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After “Gut-Wrenching” Loss, Health Center Regroups After Tornado
Employees of the Kiamichi Family Medical Center say they are setting up a temporary site in the wake of a November storm that demolished the health center. A $50,000 emergency grant from Direct Relief is helping facilitate.
IDABEL, Okla. — “I got a message that says I have an appointment here tomorrow, is that true?” an older man asked, pointing at scrap metal as he stepped out of his pick-up truck, parked at what used to be the Kiamichi Family Medical Center in Idabel, Oklahoma, last week.
Amy Gilbreath, the federally qualified health center’s CEO, turned away from the demolished building to help him. She understood why he, and other patients, had questions about where to go to receive care.
On November 4, an EF4 tornado tore through the rural community in southeast Oklahoma, demolishing dozens of buildings in its path, including the health center. Winds up to 165 miles per hour left behind broken glass, insulation materials, and pieces of the roof cluttering the health center’s floors. Soaking wet medical supplies were strewn about and walls separating exam rooms had fallen over.
The State of Oklahoma and McCurtain County governments have requested federal assistance to recover from the extreme weather event, but the rural area’s experience is considered a mere blip compared to larger-scaled storms in large metro areas with dense populations. The city of Idabel, home to less than 7,000 people across 16 miles, was also where people lost their homes, businesses, schools and churches in the storm and will need millions of dollars to rebuild.
That includes one of the hardest-hit institutions in the community: the health center.
“I was watching the storm on the television, and I said, “Oh my gosh, it’s over the health center. The tornado is right on top of the center,” Gilbreath recalled.
Kiamichi staff were warned at 2 p.m. on November 4 of severe weather. Gilbreath considered closing early, but the threat of the storm was pushed back several hours. The CEO said the last employee left the facility just before 6 p.m. The tornado landed in Idabel almost 45 minutes later.
The Kiamichi Center served nearly 9,000 McCurtain County patients in 2021. The median household income in Idabel is less than $30,000, and 31% of residents live below the poverty line.
The center, which had 17,000 square feet of space, opened in 2018 after a 12-year fundraising campaign and employs 32 people. The tornado demolished the health center, which housed patient records, billing, almost two dozen exam rooms, a call center, and space for staff. Like many other federally qualified health centers across the nation, the location offered medical, dental and behavioral care services, including healthy living, food supplementation and community support at little to no cost to patients in the community.
In the month following the tornado, health center staff and board members said they are quickly trying to open a smaller, temporary site to continue providing care. Even though people in the community have endured an emotionally and financially traumatic event, the health center has to keep going.
“That’s the model of a federally qualified health center, an FQHC like us, (our job) is to make sure we’re the total home for all of the health care services someone needs,” said Kara Maness, Kiamichi’s human resources manager and community outreach director.
The temporary site is expected to be operational by Christmas. Some patients can be seen by the behavioral health physician, but most medical patients have either canceled their appointments or been redirected to other locations. The temporary site has 8,000 square feet and was previously a school for nursing students. The health center’s CFO said he expects to be in the building for at least two years and that it will take several months to create exam rooms from the empty classrooms to fulfill their patient’s needs.
Maness lost her workplace and her home in the tornado. A pine tree crashed through the roof of the house that Maness and her husband rented with their two children and dog. Water was ‘ankle deep’ inside the home, she said, and when she heard the news about the health center, she realized how much she had lost in a matter of minutes.
“I completely broke down on the phone,” she said. “It was just gut-wrenching.”
Maness’ family moved into her parents’ spare room after the storm. Two other employees also experienced housing hardship from the tornado. The remainder called the center’s leadership the following day to see if they still had jobs. Gilbreath said that all employees, including the providers, were moved to different locations.
Kiamichi Family Medical Center has three other locations in Battiest and Hugo, Oklahoma, each an hour from Idabel, and a third smaller office in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, 20 minutes away.
Maness was driving home from Texas with her daughter when the tornado hit. The storm touched down in Texas, retracted, then touched down again in Oklahoma. Kiamichi’s office manager called Maness’ cell phone to warn her of the tornado as she drove home.
“When you see lightning strike, they say you can count one Mississippi, two Mississippi until you hear thunder, and that’s how many miles away it is,” Maness said. “I counted one Mississippi, and the thunder struck. I have never been more afraid in my life.”
As she drove home, Maness’s husband was at the house with their two-year-old son, who was already asleep for the night. A friend called and warned them they should leave, but Maness said her husband planned to take shelter in their bathroom if needed. The friend cautioned that wouldn’t be enough and convinced them to leave the house before the tornado landed in Idabel.
“My little boy, who is two, says ‘Mama that was a bad tornado, it was so mean, it tore up our neighborhood,’” Maness said, recounting a conversation with her son. “He talks about it every day. And then he asks me if there will be a good tornado that will come and fix it and I just have to say ‘no buddy, there isn’t such thing as a good tornado’.”
The tornado swept through the town, knocking over a church and ripping off part of the roof of a school less than a mile away from the health center. Since the storm, Stace Ebert, board chair of the Kiamichi health center and superintendent of the Denison School District, has worked to get assessors to review the properties.
Ebert closed the doors of Denison Elementary School for a few days following the storm. He said that three students’ homes and the house of the school’s principal were affected by the tornado. Denison held virtual classes for three weeks while repairs were made to the building and returned to the classroom the week after Thanksgiving.
The repairs to the school were costly but quick. It will take much longer to rebuild the health center. Gilbreath said that residents have helped one another find housing and donated food and supplies to families whose homes were damaged or destroyed. Even the health center’s community partners made calls and asked if help was needed in finding a temporary site for patients. She’s seen Ebert stand in as an auctioneer at previous charity events and said the town of Idabel has always been a very supportive community.
“There’s been fried pies that will go for $500. I mean that’s just what we do here, that’s how we take care of our people, we just do it,” she said. “We live it, but to see it from this side, it’s overwhelming.”
It’s yet to be determined whether the wreckage from the November 4 tornado has left more damage than the community can take on itself. The Federal Emergency Management Agency awards supplemental assistance for disasters that go beyond the capabilities of the State and the affected local governments.
FEMA told Direct Relief that a Joint Preliminary Damage Assessment was filed in early November for severe floods, tornados, and storms in McCurtain, Bryan, Choctaw, Le Flore and Pushmataha counties. Joint PDAs typically include input from local, state, and federal emergency agencies. FEMA said the result is ongoing as the agency is still determining the scope of the damage in Idabel and the surrounding areas.
Gov. Kevin Stitt filed with the Small Business Administration for a disaster declaration to make low-interest federal disaster loans available to businesses and residents affected by the storms in the meantime.
A major disaster declaration was also made in June for Oklahoma and included over $4 million in assistance across seven counties but didn’t include the smaller McCurtain County.
McCurtain County Emergency Management Director Cody McDaniel said the county filed for an extension in early December for FEMA assistance from the November 4 storm. The county initially had 30 days to apply for support. McDaniel said it’s unlikely they will receive federal support because of the size of the area affected and the level of the storm.
“It was major for us, but minor on the national scale,” McDaniel said. “It’s aggravating, but it’s understandable.”
Now, they are all working to regain normalcy. The phones continue to ring for appointments, and staff members are referring patients to providers at different locations. The health center recovered patient records within days of the storm, and insurance claims for building repairs are being filed. Gilbreath said they approach each issue one day at a time because, without the health center, people wouldn’t get the comprehensive health care they need.
Direct Relief issued an emergency operating grant of $50,000 to Kiamichi Health Center after the storm.