Oklahoma Tribes Organize Relief Efforts After Tornadoes Tear Across State
Just days after eleven deadly tornadoes plowed across southwest Missouri and central Oklahoma, tribes located within the state of Oklahoma are doing whatever they can to help provide critical support for devastated communities. Their efforts include setting up shelters for displaced families and organizing crews to help with relief and recovery. Almost all are trying to account for their tribal citizens who reside in outlying areas.
According to a statement by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, the storms that began in the second week of April have resulted in an estimated $8.6 million in infrastructure damage and the cost of emergency response. The most devastating of these storms was the ferocious twister that hit the town of Joplin Missouri on May 22. It was followed two days later by a series of smaller, but equally as deadly storms on May 24.
Much of the worst destruction was concentrated in the northeastern portion of the state, a region that is home to eight small tribal communities: the Miami, Ottawa, Eastern Shawnee, Quapaw, Peoria, Modoc, Wyandotte, and Seneca-Cayuga tribes. The area also borders the larger territory of the Cherokee Nation and lies in close proximity to the Choctaw and Osage Nations.
Eastern Shawnee Chief Glenna Wallace said she is deeply distraught and very sad over the lives that have been devastated in the May 22 tornado that touched down in Joplin, Missouri. "Twenty five of our tribal citizens have lost everything in Joplin and twenty of our casino employees have been seriously affected. The Eastern Shawnee Tribe is prepared to do whatever we can to help with the relief efforts," she said.
Wallace says the tribe is calling for supplies for forty patients from two nursing homes in Joplin that were relocated after their facilities were destroyed. "These poor elders had nothing but the clothes on their backs," she said. "They need everything—underwear, socks, shoes, and personal supplies. It’s heartbreaking." The Eastern Shawnee Tribe sent two trucks loaded with supplies from Sam’s Club in Arkansas, and are providing temporary shelter to two families in their cultural center.
"Donations of supplies are great," Wallace said, "but cash donations are desperately needed. ... Our tribe is making a $25,000 donation, and we encourage others to donate as well."
Jack Shadwick of the Modoc Tribe says electrical power outages are a big problem in affected areas. "Generators are needed for power and other supplies for families who have been displaced," he says. "The Modoc Tribe has also donated money to help with the memorial expenses of a family who lost two small children. It’s a terrible situation."
Chris White, Executive Director of Osage Nation Government Affairs, says the tribe is still waiting to hear from their citizens in outlying areas. "According to our registrar, we have nineteen members in Joplin and twenty-nine in other affected areas. We still haven’t made contact with all of them." White says cash donations are urgently needed. "Many of those in affected areas had insurance, and emergency services are supplying clothes, shelter, and food. But it’s going to be a very long haul for these families, so money is most needed."
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by these horrific events," Osage Nation Principal Chief John Red Eagle said in a press release. "We felt it was our duty as a Nation to provide assistance for our tribal members residing in both the Oklahoma City and Joplin areas who may need help in these trying times."
The Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in close proximity to the disaster site. They report serious damage in the communities of Zena, Butler, West Siloam Springs, and Cleora, where large trees were uprooted, power outages were widespread, and much property was damaged in the tornadoes that touched down on May 24.
Cherokee Nation Emergency Management immediately sent crews and heavy equipment to Delaware County to clear debris from roads to allow access to affected homes and downed power lines. Cherokee Nation Human Services advocates are working with storm victims, and the Nation has also sent supplies, water, and food to affected areas. Cherokee Nation Marshal Service officers were also dispatched the night of the storm to assist Delaware County emergency personnel with recovery efforts.
They are also assisting in Joplin, just one hour north of the Cherokee Nation. Students and instructors were sent from the Cherokee Talking Leaves Job Corps and Health Occupation Trade program to assist with medical and other relief efforts. Furthermore, the Cherokee Nation is a collection point for supply donations from the public, and is collecting and distributing toiletries, water, diapers, baby formula, batteries, and other necessities. Several members of the Marshal Service are also helping with the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts in Joplin.
"We have resources available to assist at the request of either the state emergency management or the county emergency management teams," Cherokee Nation Management Resources group leader Angela Drewes said in a statement issued on May 25. "Cherokee Nation Emergency Management continues to work in the Delaware County area at the request of Delaware County Emergency Management."
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is also providing disaster relief. According to Larissa Copeland, Assistant Editor of the tribe’s newspaper, Biskinik, "The storm also affected 237 homes in the small town in southeastern Oklahoma. Of the homes affected, 33 will need repairs, 47 will need major repairs before they will be livable, and—truly heartbreaking—149 were completely destroyed. Only 42 percent were covered by insurance, leaving many families in Tushka wondering what to do next."
The Choctaw Nation had already been working in the town of Tushka ever since a violent tornado struck the area about nine weeks ago. On April 14, the tribe’s emergency crews rushed in to offer assistance after the storm which killed two and injured twenty five. "In the first 24 hours alone, the Choctaw Nation served more than 1,000 meals,” Copeland reported in a written statement. “Volunteers were giving out approximately 1,200 hamburgers and hot dogs each day the week after the storm," Copeland says. Through an Incident Command Center located at the Tushka Baptist Church, the Nation distributed food and water, and sent out crews to help clear roadways. The Tushka School, which was completely destroyed, has become a special project for the tribe, and they are working together with nine school districts in southeastern Oklahoma to help them rebuild.
"Students and faculty from neighboring schools organized a penny drive, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has pledged to match up to $10,000 brought in by the students in the fundraiser," Copeland wrote. "The schools that are participating in the penny drive are Krebs, Hartshorne, Pittsburg, Savanna, Kiowa, Lakewood, Indianola, Crowder, and Canadian.” During the first two weeks of the penny drive, which ended May 4, students at one elementary school had already collected $6,009.14. Anyone wishing to donate may still do so by contacting the administrative offices of any of the schools listed.
Chickasaw Lighthorse Police officers responded to calls for assistance during the storm on May 24th in the Newcastle, Blanchard and Dibble areas, and Chickasaw Rangers acted as storm spotters to provide information to a variety of emergency response teams. The tribe sent teams to assist Newcastle Police officers with clean up efforts. The Chickasaw Nation also provided generators, lights and gasoline to assist residents in Washington, Oklahoma, another area ravaged by the storm. They are continuing to participate in the ongoing cleanup efforts.
Finally, the Muscogee Creek Nation Emergency Response Team & Arbor Care are assisting the State of Oklahoma Emergency Management team with cleanup in Cleora, Oklahoma, near Grand Lake, where scores of homes and businesses were damaged by the deadly twister. Equipped with Arbor Care Service Trucks, chippers, chain saws, pole saws, chains and an Emergency Response Team trailer, they are clearing roadways, brush, broken trees, and rubble.
"Our team is very dedicated to helping the citizens of the Muscogee Creek Nation and all citizens who live within our jurisdiction," said James Nichols, Muscogee Creek Emergency Manager. "Our goal is to respond in a timely manner to any and all disasters or emergencies that affect our Tribal Citizens as well as respond when requested by other agencies. Oklahoma has been prone to severe weather and at this time of the year we are gearing up to face it head on, and as good neighbors we want to show our generosity by going beyond our jurisdiction."
According to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, Oklahoma has already recorded sixty-three tornadoes so far this year, and more severe weather is expected. They caution that although tornados strike most often during this time of the year, they can develop at any time. The Weather Service rated the Joplin Missouri tornado as an EF-5, with an estimated wind speed in excess of 200 mph, and three of the Oklahoma twisters were rated as EF-4s. Authorities say that an EF-4 generally has wind speeds of 160 – 200 mph. Together the tornadoes killed over 140 people, left towns in ruins, and thousands homeless.