Oxford community rallies to help tornado victims09/07/2021 12:26AM ● By Steven Hoffman
Moments after the devastating tornado tore through the Wiltshire housing development on Sept. 1, neighbors and strangers from near and afar jumped into action surveying the damage and helping those who were seriously affected.
What they saw was frightening. Trees were sheared off and laying on the ground. Houses were destroyed. Roads were blocked by scattered debris. If ever there was a need for help, it was Thursday – the morning after the devastation.
Among those in the 20-year-old development in East Nottingham who suffered were Michelle and Wayne Sapp, whose home escaped the worst of the storm damage, but whose backyard trees were all torn down.
Michelle is no stranger to responding during a time of need, having jumped in to save Oxford’s traditional cemetery wreath-laying ceremony when the borough could not afford all the wreaths one year. She said she doesn’t go looking for human crises, but when they present themselves, her faith prompts her to respond. This was obviously a time to help.
“It’s heartbreaking. You can see it on TV, but when you walk around it’s like something you’ve never seen,” she said.
She jumped into action immediately, setting up a “command center” at the base of the hill on Wickersham Drive, where the devastation was the worst and at least three homes had been rendered unlivable.
She obtained a tent, set it up and began receiving goods and offers of help. The response was significant. People showed up immediately with tools and vehicles to help clear the wreckage and supply food to those who needed it.
Michelle said it was heartening to see people of all ages including children, arrive to help. That included the Oxford football team, random teenagers and young children with trash bags whose small hands were only large enough to pick up a few leaves for disposal.
Soon, food arrived from all over, including snacks, water, juice, sodas and ice. An anonymous woman sent over 10 pizzas, and neighbors supplied a community meal schedule to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner on the site. Each night, the neighborhood supper was delicious: barbecued pork and mashed potatoes.
A local hotel even opened its doors for free lodging to families who had been driven from their homes by the storm.
Physically sturdy volunteers with heavy equipment came to confront the piles of vegetation and scattered lumber.. By mid-morning on Thursday, the neighborhood was buzzing with wood-chippers, tractors, pickup trucks and power saws. The wreckage was brought to central locations and piled up for disposal.
The tornado, according to witnesses, touched down and moved northward just east of Oxford, bouncing up and down, shearing off treetops and reigning devastation along the way. At Wiltshire, just down the street from Elk Ridge Elementary School, the damage was especially bad, rendering at least three homes totally unlivable and utterly changing the landscape perhaps forever – laying it flat.
The combination of flooding and wind damage was not limited to Wiltshire development in Chester County. In fact, Jason, a workman who had arrive to clean out damaged homes, was asked if he was shocked by what he saw. “I’m from Horsham [in Northeast Philadelphia]. We had it pretty bad, too,” he said.
Hurricane Ida’s path of destruction extended from Louisiana to the northeastern part of the U.S.
One thing which stood out at the Wiltshire site was the unanimous agreement that folks in Oxford are always quick to respond to others in need. They had seen it before, and they were not surprised that they saw that benevolence again with this incident.
In one case, Elliot Dowling and his family heard the warnings of the tornado and rushed to their basement.
“As soon as we got to the basement, we heard the tree hit the garage and the interior walls. It felt like an airplane taking off,” Dowling said.
It only took 30 seconds, he added, but when they emerged, they found that their home was now unlivable.
It was at least a small but significant consolation that Elliot’s parents, Earl and Theresa Dowling, were en route from a vacation and were able to stop by to help.
Theresa said, “We were shocked when we drove in. The streets were completely lined with trees that had been knocked down.”
Earl said he was gratified with Oxford area’s response to the need.
“It’s most impressive. It restores my faith in mankind,” he said. “All the neighbors pitched in and said, ‘Your kids can stay with us. Your pets. Here’s food.’”
He added, “It takes a village. It’s great. It’s amazing. The garage is the least of their concerns. The love in this community is showing.”
State Rep. John Lawrence (R-13) of Landenberg was on hand to help with the cleanup on the morning after.
In addition to helping with the picking up and hauling, he used his legislative wherewithal to obtain a Dumpster from the nearby SECCRA landfill. “Dumpsters are in short supply right now,” he said later.
Like others, Lawrence was amazed at the community response he saw.
“It was truck after truck after truck coming in to help,” he said. “It’s fantastic to see so many people reach out to help during Oxford’s hardship.”
Lawrence said he believes they have a long road ahead and recovery will take time. Gov. Tom Wolf has issued a proclamation of a disaster emergency, he said, and there is federal money available, but local response is fastest and responds to exact needs.
As Wayne Sapp stood between loading cleared brush surveying the scene, he expressed what many had said they felt about the community response. “It’s beautiful,” he said.
What they said
People from near and far turned out to help the residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed by tornadoes as the remnants of Hurricane Ida ripped through the area. Here’s what a few people said about the Oxford community coming together to help neighbors in need:
“Oxford is our hometown and it's a great town. This devastation has shown just how close-knit our community is, and how at a moment’s notice, so many people of so many walks of life made the time to come together to help others in their time of need. It's truly a privilege to be a part of such a gracious and supporting town.” ~ Donnie Ortega of Combat Elevator Inc.
“It was really heartwarming to see the Oxford community come together to help neighbors in need. I was honored to be a part of the clean up.” ~ Chris Anderson, realtor with Berkshire Hathaway
“Your heart skips a beat when you see the destruction and then you look down and see the volunteers! They are students, families, teachers, business owners, community members and even our elected official, Rep John Lawrence, all lending a hand. They might not know the homeowners they are just helping. Over 100 volunteers came together on Day 1 of the clean up to help those in need. We were happy to make some connections for equipment and volunteers and spread the word. This is what living in a small town is all about.” ~ Christine Grove, executive director of the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce
“As a local business, we knew we had to help in anyway we could. Although no electric work was needed, we were thankful to put some of our equipment to good use. Along with my husband Steve and our son Parker we were able to utilize our skid steer, truck and trailer to remove debris from the residents’ properties. We worked alongside some other amazing volunteers on this day and there is no greater gift than being able to give without expectation.”
~ Michelle Baer of Baer Electric
“This is what small town is all about—coming together and supporting one another. We (Install Solutions) were just glad we were in a position to help.” -Jack Loftus, owner of Install Solutions