Pottawatomie County community receives nontraditional tornado relief

by Randy Ellis and Phillip O'Connor Published: July 21, 2013

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.

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by Randy Ellis
Capitol Bureau Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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