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Oklahoma tornadoes: Pecan Valley residents struggle to recover

More than 200 homes were damaged or destroyed by a tornado that tore through east Norman, Pecan Valley and the Newalla area on Sunday. Many residents are left struggling to survive.
by Jane Glenn Cannon Published: May 24, 2013
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— Terry DeSpain spends his nights beneath a three-sided, jerry-rigged tarp where his 70-foot mobile home used to stand. He and his dogs sleep under the stars to keep looters at bay.

A kind stranger paid for a week's stay at a Norman motel for DeSpain's wife, Shalan, and the couple's sons, Trevor, 14, and T.J., 6.

The family has been homeless since Sunday, when a tornado tore a path from rural Norman near Lake Thunderbird through Pecan Valley before hop-scotching to Bethel Acres in Pottawatomie County.

More than 200 homes in the Little Axe/Pecan Valley area were damaged or destroyed, said Little Axe Police Chief Brad Jackson.

The DeSpains' home and belongings are mangled, shredded, twisted, strewn and mingled with the ruins of the other homes of people who live — or lived — on Valley View Road in Pecan Valley.

“I can't tell where our belongings stop and someone else's starts,” DeSpain said. “We're just going through it every day, trying to sort it out and salvage anything we can.”

Both DeSpain and his wife recently lost their jobs.

Now, they've lost their home and belongings.

“I'm doing OK with it, but I think my wife and especially my 6-year-old son are having a much harder time accepting what has happened,” Terry DeSpain said. “If it were up to me, I'd be tempted to torch everything and then start over. But my wife wants us to keep trying to find and save stuff.”

On Thursday, Oklahoma Baptist University students Patiance Villa and Alex Smith helped the DeSpains wade through the rubble, pulling out salvageable bits: a dinosaur toy, a birthday card to T.J. from his grandmother, a dish, a broken but usable flower pot with a newly planted flower still in it.

Much of what Villa and Smith collected was fit only for a bonfire: shingles, shreds of insulation, soggy paper, damaged shards of furniture and broken figurines.

‘Heroes'

Terry DeSpain said he was at a Little Axe gas station on Wednesday when the two OBU students came up to him and asked if he needed help.

“They followed me back to my property and spent the day working like dogs, helping us clean up. And then today (Thursday), they were back again, hard at it. I tell you, those two are heroes,” Terry DeSpain said.

While he was talking to the students, Sandy Newman from Little Axe Elementary School drove up. She and others from the school were there to deliver water and check on T.J., one of their students.

Crisis workers from the Absentee Shawnee Tribe Resource Center on 156th Avenue NE, near Franklin Road, showed up a short time later.

Carla Steely said she and other volunteers are preparing food daily and delivering it to many of the homeless families throughout Pecan Valley.

“You know, they lost their homes and their vehicles, so they don't even have a way to get to a shelter to get food. We're delivering the food to them,” Steely said.

Looters, lessons

Steely said looting also has proved to be a problem.

“Many of the families have told me that any time they've left their property, they've come back to find stuff gone,” she said.

DeWayne Vinson, a volunteer with Church with No Walls, said he came across two men stripping copper wiring off items on one man's property.

“I said to them, ‘Are you scrappin'? Really? You're stealing from people who have already lost everything?'” Vinson said.

DeSpain said he ran off two men who approached his property Wednesday night, “but I'm not sure they were coming up here to loot. I think they were just young people out looking at damage out of curiosity.”

When the tornado hit, DeSpain and his family, as well as one other family, took refuge in a storm shelter on his property.

“As soon as it passed, I peeked out and saw what it had done. I just sat down and told the others, ‘don't look,'” he said.

Within seconds, however, they all rushed from the shelter because they heard other neighbors screaming for help.

DeSpain helped dig out Keith Anderson, who was “buried up to his neck” in rubble, along with his son, Travis. Anderson later held a press conference from his bed at Norman Regional Hospital to warn others to “get a storm shelter. It'll save your life.”

Trying to move on

On Cottonwood Court, about a half-mile from Valley Ridge Road, Danny and Brenda Church worked Thursday to pack up and salvage what belongings they could find from their three-bedroom home.

“There's not much left,” Danny Church said. “Basically, it just lifted the house off its foundation and threw it down again over there.”

Piles of twisted wood lay against mangled trees. The foundation looked swept clean, with clearly defined areas of tile in between soggy carpet where a living room used to be.

“This house was beautiful,” said Brenda Church. “We had hardwood floors over here, carpet there, and cabinets in the kitchen, lots of cabinets. Now there's nothing.”

The Churches' daughter, Cheyenne Wiley, graduated from Little Axe High School on Tuesday.

“A friend came and took me and my mom to town to buy something to wear and to get makeup. We didn't have anything. My cap and gown, everything, was gone,” Cheyenne said.

Brenda Church said she was working in the yard when the tornado hit, “so I was wearing a tank top and shorts. That's all I ended up with.”

Cheyenne and the Churches' son, Cory, were not at home Sunday when the tornado hit. The couple were there with their two dogs, one of which had just given birth to nine puppies.

“When Danny said it's going to storm and we need to leave, I told him no, I would not leave without the puppies. So, he found a box for the puppies, and we loaded up the dogs and left,” Brenda Church said.

After the storm passed, Brenda Church texted a neighbor and asked if it was safe to return home.

“She texted me back, saying, ‘You don't have a home anymore. It's gone.'”

Brenda Church said her heart goes out to the people of Moore, many who lost loved ones, including their children.

“I know we only lost stuff, but it's still devastating. And with what happened in Moore, all the attention is there, but we can't help but feel we've been forgotten. We're on our own out here.”

Danny Church said they were on a “lease-to-own” arrangement in their house and have no insurance to cover the loss of their belongings.

“What you see is what we've got left, and it isn't much,” he said.

by Jane Glenn Cannon
Senior Reporter
A native of Oklahoma, Jane Glenn Cannon is an award-winning reporter who has covered everything from crime, courts and government to entertainment and features. She wrote a popular personal column for many years. She is a former associate writer...
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