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Severe and dangerous weather impacts multiple PC(USA) presbyteries in recent weeks

Partnerships and preparedness help communities cope and address various needs

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Buildings damaged in Claremore, Oklahoma, include the First Presbyterian Church of Claremore’s garage. The church plans to hold an outdoor service, in the style of its first worship in 1882, before the church had a building with electricity, on Sunday, June 2. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The last several weeks have been a very active period of severe weather in the United States, highlighting the need for church and community preparedness and the importance of partnerships and collaboration to bounce back from and potentially lessen the impact of disasters, such as tornadoes and flooding.

From Memorial Day weekend storms that damaged churches in Arkansas and wreaked havoc in some other states as well to predictions of an above-normal hurricane season, there are plenty of reasons to be alert and proactive going forward.

“This is the time for us to work on our preparedness as individuals, as congregations, as communities,” said the Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell, director of the Synod (of the Sun) Partnership for Disaster Recovery (SPDR).

For example, are you familiar with the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) that cover your area? “This is the time to build those relationships, to know where your vulnerable community members are, to know which community partners respond when there is a need for food, when there’s a need for shelter,” Lee-Cornell said, “because if you want to participate in that, it’s so much easier to participate when you know who those partners are before the event happens. …  If you can do a little bit of that preliminary work before a disaster happens, then when a disaster does happen, you know how to participate around the table and coordinate with people who are responding.”

The Rev. Kathy Lee-Cornell

Lee-Cornell assumed her current role about two years ago, leading the partnership that helps to coordinate disaster response in her synod, which includes Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The Synod of the Sun’s partnership is one of four such regional networks supported by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). The others are the South Carolina Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team, the Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network and the PDA Disaster Recovery Network in Puerto Rico.

“In the last two weeks. I’ve been in communication with all four of the partnerships,” said the Rev. James Kirk, Associate for National Disaster Response for PDA. “There was flooding in Puerto Rico, and there was severe weather that impacted Florida and South Carolina. In fact, PDA did award an initial assistance grant to Providence (South Carolina) Presbytery to help respond to damage there from a recent bout of bad weather.”

Synod of the Sun includes 11 presbyteries and has experienced everything this year from January wildfires in west Texas to recent tornadoes. As director of the partnership, Lee-Cornell acts as the “connective tissue,” she said. That means she helps to build local capacity during non-emergency or “blue-sky” times and is the central point of contact during active disasters, Kirk said.

Last year after a tornado, a pastor told Lee-Cornell, “I don’t even know where to begin.” Lee-Cornell replied, “That’s what we’re here for; we know where to go, so let’s talk you through your questions about how to support your community. I know where our PDA people are, and I also know where the synod folks are, and I try to utilize them to the best of my ability across the synod.”

For example, the partnership has helped facilitate the delivery of buckets from one place to another to help with clean-up from flooding and has responded to a request to help locate Spanish-speaking volunteers for a cleanup request hotline.

“With the partnership, we just have more local engagement,” Kirk said, adding that the partnership is a “very tangible example” of how the PC(USA) is a connectional church.

During the week of June 3, Lee-Cornell and a PDA National Response Team (NRT) member will go to Sulphur, Oklahoma, where the community is trying to recover from tornado damage that occurred in late April. At least four people were killed and about 300 injured by storms that touched multiple counties, including Murray, where Sulphur is located, the weekend of April 27, according to a May 1 news release from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office.

Significant damage to structures in downtown Sulphur, Oklahoma following late April tornado damage. (Photo courtesy of Wikiwillz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The town took a direct hit,” Lee-Cornell said. “The church is intact, but it’s such a small town everybody knows somebody who was impacted. … When I talked to them last week, they said they finally were able to get through town by car.”

An initial assistance grant from PDA has been awarded to Indian Nations Presbytery to address needs in the area. “The initial assistance grant is to help with the unmet needs of the community,” Kirk said, the purpose being to help affected community members.

Lee-Cornell and the NRT member will meet with the Rev. Charlie Smith, Presbytery Pastor of Indian Nations Presbytery, and the congregation of Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church to discuss next steps.

“The church has a team that’s been meeting regularly and tracking their donations,” Lee-Cornell said. “We’re just going to listen to what their ideas are, share some wisdom we might have from some other experiences and really bless them and guide them and support them as they endeavor to bring support to their neighbors.”

Much of the Synod of the Sun has been impacted by storms. Over the holiday weekend, there were several presbyteries, including Grace Presbytery, Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and the Presbytery of Arkansas, that experienced severe weather.

Two churches in Arkansas — First Presbyterian Church of Bentonville and the First Presbyterian Church of Rogers — and their communities were impacted by tornadoes, Lee-Cornell said. There have been some service disruptions, and the steeple of the Rogers church was left leaning.

The Rev. John Arnold (Screenshot)

In a Facebook video, the Rev. John Arnold said the Rogers church, which he pastors, would be displaced to a fellowship hall until the steeple can be repaired. He also noted that the church had sustained some flooding and shingle loss and that some members’ homes had taken “heavy hits.” He is grateful, however, for an outpouring of concern. “You don’t realize how loved you are until you go through a crisis and people come out of the woodwork and want to know if you’re OK.”

Recently, there’s also been flooding in southeast Texas (Presbytery of the New Covenant) that affected small towns east of Houston and straight-line winds hit Houston, breaking windows in skyscrapers and causing power outages, Lee-Cornell said.

Elsewhere in the country, PDA is providing an initial assistant grant and deployment to the Presbytery of Missouri River Valley in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa due to tornadic weather about a month ago, Kirk said. Such needs may include gift cards, gas cards, food, temporary shelter and temporary home repairs.

Lee-Cornell encourages people who want to help communities impacted by storms to give generously to either One Great Hour of Sharing or PDA’s designated funds.

“All of that money that you give goes to the presbyteries, who are supporting congregations and communities, and none of that money is limited to Presbyterians,” she said. “All of that money is available to anybody impacted by disasters.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. You can support PDA’s response to storms by designating gifts to DR000200.

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