it’s almost like a breath of fresh air and they begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It gives them hope.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates 3,937 homes and businesses in five counties were damaged and 1,248 homes and other structures were destroyed with 2,155 homes receiving minor damage. Damage estimates could reach $5 billion.
Mormon Helping Hands is also providing relief to the communities of Little Axe, Newalla, Bethel Acres, Shawnee, New Castle and Edmond, where a devastating tornado hit one day before the Moore tornado.