BETHEL ACRES — Drive in to the tornado-ravaged Steelman Estates mobile home community these days and you're likely to be met by a bearded biker from a coalition of motorcycle riders in charge of handing out emergency supplies.
A bit further down the road you may see a 38-year-old Texas woman who says she was called here by a vision from God to build houses for tornado victims.
Sprinkled throughout are people living in campers and tents, some of whose origins are uncertain and whose intentions, locals say, remain unclear.
Rest assured, some tornado relief of the traditional variety has arrived in this isolated pocket of Pottawatomie County via the Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency and others. But the largely poor community also is relying on a patchwork of nontraditional sources for assistance.
A coalition of bikers called the US Defenders might sound like an unlikely group to be providing assistance, but some tornado victims say they have been among the most dedicated helpers.
‘They've been great'
It's been two months since a powerful May 19 tornado shredded this mobile home community located amid rolling hills near Bethel Acres, a few miles west of Shawnee. Displaced residents say many church groups and charitable organizations have come and gone, handing out gift cards and helping haul debris, but the bikers have stayed.
“They've been great people,” said David Marshall, 68, who lost his mobile home in the tornado. Marshall has a number of children and grandchildren in the community whose mobile homes also were destroyed.
Food donations have poured into the community from area churches, the Food Bank and individuals. The bikers have collected that food and daily turned it into hot meals for families working to recover from the storm.
Bikers have organized other donated items into a free commissary where residents can come and pick up what they need, said Stick Keiner, Oklahoma commander of the US Defenders. When they don't have a needed item, they send out a specific request for it on the Internet, he said.
Also creating a stir in the devastated community is Tonia Allen, director of a tiny nonprofit agency operating out of Texas called God's Hand Ups-IGLM, who said she felt compelled to act after seeing families living in tents.
“I had a vision from God and I said, ‘I really think these families should have houses,'” Allen said. “They've lost so much and most of them didn't have insurance, so I don't think they should have mortgages.”
Allen admits she doesn't know much about building houses and her nonprofit agency has no resources.
“I don't know how to build anything,” she said. “I know how to get people to do what needs to be done and I know how to coordinate.”
Allen said she spends her time soliciting donated materials and organizing volunteer church groups into work crews who can work with a contractor and licensed plumbers and electricians to construct homes.
“We don't ask for a whole lot of money. We just need supplies,” she said.
Thursday, a crew from South Estatoe Baptist Church in Burnsville, N.C., was pouring sand to prepare the foundation of what Allen hopes will be the first of many homes.
“Restoration is not just about structural damage, it's about restoring the soul and you can do that though simple compassion, through hope,” she said. “So that's what we're out here doing.”
Some are skeptical, including a private investigator who lives in the community and said she was hired by others there to check out Allen's background.
The investigator, who said she was with Leigh's Investigations but asked that her name not be revealed, urged people to be cautious.
“I hope she is doing right by these people,” the investigator said.
Community residents say help has come piecemeal.
Marshall said he was uninsured and FEMA gave him $30,000 to help replace his mobile home.
He said the Red Cross gave him $1,000 to help with two water wells that cost him $8,000.
The American Legion gave him $1,000 and the Disabled American Veterans gave him $500. He was also given new glasses by Veterans Affairs and a handful of gift cards ranging from $25 to $100 by various church groups.
“That sounds like I sandbagged a lot of money,” he said apologetically, but said his losses were probably between $75,000 and $90,000.
“It goes pretty quick,” he said.
Marshall said his daughter used FEMA money to buy a damaged brick home in the community that his family has been living in while making repairs.
‘They stepped up to the plate'
Jerry and Cecilia Breedlove, who will soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, lost two mobile homes in the tornado, including their residence.
Jerry, 71, said FEMA turned them down for grant assistance because they had insurance. They were offered a low interest loan, but at this stage in their lives, Cecilia said “we're not into payments.”
The couple quickly located a fully furnished home to rent.
“I'll have to say the Red Cross was Johnny-on-the-spot,” Jerry said. “They stepped up to the plate right away. … They paid our deposit and first month's rent.”
Kristina Miller, who lives in Steelman Estates with her 11-year-old son, said she was uninsured and FEMA initially gave her $8,800 to repair her tornado-damaged mobile home, but later added $1,700 more.
However, having lived through a tornado, Miller said she's not anxious to get back into a repaired mobile home.
Miller said Tonia Allen's group has placed her third on the list for a new frame house, so she hopes it works out.