Audio length: 14:15 minutes
Transcript published: May 21, 2013
The day after a devastating tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma, Ancient Faith Radio files this report including interviews with Bishop Basil of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America and Fr. John Salem, priest at St. Elijah Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City.
Mr. John Maddex:
Emergency crews searched the broken remnants of an Oklahoma City suburb Tuesday for survivors of a massive tornado that flattened homes and demolished an elementary school. At least 24 people were killed, including at least seven children, and those numbers are expected to climb.
As the sun rose over the shattered community of Moore, Oklahoma, the state medical examiner’s office cut the estimated death toll by more than half, but warned that the number was likely to climb again.
Spokeswoman Amy Elliot says she believes some victims were counted twice in the early chaos of the storm that struck Monday afternoon. Downed communication lines and problems sharing information with officers exacerbated the problem, she said. “It was a very eventful night,” according to Elliot. “I truly expect that they’ll find more today.”
This morning Ancient Faith Radio was able to connect with His Grace Bishop Basil of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America. Sayidna Basil, thank you for speaking with us.
His Grace Bishop Basil: It’s my pleasure. Christ is risen!
Mr. Maddex: Truly he is risen! Which of your parishes, Your Grace, were in the path of the storms yesterday?
His Grace: As soon as I saw the news of the storm on television, I saw a map. It was running diagonally northeast from Wichita Falls up through Oklahoma and then heading towards Missouri. I checked with our parishes in that trajectory, and it is St. Benedict in Wichita Falls; then it would go to Holy Ascension in Norman, which is just south of Moore; then St. Elijah in Oklahoma City, which is just north of Moore; then since it was going northeast, I checked with our other parishes, St. James in Stillwater and St. Anthony in Tulsa.
Mr. Maddex: Have you been able to communicate with all of those, Sayidna?
His Grace: I’ve made contact with all of the priests, as well as the ROCOR parish, St. Benedict, which is in south Oklahoma City. I spoke with the priest there this morning. All of them are fine, thank God. All of their people are safe. All of the buildings are safe and sound. The priest, Fr. Anthony, from St. Benedict, the ROCOR parish in south Oklahoma City, said the tornado passed within four miles of within where he was there in south Oklahoma City, but everyone is fine, thank God. The devastation is terrible, as I’m sure you and your listeners have seen, but all of our people and clergy and church temples are safe.
Mr. Maddex: Do you know if any of them have specific needs, or how would you recommend the Orthodox faithful respond at this point?
His Grace: I’m sure there’s going to be something, either through our Archdiocese or IOCC. I’m confident about that, but in the meantime, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army both are on the ground right there. They’re already providing assistance to the people. So immediate help could probably be channeled through the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, earmarked, of course, for the Moore, Oklahoma, area. I’m sure that IOCC and our Archdiocese will be doing something.
Mr. Maddex: Yes. I would just encourage our listeners to be alert and to be generous in their support and reaching out like Christians should at a time of need. Your Grace Bishop Basil of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America for the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, thank you so much for speaking with us.
His Grace: My pleasure, John. Christ is risen!
Mr. Maddex: Truly he is risen!
New search-and-rescue teams moved at dawn on Tuesday, taking over from the 200 or so emergency responders who worked all night. A helicopter [shone] a spotlight from above to aid in the search.
Fr. John Salem is priest of St. Elijah Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City. Fr. John, thanks for joining us.
Fr. John Salem: It’s good to be with you, John.
Mr. Maddex: So you weren’t in the direct path of this tornado, but you certainly have heard and have seen some of the effects. First of all, is everybody okay at St. Elijah’s?
Fr. John: Thank God all of our parishioners are fine and in good health. We had one family in particular about a half a mile away from the destruction. They were at work, but their mother was home and she was in a safe room. She just stayed there until someone came and got her, but there was no destruction.
Mr. Maddex: So Moore, Oklahoma, is to the south of you?
Fr. John: To the south. It is on the southern border of Oklahoma City, and it is north of Norman where the University of Oklahoma is.
Mr. Maddex: Do you have parishioners that come up to St. Elijah from down in that area?
Fr. John: We have a couple families, and there used to be more in the past, but we do have some people that we have: a dentist from our parish whose office is there. It was spared. They did get some broken windows from debris, and they turned his dental office into a kind of triage area. Then we have a few others that have business down there.
Mr. Maddex: What did you actually see, Fr. John, from where you are, north of the city.
Fr. John: People who don’t know the topography… I mean, you can see for a long distance here. You could just see a huge black cloud directly to the south of us. There was blue sky up to the north, and it was just… It was like a scene from Ghostbusters, honestly. As charcoal-gray as you could get without being black.
Mr. Maddex: No funnel? You didn’t see a funnel, right?
Fr. John: I did not see the funnel, but of course we all put our televisions on and the local news had their helicopters. It was about two miles wide, and even on television when they said the tornado has touched down, you didn’t know if it was just a big black raincloud. That’s how big it was.
Mr. Maddex: There are some other Orthodox churches fairly near where you are; I know St. George, the Greek Orthodox Church. What can you tell us about those parishes?
Fr. John: Saturday night there was a heavy thunderstorm, and utility poles and telephone poles fell. They’re directly behind us on a street parallel to us. Their electricity is out, and as far as I know it is still out. They came to Liturgy with us on Sunday morning, but they’re doing fine. I just read an email from Fr. John Tsaras, the priest at St. George, and they had one parishioner who lived down there, and she’s the vice-president of GOYA, [she] and her brother. Their house was leveled, but they were not home.
Then we have a church in Jones, Oklahoma, a small Ukrainian church. They’re fine. We have an Antiochian parish in Norman. Sunday’s tornado and hailstorm put some holes in their dome, and other than car damage to some of the people, they’re all in fine health. So thank God; that’s good.
We do have a family that does have a daughter; she’s a nurse at Baptist Hospital. We still don’t know about her home. She was at work, but it was close to that area. No one’s been able to get in yet.
Mr. Maddex: When you look at the television pictures and you see the devastation, you just can’t imagine going through that, and it all happened to quickly. Tornadoes come in and go out, and you come up from your shelter and you see just total devastation. What kind of efforts do you think are already in the works and coming to help the region?
Fr. John: Right now, I was just reading the local website for one of the TV stations, and it’s coordinated with the daily newspaper. Feed the Children is based out of here, so they already have supplies on hand. The Oklahoma Regional Food Bank already has supplies on hand. Salvation Army, they’re always prepared. The Red Cross is on the ground. They’re prepared for things like this. I think, really, in the future we’re going to see, because so many people lost their homes, financially people are going to need some aid. I’m sure insurance will help rebuild some homes, but people who were affected are losing income, things like that. It’s going to be a long, long recovery.
Moore, this is the fourth time in 15 years. I was here as the youth director ‘94-‘98. I’d just left when the May 3, ‘99, tornado had hit, but they have rebuilt. Oklahoma is growing. Moore has really a lot of retail, a lot of new subdivisions. It has built up. They really came back strong from the last tornado. Before, in Oklahoma, people would be affected, but there was a lot more rural area. Now the rural areas are building up.
Mr. Maddex: Growing like crazy.
Fr. John: There’s people coming in, so we’re monitoring what we can do. We’ve been in touch with IOCC. I put IOCC in touch with a group of Salvation Army communication people from Texas, I think from the Waco area. They wanted to help. They said if we had contacts with the city or the county, so I put them through to Mickey Homsey who’s the executive director of IOCC. There’s a lawyer in town who’s put them in touch with the sheriff’s department. The University of Oklahoma has opened up some empty dorm rooms, because their school year’s over, for people in need. A lot of people do have relatives in the area. Of course, there’s some people moved in for work that don’t, but those rooms at OU are available to them.
Mr. Maddex: When you think of tornadoes, you think, “Go to the basement,” but there aren’t a lot of basements because of the land, right?
Fr. John: Do you know, when I first got to Oklahoma, our old location, closer to the middle of downtown, we were about 15 blocks away from downtown, those homes had basements, but all the newer homes do not. Number one, the ground is clay, so it’s really not conducive to build a basement, plus there are problems. People that do have old basements have leaks and things like that. Everything pretty much here is built on a slab, and yet people know it is Tornado Alley, so what they’re doing with all new construction, they’re giving people the option of putting in a storm shelter, which is basically a metal box. They come in, they cut the concrete in your garage, install an eight-feet-deep box, four feet wide. You can fit six to eight people, sitting on planks in there. A lot of people take that option. For older people who can’t get down, there are companies that offer what they call “safe rooms,” which [are] concrete-enforced additions that have no windows. Of course, they’re aboveground, and an F-5 tornado, I mean… It’s not as safe as being underground.
Mr. Maddex: Right. Those winds are so dramatically high.
Fr. John: In new elementary schools, they’re doing shelters, because the inopportune time is yesterday. What do you do? You can’t send a kid home from school if the parents are at work. There are some of these homes that don’t have any shelters, so even the schools that don’t have shelters in-ground, what they try to do here is have hallways that have no windows and have reinforced walls, but as you saw yesterday with Plaza Towers, it just ripped right through the school. That’s what’s sickening. I think that is what has given this feeling of how tragic this was, even though there have been catastrophes that have been more deadly, I think when children are involved it’s just multiplied, because these are just innocent, wonderful children who were just going to school. The teachers who were serving them, and we see that there were teachers that threw their bodies over students.
Mr. Maddex: Fr. John, I really appreciate your talking to us at a time when I know you’re very busy. Our prayers are with all of the people in Oklahoma that are impacted by this, that God will give them comfort in this time of need.
Fr. John: By your prayers, and we want to thank, really—we can’t respond to all the people emailing us, calling us, texting us. We’re doing our best, but we thank them for their prayers, and we ask that you continually pray for these families who have incurred losses, especially losses of life, that they may be granted peace and comfort. God bless you for your work and your ministry in getting the word out, John. We really appreciate it.
Mr. Maddex: Thank you, Fr. John. Fr. John Salem is priest at St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City.
Moore, Oklahoma, is a community of 56,000 people, ten miles south of Oklahoma City, and is bracing for another long, harrowing day. “As long as we’re here, we’re going to hold out hope that we’ll find survivors,” said Trooper Betsy Randolph, who is a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. More than 120 people were being treated at hospitals, including about 50 children. Other search and rescue teams focused their efforts at Plaza Towers Elementary, where the storm ripped off the school’s roof, knocked down walls, and turned the playground into a mass of twisted plastic and metal as students and teachers huddled in hallways and bathrooms. Oklahoma governor Mary Fallon said she watched up close on Monday as rescuers tried to find people in the wreckage of the school.