Cumberland Times-News

June 28, 2013

Head Red Cross chaplain discusses Okla. tornado

Michael A. Sawyers
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — Before Paul Demers began counseling victims of the tornado that hammered Moore, Okla., on May 21, the head American Red Cross chaplain drove him through the most damaged area.

“The hospital was gone,” Demers said. “Homes were destroyed. Trucks were upside down or inside houses. People were walking around, dazed, trying to find some of their possessions. He wanted me to see that so I would know what the people I would counsel had gone through.”

It was June 7, the first of 12 days that Demers’ skills as a chaplain would be needed to help families not only think straight, but work through the daunting task of starting life over, going from table to table to speak with agencies and organizations that could help.

A Cumberland resident, Demers has been a full-time chaplain at Western Correctional Institution since 2009. He also provides those services at Western Maryland Regional Medical Center every Friday beginning at 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Saturdays.

Demers has been a chaplain with the Salvation Army in Toronto and, as such, spent three weeks at the World Trade Center ground zero in Feb. 2002, just months after the twin towers were destroyed in the terrorist attack.

“With 95 percent of the people (in Oklahoma), all I had to say was ‘good morning’ and they wanted to talk,” Demers said.

Demers was in Moore because he had gotten an email from Red Cross describing the need for chaplains as “desperate.”

He joined 14 other chaplains from various parts of the country and from myriad denominations as part of the Red Cross Spiritual Care Team. On June 18 he would be the last visiting chaplain to leave Moore when those duties were turned over to local mental health professionals.

Demers was, in a real sense, a greeter of victims at a registration center, their first point of contact to begin putting their lives back together.

“I sat, listened, got Kleenex and bottled water, held hands and prayed with them,” Demers said. “In all humility, I believe that my presence was helpful.”

The tornado was two miles wide with winds well in excess of 200 mph and traveled on the ground for 17 miles. Two dozen lives were lost. More than 200 people were injured. More than 100 people were rescued alive from beneath debris.

A woman evacuated from the hospital before it was destroyed gave birth in a nearby movie theater.

About 20,000 families were displaced in the city of 56,000 residents.

“At the registration center, children were everywhere, most of them crying,” Demers said. “Candies and teddy bears were a big help, but also the comfort dogs that the kids and even the adults would pet.”

A lot of animals were killed by the tornado.

“I talked for four hours with one man who had lost 15 show horses,” Demers said.

Demers said is was pleasing that several residents who returned to the center during his stay would specifically request that he be their counselor.

“A call would be put out ‘which one is the Rev. Paul’ and somebody else would say ‘the bald one from Maryland,’” Demers said. “Many of the people seemed astonished that a chaplain would come all the way from Maryland and I told them to thank the Red Cross for that.”

Demers worked the registration center each day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. His recall of the massive recovery effort becomes less of a swirl because of a daily journal in which he wrote. He has a handwritten note from a 12-year-old girl whose family he helped. She writes that she wants to become active in the Red Cross because of the help that was received.

Demers believes the spiritual care team’s work in Oklahoma was successful, facilitated greatly by the Red Cross’ battlefield administration plan.

“It’s five-star,” he said.

Contact Michael A. Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.