USA (MNN) — A massive EF5 (Enhanced Fujita Scale) tornado carved a trail of destruction in the afternoon hours of May 20.
The twister with winds nearing 200 mph struck Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, staying on the ground for 40 minutes and leaving a path up to a mile wide and 20 miles long. In its wake, entire neighborhoods and two elementary schools were leveled and pulverized into rubble.
Search and rescue efforts are expected to be hampered by more severe weather in the forecast this week for parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, already reeling from powerful storms.
Tuesday morning, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office confirmed 24 dead. While the death toll was expected to increase, there was no way to know by how much. Hundreds were injured, many of them children who survived the collapse of their school buildings.
President Obama declared the area a federal disaster and sent his top emergency management official to survey the damage. He also ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Meanwhile, ReachGlobal Crisis Response director Mark Lewis says, in trying to begin planning a response, they've been talking to state authorities as well as with the Oklahoma Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). "They believe that with the National Guard and the other resources that are there, they want to allow those resources to take care of the immediate needs, then let a good, healthy assessment be done and determine when people are needed, where they're needed, and how they're needed, versus flooding the area."
Essentially, they're telling people to hold back until they get a grip on the scope of the problem. "They have communicated to all of the response entities within the U.S.: 'Please do not send any supplies, please do not send anything other than certified assessment teams (as ours would be), and please do start the process of raising money."
Lewis also says that with spotty communications, they'll have to be on the ground to contact partners. "We've been trying to reach out to a number of local church contacts that we have in the area. We have one of our Evangelical Free Churches that is located in the region, so we've been trying to double-check what the status is with that church body."
ReachGlobal is already pulling together an experienced assessment team, Lewis adds. "We're tentatively looking to be on the ground sometime at the end of the week, Thursday (or) Friday, for several days, to get a look at things ourselves, to start connecting with partners and getting a clearer view of ‘what is the best way for us to respond?'"
However, acknowledging that people want to help in some way now while they're waiting for the official assessment to be completed, Lewis is urging believers to be praying.
There are still scars remaining from an EF5 tornado that roared down the same trail in 1999. "It's really where our efforts have been, initially, just really thinking about the human impact that this kind of a thing has. Just from past experience, knowing that those things are painful and they go deep, and they really have a long-term pain that goes along with that."
More importantly, Lewis says, "The other prayer item is just that hope would be presented through Jesus through the presence of the body in just incarnational and intangible ways."