Long before a series of deadly tornados swept through Oklahoma on Monday afternoon, more than 5,500 Southern Baptists in the state had gone through a church training program for disaster response.
By Tuesday morning, Sam Porter—head of disaster relief for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma—had a message for those volunteers: “Today’s the day. It’s game time in Oklahoma when it comes to disaster relief.”
Disaster relief is in full motion in the tornado-stricken region some 15 miles south of Oklahoma City, even as rescue workers continue searching for survivors in the hardest-hit town of Moore, Okla.
Much of that search centered on Plaza Towers Elementary School, where students were still in classrooms on Monday afternoon when a massive tornado that packed winds of up to 200 mph nearly leveled the structure. Workers pulled dozens of children from the rubble—passing the little ones to safety down a human chain of parents and neighborhood volunteers—but at least seven children died in the destruction.
That brought the death toll to at least 24 people by early Tuesday, but officials said those numbers likely would rise as rescue workers continue to search the rubble. Emergency responders searched wreckage all night on Monday in near silence, hoping to maximize their chances of hearing victims calling for help.
Meanwhile, churches, relief groups, and Christian organizations began responding to cries for help from survivors. The tornado—measuring as much as a mile wide—leveled whole blocks of homes and businesses throughout Moore, and wreaked havoc in nearby Shawnee. Witnesses described the scenes as reminiscent of a war zone.
Porter, of the Baptist convention in Oklahoma, immediately deployed more than 100 volunteers to the disaster site to assess damage and begin setting up relief centers. The relief efforts include mobile kitchens and teams to help with debris removal and clean up work. The group is working with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to distribute supplies and direct homeless victims to emergency shelters. (Each group stressed the best way to help is through a cash donation on their websites.)
U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., surveyed the scene on Tuesday, and included information on his website about local relief efforts. (Lankford’s 5th district falls just south of Moore.) The relief information included a large feeding site at the Shawnee Expo Center, where the Red Cross and Southern Baptists are serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Locations for emergency housing included six local churches and Oklahoma Baptist University.
The North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse (SP) was already in the region, responding to tornado damage last week in Texas. The group deployed two more teams to Oklahoma on Tuesday morning, and said it would accept applications for volunteers to help with debris clean-up, chainsaw work, and roof tarping. (Volunteers may apply as individuals or in teams of up to 15 people. SP will provide meals and housing to volunteers.)
Opportunities to serve will continue for months, and the Red Cross expected shelters to remain operational for weeks, at least. Anthony Jordan of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma said his group’s volunteers would continue working as long as necessary.
The Oklahoma Baptists have already sent dozens of volunteers to disaster sites across the country for years, including more than 100 workers responding to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last year. Jordan said they would remain dedicated to the work at home: “We will be here until the last piece of debris has been picked up, and the last person needs to be served.”
How to help
These organizations encourage donations through their websites:
Samaritan’s Purse welcomes both donations and volunteer teams