Elder Rasband Brings Comfort to “Tornado Alley” Members

  By Beth M. Stephenson, Church News contributor

  • 10 June 2013

Elder Ronald A. Rasband surveys some of the devastation caused by deadly tornadoes that hit Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, during the end of May and first part of June.  Photos by Randy Lusk.

Article Highlights

  • Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Presidency of the Seventy visited Oklahoma City and carried a personal message for the Saints from President Thomas S. Monson.
  • Elder Rasband addressed the full-time missionaries in the Oklahoma Oklahoma City Mission.
  • There were 2,500 Mormon Helping Hands volunteers who served after the tornado.

“First, tell them I love them. Second, tell them I am praying for them. Third, please thank all those who are helping.”
—President Thomas S. Monson

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Presidency of the Seventy landed on May 31, 2013, in tornado-ravaged Oklahoma City eager to learn stories of faith and service and to minister to those in need. Elder Rasband also carried a personal message for the Saints from President Thomas S. Monson.

Elder Rasband was particularly eager to meet Maylene Sorrels. Sister Sorrels had been at work as a kindergarten teacher’s aide at Plaza Towers Elementary when the category 5 tornado—the most destructive rank possible—demolished the school on May 20. She, with the kindergarten teacher, covered their students with their bodies. Though both women received injuries, no one else from the class was hurt. “When we heard the tornado coming close, I just prayed and prayed that my children (some of whom were also in the path of the storm) and the children we were protecting would be all right,” she said. “The Lord hears prayers. Prayers are answered.” Sister Sorrels’s home was badly damaged, but all of her family and the children with her were safe.

Elder Michael L. Southward, Area Seventy, had arranged with Bishop Randy Widdison of the Moore 1st Ward, Oklahoma City Oklahoma South Stake, to plan a tour for Elder Rasband that included the members most profoundly affected by the tornadoes. They had planned to make a couple of visits on Friday night, but the skies began to churn in the early afternoon, and the changeable Oklahoma weather gave Elder Rasband a firsthand sample of what it’s like to live in Tornado Alley.

Forecasters warned that the hot, wet air from the Gulf of Mexico would meet snow-chilled air from the Rockies right over Oklahoma City. It was the third time such conditions had combined in 10 days. Storm watches were changed to warnings. An ominous storm cell began to rotate. Bishop Widdison interrupted Elder Rasband and Elder Southward’s dinner, saying, “We have to get out of here. There’s a storm bearing down on us from the west.”

“Do we have time to bag up our meals?” Elder Rasband asked.

“Only if you hurry!” Bishop Widdison answered. Moments later, the visiting dignitaries packed into the bishop’s car; Randy Lusk from the Oklahoma City 2nd Ward, who had been invited to take pictures, was also in the car.

Storms in Oklahoma invariably move from southwest to northeast. The evening appointments were quickly canceled. Sister Sorrels agreed to meet them instead, to the south at their stake center. Elder Rasband wanted to buy dinner for the Sorrels, so they stopped at a fast food restaurant along the way. 

Brother Lusk explained that he has lived in Oklahoma all of his life. “As a kid, we lost our house to a tornado and we were damaged in the May 3, 1999, storm, but this tornado did something they just never do. It took a sharp right turn and headed due south. It was like it was chasing us!”

Brother Lusk already noticed the unusual ways the Lord had protected the Saints. A funeral for a sister in the Moore 2nd Ward had been scheduled for the afternoon of May 20. When Brother Lusk arrived, the skies were already lowering and taking on the greenish tinge that accompanies a tornado. “Why are we doing this now?” he wondered. But the ward members gathered and the funeral went forward. As Helen Porteck mourned the loss of her daughter at the stake center, her home was destroyed by the storm. “Had the funeral been at a different time, many of the members would have been in their ruined homes,” she said.

As the car fled south that drenching Friday night, gridlocked traffic trapped both the Sorrels family and the visitors’ cars. 

Rather than dining at a table with Elder Rasband, Brother Lusk passed chicken sandwiches through the windows as they paused in their flight. The storm turned back into its original trajectory just before it reached the visiting authorities or the Sorrels family.

As of June 5, the death toll from the spate of tornadoes on May 20 was listed at 24. Twenty more people died in the May 31 storms; several drowned in the floods that followed the tornadoes. Some homes in the Moore 1st Ward that had escaped damage in the May 20 storm were damaged 11 days later.

The National Weather Service announced that the May 31 tornado was an EF5 with winds reaching 295 mph and that the twister’s 2.6-mile width is the widest ever recorded.

Saturday, June 1, dawned still and cool. At last Elder Rasband could begin to deliver his message by addressing the full-time missionaries in the Oklahoma Oklahoma City Mission. 

“President Monson asked me to share three things with you. ‘First,’ he said, ‘tell them I love them. Second, tell them I am praying for them. Third, please thank all those who are helping.’”

U.S. Congressman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) also addressed the yellow T-shirt-clad army of missionaries turned storm helpers. Congressman Cole’s website begs the nation, “Pray for Oklahoma.” 

There are many people donning the yellow Mormon Helping Hands T-shirts and digging into the rubble. Bishop Widdison commented, “I’ve always heard of becoming a Zion people, of becoming of one heart and mind. But I’ve never seen such a Zion-esque people, where we’re all working together to help and comfort each other. Though my home wasn’t damaged, this happened to all of us, all people who love the Lord from many faiths, and we’ll get through it together.”

Mormon Helping Hands volunteers—numbering 2,500—mixed with a kaleidoscope of other faiths’ colorful T-shirts to bend their backs to help those in need. Many homeowners have reported sorting through mountains of debris, feeling completely overwhelmed, when a group of Mormon Helping Hands volunteers joined them. One owner reported, “They did in one hour what it would have taken us weeks to do. They even left us their phone numbers so we could call them for help when [officials] will let us clean the inside of the house. I will be forever grateful to them. They were a life saver.”

Very early Sunday morning, worshippers, dressed in their Helping Hands garb, gathered to take the sacrament. Elder Southward echoed the concept of a living, vital faith. “You have obtained your errand this morning from the Lord: to succor the weak, to lift up the hands that hang down, and to strengthen the feeble knees. You have arisen early and you’ll go home late, but you’ll be refreshed and renewed as you have served here today. You will have been in the service of our Father in Heaven as you are in the service of His children.”

Sacrament meeting was 35 minutes, and then the Saints surged out to live their religion with the might of their muscles. 

Glenn Orr, who was president of the Idaho Pocatello Mission from 1994 to 1997, owns Orr Family Farms in Moore, a popular tourist attraction with fun things for school field trips and parties. More than half of the farm’s 80 horses were killed when the barns and stables collapsed. The storm razed nearly all the facilities in a matter of a few minutes, yet Brother Orr expressed his gratitude for all those helpers who had surged in like ministering angels to do whatever could be done to help.  Standing in his front yard and pointing to the devastation, he said to Elder Rasband, “We are going to rebuild!” 

Falyn Crawford of the Quail Creek Ward in the Oklahoma City Oklahoma Stake, posted this Facebook tribute: “I would like to nominate my mother, Sherri Crawford, [as an example of extraordinary service and kindness]. As an ER nurse, she heard that response personnel were needed and she went to Moore right away to help in the search and rescue. Krystie Seda came over to take care of us while she was gone and didn’t expect any payment. My mother didn’t come home until after two in the morning.”

As darkness fell on the devastated scene, another team of members saw a need they could fill. Jon Eve has developed light towers that are equipped with powerful lights, generators, and a large portable water tank. Ordinarily, he rents them to oil companies for use in oil fields. As night came and many people were still missing, he found three towers available and moved into action. With the help of Perry Taylor (both are in the Quail Creek Ward) from Pilot Logistics Services, he supplied first responders with 6,000 gallons of fuel and plenty of drinking water many hours before government agencies could supply the needs of the searchers.

Saturday morning, Elder Rasband and Elder Southward enjoyed a much calmer visit with Maylene Sorrels’s family in Bishop Widdison’s office. They heard the story of how Victoria Sorrels, a fifth grader at Plaza Towers Elementary, was trapped in a restroom with several of her friends. She helped them take cover and then get out from under the debris.

Before they parted, Elder Rasband and the brethren with him offered each member of the family a priesthood blessing. When Victoria’s turn came, Elder Rasband told her, “You should always remember this day when a servant of the Lord laid his hands on your head and told you that you were protected by angels that day.”