Local man helps Oklahoma tornado recovery efforts
More than a month ago, Moore, Oklahoma, was a quiet, peaceful community.
In May 1999, an F-5 tornado had hit hard, but the citizens regrouped and rebuilt.
According to the National Weather Service, the infamous “Tornado Alley” runs right through Moore, so on May 20, 2013, when a rare EF-5 tornado headed their way, the citizens listened intently to instructions.
They had only 16 minutes to prepare as local weather forecasters urged, “Go to a safe place immediately. If you are not below ground now, you will not survive.”
Even employees at the nearby Storm Prediction Center in Norman were forced to take shelter as the tornado moved through and wreaked havoc.
Even though many had underground shelters, this tornado cut a path of destruction that was 16.2 miles long and 2.6 miles wide, claiming 24 lives and causing mayhem for many others. Winds of 200 mph were recorded, and little was left of homes, businesses and schools.
When the majority of Moore citizens returned above ground after the storm, they were overwhelmed to see mostly concrete slabs and piles of debris where their homes or businesses had stood only minutes before.
As parents rushed to Plaza Towers Elementary School, even though teachers had courageously covered students with their own bodies, they learned that seven children had not survived. Numerous other children, teachers and citizens were wounded and hospitalized.
More than 850 miles to the southeast, retired Salvation Army Officer Larry Repass of Coweta County watched the reports on television and knew he had to help the survivors.
The Oklahoma City Salvation Army acted immediately by sending canteens, which are mobile feeding stations, to Moore. Food, cold water, prayer and compassion were made available for the victims. They coordinated with other groups of the Salvation Army through an Incident Command Station. Repass arrived in Moore the day after the tornado hit, and was teamed with Jim Kegal and Ross Edminster from New Bedford, Massachusetts.
One of the first things Repass and his team saw in the midst of the rubble was the taped-off area of where the elementary school had stood. Already a memorial had been set up at the very edge with a cross, flowers and gifts in memory of those lost children and others.
For them, it was heartbreaking to witness the results of the tragedy. Then they noticed their canteen sign, which stated, “We combat natural disasters with acts of God.” This reiterated to Larry, Jim and Ross that they were where God wanted them to be, to assist these people in need.
Repass and his wife, Evelyn, retired six years ago and moved to Newnan from Mexico. Both had been Salvation Army officers and served together as missionaries since 1967.
During their 41-year ministry, they served in eight different countries in South and Central America: Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico, where they spent their last eight years of full-time ministry.
When Larry and Evelyn retired to Newnan, they met Stephanie May, director of the Salvation Army Social Service Center for Coweta County. May was conducting seminars that focused on disaster relief.
Accustomed to being active and ministering to people’s needs, the Repasses signed up for several seminars. One in particular they enjoyed was “Emotional and Spiritual Care,” part of the Critical Incident Stress Management training. Little did Larry know when he took this course that he was being prepared for helping others involved in such a major disaster.
While in Moore, Larry and his team were anxious to help the Moore community not only with tangible needs, but spiritual needs.
“The main thrust of my team’s service was to listen to victims as they shared what happened to them, to offer sympathy as well as give information to get them help, and to pray with those who would allow us to,” he said.
His team was sometimes part of the canteen crew that moved about the affected areas. Other times they were stationed near a Multi-Agency Relief Center (MARC), where families were offered different kinds of aid by various organizations.
It was heartwarming for Larry to see many organizations in addition to his Salvation Army teams reaching out to give assistance in Moore. “There were so many that I may forget a few. Dell and AT&T were offering free phone service since so many were without electricity. Samaritan’s Purse, Gideons, Mennonites, Buddhist, Mormon, Food Bank representatives, and many more were doing all they could to help,” he said.
“Southern Baptist groups prepared and cooked all the meals that were distributed by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army,” Repass added.
After hearing more than once that someone was afraid to sleep at night, Repass began to include in his verbal prayers, “Lord, since You will be awake and watching over them, give them a good night’s rest. There’s no sense in all of us staying awake and worrying.” Several people returned to Larry the following morning to report they had enjoyed a good night’s rest.
Salvation Army relief teams are generally deployed for a maximum of two weeks while other volunteers replace them after the fortnight. Traditionally, there are days of overlapping to give the new teams orientation.
Ten days after Larry’s arrival, on May 31, another tornado burst into Moore. Hours of heavy rain resulted in serious flooding in the area, which brought a new stream of victims looking for relief.
Asked how fearful he may have been during this second tornado, Repass recalled, “Not at all, really. There is no safer place than in God’s Will, and since He called me to be available, I always trusted that He would take care of me.”
One of his colleagues said during the violent storm, “If this is how He wants to take me, I’m ready.”
Now home from Oklahoma, Repass and his wife are volunteers for the Salvation Army Advisory Board of Coweta County. This board is comprised of local professionals who meet monthly to be a sounding board regarding local needs and to reach out to the community, solving whatever problems may exist.
An eclectic group of advisors includes a doctor, a writer, an artist, a military chaplain, a Junior Leaguer and a fireman.
Interestingly, many people who are helped in disasters later volunteer with the Salvation Army. While in Moore, Larry met a volunteer whose home had been destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1990.
The man shared, “I was so touched by how the Salvation Army reached out to my family through Andrew that I wanted to give back by helping others who experienced a disaster.” Anyone interested in serving as a volunteer can contact the local Salvation Army office, located at 670 Jefferson St. in Newnan, by calling 770-251-8181. The website also has information at: www.salvationarmy-georgia.org/.