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 Oklahomareached out to the community, after violent tornadoes on May 20 left atleast 24 dead, including 7 children, and more than 120 injured nearOklahoma City.
As rescuers continued to search for survivors amid the rubble ofbuildings and widespread debris, the death toll was expected to rise. Anearlier figure of 51 deaths was revised down by the Oklahoma MedicalExaminers Office, which said it had received 24 bodies, according toreports. “It’s been a pretty rough couple of days” with more stormspossible on Tuesday, said Konieczny, during a Monday evening telephonecall from his home in Edmond, a northern suburb of Oklahoma City.
“We’re still assessing where we are at today,” he said, just a fewhours after a mile-wide tornado struck a hospital and two elementaryschools in Moore, about 11 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.”Communications are difficult. Cell phone service is sparse. Evenlandlines are affected. The area where the tornado struck is blockedoff, nobody can get in or out.”
He said that a storm system, created when cold and warm air massescollide, spawned six tornadoes Sunday and two or three on Monday,including the one in Moore. Winds of up to 200 miles an hour shreddedhomes and other buildings.
“Local clergy are trying to assess damage and to contact theirmembers that live in the areas where tornadoes struck. They are waitingto hear back,” Konieczny said. “We know … that we have a number ofmembers 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 churchproperties,” Konieczny said. “We have accounted for all clergy, staffand their families living in areas affected by the storms andtornadoes.”
He said that two schools sustained direct hits by the tornadoes whileclasses were in session. “In one of the schools, 75 students andteachers huddled in a hallway and there’s nothing left. They’re stilllooking for those persons.”
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a May 21 messagethat the prayers of Episcopalians “are with the people of Oklahoma inthe midst of this tragic event. May the Spirit of God hover over thebroken, lost, and grieving, and may they meet the love of God in theirneighbors’ responses.”
Konieczny said he had been in touch with Episcopal Relief & Developmentas well as local disaster relief agencies. “We are putting things inplace to respond to the immediate needs as they become aware to us andare coordinating with other emergency organizations, to work together asthey 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 nothingcompared to the devastation others have experienced.”
The Rev. Canon José McLoughlin, diocesan canon to the ordinary, saidhe and his family were forced to take shelter on Monday when warningsirens sounded near his suburban Oklahoma City home.
“The storm skirted us and went south and east” but this situation isvery much still unfolding, McLoughlin said Monday evening. “Casualtiesare mounting, the devastation is widespread. We’ve been texting to tryto 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 whoare injured or who have lost their homes,” he said. “We have no reportedloss of life within our parish, but at least one fatality in ourimmediate community. Our church building is untouched. Our prayers arewith people in Moore and southern Oklahoma City where the damage tohuman life and property was worst.
“In Shawnee, we are providing tangible assistance where that isneeded and working through our diocese and the Red Cross. On Sundaywe’ll be soliciting donations to help.”
Also, St. Mary’s Episcopal Schoolin Edmond took to social media to begin relief efforts, invitingdonations of children’s books, stuffed animals and other comfort itemsfor the surviving children and families. “The teachers and staff willtake the items as a symbol of Edmond’s generosity to the American RedCross,” the posting said.
The Diocese of Oklahoma includes 70 congregations representing about25,000 Episcopalians and encompasses the entire state. A link for thosewishing to contribute to disaster relief efforts has been established onthe diocesan website.
But Konieczny said that the biggest thing right now, “is prayers foreveryone. There’s been significant loss, not only of physicalproperties, but with the loss of children and other family members.Prayers would really be appreciated for us. There’s the first couple ofdays of the news of the event, but the real work and the real need forpeople 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.