IDABEL, Oklahoma. — When a tornado hit this southeastern Oklahoma town on Friday night, the Bypass Church of Christ served as shelter for the community.
The 100-member congregation opened its doors almost immediately to help – as the American Red Cross and news stations spread the word.
The church’s swift action marked the fulfillment of a commitment made by members more than two decades ago.
After an ice storm left Idabel residents without power for 15 days in 2000, Bypass leaders decided to build a new family living center that could function as a shelter – complete with showers, kitchen and the possibility of working with generators.
“This church came to us that spring and said, ‘We’re building a new fellowship center. We want to know what we need to put in there to make it an available shelter for our community in McCurtain County,” said Dee Wilson, American Red Cross finance and statistics officer. “We told them what we needed. They checked with a few other agencies…then they built it.
After Friday’s storm, the building became the base of operations for the Red Cross.
The twister destroyed or damaged at least 228 homes, according to McCurtain County Emergency Management Director Cody McDaniel. This too destroyed the Trinity Baptist Church and damaged the Kingdom Hall’s Jehovah’s Witness sanctuary.
Another tornado that night killed a man in the Pickens area of McCurtain County, approximately 36 miles north of Idabel.
Red Cross administrators called Bypass leaders after the storm passed and moved their operations to the center on Saturday morning.
“Our (county) emergency manager actually prioritized this building because we’re a shelter,” said Jerry Falling, Bypass’s youth minister. “So he made sure they came here and got our electricity working as soon as they could.”
But this was not the first time the church had partnered with the Red Cross.
When a drug treatment center for women was flooded a few years ago, patients were brought to Bypass Church for overnight accommodation. In 2021, the Red Cross used the church building and parking lot as a COVID-19 vaccination clinic site.
“When we have something that needs shelter here in McCurtain County, this is our first frontline place to come,” Wilson said. “Unless, of course, it’s on the north end of the county or something.
“The kindness of the church to provide this building has been absolutely wonderful for this county,” she added.
“The kindness of the church to provide this building has been absolutely wonderful for this county.”
“We knew it was coming”
Hours before the Red Cross arrived on Saturday morning, Bypass Minister Rodney Watson, Falling and several other church families sought refuge in the building, listening to the storm raging outside.
“We were watching,” Watson said. “We knew it was coming. We knew it was going to be bad. We knew we could take a direct hit. … We could hear the tornado. We could see flashes of power in the distance. We knew it was getting closer.
Next, the tornado circled less than a mile from Bypass Church, moving away from the auditorium and into surrounding neighborhoods.
“Everyone in our congregation knows someone who suffered damage,” Watson said.
Falling joined Jesse Phipps, a bypass deacon who is chief of the Ringold Volunteer Fire Department, about 32 miles northwest of Idabel, for search and rescue after the tornado.
Following Idabel’s path of destruction, fellow Christians fought their way through neighborhoods – in vehicles and on foot when trees blocked the road.
“My heart skipped about four beats as we drove south towards the road you took to my house,” Falling recalled. “The houses on either side, I mean, just erased.”
Jon Hilton’s house was one of those Falling saws.
Hilton was home with her family, three dogs and several friends when the tornado hit, pinning them for several seconds in the main hall before tearing off the roof.
“My brother and I actually watched the roof disappear above us,” Hilton said. Yet despite the structural damage, everyone inside was unharmed.
The community has come together to help the Hilton family since the disaster.
“We had the Red Cross come, and they gave us tarps and helped with that,” Hilton said. “Across the street, my neighbor, he bulldozed stuff, moved stuff, tried to help. The whole community really pulled together and tried to help each other.
“Whether they go to church or not, everyone says, ‘I just thank God,'” Falling said. “With sudden disasters like this, there seems to be faith.”
It was evident Sunday at Bypass Church.
Members gathered to worship — and mourn — after spending the weekend helping with relief efforts.
“Instead of a regular sermon, we had a sharing time where people testified of how the Lord protected them and really how they had seen God at work in the midst of it,” Watson said. . “We had tears. We had a few laughs. It was a time when we honored the Lord and could thank him for his protection.
Filed Under: American Red Cross Idabel McCurtain County National News Oklahoma Tornado Top Stories Tornado Relief