By Gary Popp
The Norman Transcript
LITTLE AXE — Lisa McCathern is used to serving customers as owner of Tangled Up hair salon.
She’s continued to do so since a tornado hit this small community two weeks ago, even though her shop has been closed. Just like any good businessperson, McCathern saw a need and worked to fill it.
Lately, instead of doing hair, she’s been lending a helping hand.
“People are living in tents,” said McCathern, 38, of Little Axe, illustrating the severity of the tornadoes’ affect on residents. “Their houses are gone with maybe just a wall still standing. They are camping on their property.”
To help her fellow community members, McCathern organized a tornado-relief center in the parking lot adjacent to the Pecan Valley Junction store and adjoining antiquated Shell gas station the day after tornadoes touched down in the community. There they gave out food, water, toiletries, toys, shoes, cleaning supplies, linens and more.
Her salon sits next to the gas station. She said her business has been closed since the storm, not because the structure was damaged but because personal cosmetics “is the last thing people are needing right now.”
It was at the impromptu relief post that Indiana Cares — a 12-person volunteer relief group comprised of residents of Southern Indiana — joined McCathern and others helping area residents after 800 miles on the road dodging storms.
The volunteers found that needs remain dire for those in Little Axe who lost their homes and sense of normalcy of daily life in the storms, but residents there, and concerned people, including the Indiana Cares crew, are working to ease the suffering of the tight-knit community’s tornado victims.
In control: Tattoos on McCathern’s shoulders pointed out from under her tank top as she quickly moved about, organizing supplies and delegating volunteers at the distribution center. Since the city of Moore, located about 20 miles from Little Axe, received the most significant destruction from the tornadoes, McCathern said the needs of her neighbors’ had been almost forgotten.
“We were really kind of upset because when we first set this up, there was nothing here,” she said. “There wasn’t anything for these people in this community right here.”
She said Little Axe has always been a town that has relied on itself, so it made sense to her to step up and help her neighbors who were affected more than herself.
“These people are like our family,” McCathern said of Little Axe residents. “So we decided we were going to (help them).”
One of the many people assisting McCathern was Bobbe Steely, 47, a resident of Little Axe for 34 years and a manager at Pecan Valley Junction store. Steely said the market and gas station is a “little social hub” well known to community members for hosting Fourth of July celebrations and Easter egg hunts.
“We have always been a tight-knit, little group that takes care of its own,” Steely said.
While working at the distribution site, Steely said she’s interacted with people so dazed from the devastation they don’t know how to begin their recovery.
“I think everybody is still kind of in shock,” she said. “When they come down here and we ask them, ‘What do you need?’ half of them look at us with a blank stare and say, ‘I don’t even know.’
“There is not a lot of sinking in right now because everybody is preparing and just trying to get daily essentials for everybody.”
If losing a home in a natural disaster wasn’t difficult enough to process, McCathern said there have been reports of people attempting to steal from the wreckage left by the storm.
“(Tornado victims) are afraid to leave because people are looting,” she said. “They are coming in and taking any copper, or any steel, or any aluminum that they got, so they are staying on their property.”
The accounts: Kathy Lynn, of nearby Newalla, was at the Pecan Valley Junction as volunteers nearby distributed supplies. Lynn said 10 family members, who live in her home, sought safety in a storm shelter on her property when the tornadoes approached.
“We shut the door and stayed inside the shelter,” Lynn said. “My 21-year-old son looked up and said, ‘Mom, I can see the screws being pulled out of the ventilation (fan).’ Right when he said that, it snapped off and went flying and our ears went to popping.”
Lynn said she and her family could hear the storm producing loud roars, then suddenly “it went really quiet.” When the family stepped from the shelter, they found their home heavily damaged, with many of the trees on her property snapped into pieces and others completely uprooted.
Little Axe resident Veronica Gottschalk said she was folding laundry while her husband, Jerry, was marinating steaks when the twisters came too close to their home for comfort. The couple attempted to flee the storm by driving away in their Ford F-150 pickup truck, but they were met by twin funnel clouds while on a nearby roadway.
“We were facing it head on,” Veronica Gottschalk said as the couple tried to drive to safety. “I had my Bible with me. I was praying.”
She said the vehicle then began to be struck by either debris or softball-sized hail, she wasn’t sure which.
“We were all over the road,” Veronica said. “What it was, the tornado kept picking us up and pulling us all over the road.”
She said having people in her community and others — like Indiana Cares volunteers who logged nearly 1,600 miles total to respond — in the areas to provide assistance is a blessing.
“It is very sweet of them, and we really appreciate them,” Gottschalk said.
Jennifer McConahay, of Henryville, Indiana Cares co-organizer and 2012 tornado survivor, said the volunteer group’s journey across four states had unexpected twists and turns, but was undoubtedly worth it to help those touched by the Oklahoma tornadoes.
“I think we did a lot of good,” she said of working in Little Axe. “It was nice to get there and get supplies organized, and the people, not just the victims, but also the people with the businesses, were at a loss and really thankful that we were there.”