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Dr. David Whitlock, pastor at Lebanon Baptist Church, watched national news coverage closely last Monday, as events unfolded from the tornado that ripped through the town of Moore, Okla., and surrounding areas, killing more than 50 people. The coverage included the well-publicized disaster at Plaza Towers Elementary School.
Actually, we all watched. Whitlock felt it.
Whitlock is a native of Altus, Okla. (two-and-a-half hours southwest of Oklahoma City), where he lived until he left for college when he was about 18. He and his wife, Lori, still have several family members and friends in the area. While the Whitlocks’ loved ones are OK, some of them were certainly at risk when the storm came through.
Lori’s sister, Lisa Suriano, is a resident of Moore, and can claim to have been within two miles of three major tornadoes that have rampaged through the area.
“She’s been within a couple miles of those tornadoes every time,” David said. “I think this last tornado came within about a half a mile of her house. It was really close and made a turn to spare her house, although one of her friends a mile or two away lost her home.”
David’s brother, Mark, of Altus, just happened to be in Oklahoma City last Monday with his wife for medical tests when the storm developed.
“Of all days, they were in Oklahoma City that afternoon, and they had to be evacuated down to the basement part of the hospital,” David said.
Cellular towers were impacted by the storm, so communicating with those in Oklahoma was difficult for the Whitlocks, and David wasn’t able to get in touch with his brother until that evening. They were able, however, to reach Lori’s parents in a nearby town that wasn’t in the direct path of the twister.
A surreal moment for the pastor was when he heard that a mother and her children had rushed to a 7/11 gas station near Lisa’s home in search of safety, only for the building to be destroyed, killing those inside. David recalled trips to the store to buy coffee on his visits to Oklahoma, and congregating with those inside.
“It’s emotional because we know that area, and we know those people,” David said. “We just paused and prayed off and on throughout the whole thing. Just watching that on TV, when you see that unfolding before your eyes, you feel removed from it in a sense, and then all of a sudden it just grabs you. It did that for me. You just get emotional and tears come to your eyes, because you know the pain they’re going through and those poor parents waiting for their kids at that elementary school.”
Having grown up in “Tornado Alley,” David has seen his share of bad storms, including a tornado that hit Wichita Falls in the late 1970s. While last week’s tornado was on a scale that not even Oklahomans are accustomed to, he pointed out that they’ve been in similar situations before and said they’ll bounce back once again.
“I grew up with it, so I kind of understand what’s going on in the minds of those people,” he said. “They pull together. They’re resilient. They’re Oklahomans. They’ve experienced that pain, but they’ll pull together and they’ll come back.”
Already, those in Oklahoma have begun to put the pieces back together and to look for signs of hope in a terrible situation. This tragedy has led to as many heart-warming stories as any in recent memory, and that includes the dying wish of the mother of one of Lisa’s friends.
“Her mother had cancer and knew she wasn’t going to make it, so she got her daughter’s wedding gifts, so they could open them when it was time,” David said. “When that tornado struck, it destroyed every part of the house except that little room, and those gifts hadn’t even been touched.”
The 11-year-old son of another of Lisa’s friends may have provided more insight to the Oklahoman mentality through all of this than anyone. The youngster, who understandably has a tremendous fear of tornadoes, didn’t want to go down in the cellar prior to the storm’s arrival. Once he did, the family listened as the tornado destroyed their home above them. When the commotion ended, they stepped out and found nothing but destruction where their home had been, but the boy looked up and assured his father that all was not lost.
“I conquered my fear,” he said.
Many organizations are providing relief efforts in Oklahoma. Whitlock included the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma among those that are dedicating their time and resources. To find out more about their cause and how to provide assistance, visit www.okdisasterhelp.com.