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Habitat staffer still grateful after losing home to Oklahoma tornado

By Bill Sanders

Less than an hour after a deadly tornado struck on Monday, Virgil Rifenbark salvages belongings from what used to be his home in Moore, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Virgil Rifenbark
Virgil Rifenbark’s insurance company has declared his home a complete loss. Photo courtesy of Virgil Rifenbark

(May 24, 2013) — Five days a week, every week, Virgil Rifenbark climbs into a Habitat for Humanity truck in Norman, Oklahoma, and begins his rounds, picking up donations for the Habitat ReStore.

He’s talkative, laughs a lot and tends to go on and on about the kindness and goodness of his colleagues at the Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity.

So when Rifenbark was on the receiving end of the May 20th tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, it broke a lot of hearts.

But the ever-cheerful Rifenbark says there’s a lot for which to be thankful.

The tornado claimed his three-bedroom, two-bath home, as he, his wife, his son and his son’s girlfriend huddled in a bathroom. The house is a total loss, Rifenbark said. But the family escaped with no injuries.

Perhaps more remarkable? His daughter Katy (a teacher) and granddaughter Makelah were at Plaza Towers Elementary School when the tornado struck. Seven children at the school were killed and many more were injured, but Rifenbark’s family escaped unscathed.

In comparison to what might have been, he said, the house doesn’t seem like such a big loss.

“We’re doing real good,” Rifenbark said. “No scratches, no bumps. We were scared and awed and disoriented. But we were thankful, especially when we looked all around us.”

Before Rifenbark could get word that all of his family was OK, he had to go to the aid of a neighbor.

“I heard a woman calling, ‘Virgil! Virgil!’ It was my neighbor. Her husband was gone, and she and her two children were trapped under some rubble in their house.

“My son and I dug them out. She had a broken arm, but other than that, they were all fine.”

Rifenbark said he is a take-action kind of guy. But after digging out his neighbors, he decided he’d taken enough action.

“We didn’t go any further,” he said. “There was debris and junk everywhere, and responders were trying to make their way to people. So we stayed out of the way at that point.”

Linda Banta, the interim executive director at Cleveland County Habitat, isn’t surprised that Rifenbark protected his family and rescued others.

“Virgil is always helping other people,” she said. “He’s a very humble man. A lot of people who donate to us regularly know Virgil and how upbeat he is, and how he’s always wanting to help. Those people want to help him now. I think we’ll figure out something to do for him.”

Banta said just knowing Rifenbark makes her a better person.

“He’s still smiling now and trying to keep his family upbeat, even though he doesn’t feel like smiling,” she said. “He is the most kindhearted man, and I bet right now, he’s helping other people with their storm damage.”