Monday, May 27, 2013

On a mission - Moore, OK

On Monday afternoon, I sat in my living room watching a tornado plow through the town of Moore, Oklahoma on live television.  I watched the massive tornado dissipate as the CNN anchor described the devastation.  The helicopter's camera panned back down on the tornado's footprint.  Mass destruction.  It was clear that whole subdivisions of neighborhoods were flattened.  A medical center in town was destroyed.  Then the cameras focused on the schools - there were two of them that were nothing more than piles of rubble.  I looked at the clock and my heart sank - it was still early and there were probably children in the schools.

Late Monday night, the medical examiner confirmed 91 deaths.  Luckily, that number was lowered to 24 the following day.  10 of the victims were children.  2 of them were infants.  Some of the children died in the Plaza Towers elementary school where they huddled in the hallways.  

On Tuesday morning, I texted 90999 like everyone else I know and donated $10 to the Red Cross.  But that just didn't feel sufficient.  I wanted to help.  I reached out to some friends about collecting items for special needs children affected by the tornadoes and began researching organizations to donate to.  That still just didn't feel like I was doing enough.  So when my friend Alison McDaniel messaged me asking if I wanted to drive up to Oklahoma to volunteer, I didn't hesitate to say "YES!"  We were on the road at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.

The drive up to Oklahoma on I35 was breathtaking.  The sun rose above a low, thick layer of fog.  It was beautiful.  


We hit Moore right around 8:45 a.m.  We sat in what we thought was the usual rush hour congestion, but we were wrong.  

First we noticed the debris on the side of the road to our right...


Then we looked to our left and saw the medical center that had been destroyed and the movie theater we recognized from the news coverage.  That's when we realized we were in the exact spot where the F5 tornado crossed the freeway.


Our initial plan was to drive to Oklahoma City and register as volunteers with the Red Cross but with the traffic, we wouldn't have made it there in time for the 9 a.m. orientation.  A friend had posted that people would be meeting at the Moore community center to go clean the cemetery so we decided to hop off the freeway.  Why the cemetery?  The good people of Moore needed to start laying to rest the 24 citizens it lost last week.  To our surprise, the community center was right in front of us and we followed the volunteers into the center to await instructions.

They thought 100 people would show up to volunteer.  Not quite.  Over 500 people carrying shovels,  rakes, trash bags and gloves congregated then walked a mile to the cemetery to begin clean up efforts.



Right before we got to the cemetery, there was a tent set up offering free tetanus shots.  Alison and I rolled up our sleeves and stood in line.  I can't remember the last time I had a tetanus shot - college maybe?  There was no hesitation with all the debris we knew we'd be encountering.

The cemetery was covered in it.  Insulation was caked on headstones.  Wood sticks impaled the ground.  I only cried when I came across hair bows, baby bottles and clothing.




Some young ladies from a local college who came out to help came across this page from the Bible:


Revelation 18... pieces of it anyway.  Amazing what survived the 250+ m.p.h. winds.

We were cleaning up towards the front of the cemetery and off towards the back, I could see a flattened neighborhood.  I soon found out it was the neighborhood where Plaza Towers Elementary is located.  7 children lost their lives in that school last week.  Before lunch, I decided to walk back to take a closer look.

As I walked, I read some of the headstones - some were from the late 1800s.  Others were for children and war veterans.  I noticed a chain link fence on my left was gone and that the ground had gone from green to brownish yellow.  This is where the tornado was on the ground.  Headstones were reduced to rubble.  Some were gone.  I cried.







I walked past a volunteer and asked if he'd ever seen anything so horrible.  He said yes.  I asked where.  He replied, "My home country, Iraq."  Wow - a war zone, where buildings were reduced to rubble by bombs.  Moore looked like a war zone.  I've never seen one in person, but I can imagine he's right.

This is a sight I will never forget.  A single solitary chair sitting in the middle of the cemetery.  It looked like it was exactly where it was during the storm.  It was covered in the muddy insulation that was on the headstones.  It was surreal.


I'd walked past a gentleman who was clearly clergy a little earlier.  When we crossed paths again, he asked if I was okay.  I replied "no" through my tears.  He asked if he could pray with me.  After we were done, I asked for his help.  I told him that I was hoping to connect with an organization in the Moore area that would accept donations for families with special needs children affected by the tornado.  He told me he had some special education teachers in his congregation and he could put me in touch with them.  Amazed, I realized that Rev. Doug and I were supposed to cross paths that day in the cemetery.

We broke for lunch and were fed by the good folks of Tyson Foods who'd set up a mobile command center at the church next door to feed volunteers.  As we stood in line, we noticed some firemen walking from behind the church who stood in line with the rest of us.  We insisted they move to the front of the line.  We later learned that these guys, some from as far away as Nebraska, were looking for bodies in some nearby brush.

After we finished lunch, I noticed some folks pointing towards the entrance of the church.  Pastor Doug of Southgate Baptist marveled at how his church was still standing even though it was right next to the cemetery, the neighborhood flattened next to the elementary school, and the destroyed medical center.  Then he pointed up.  There, right in the front of the church, was a stick in the shape of a cross that had impaled itself into the side of the building.  It was breathtaking.


After lunch, we parted ways with our new friends - Beverly, Rachel and Pawpaw.  It amazed me how we bonded with these amazing people.  After spending the entire morning with them, it felt like we were saying goodbye to family!  We vowed to keep in touch.  Ms. Beverly even offered up her home if we needed a place to stay.  The amazing camaraderie of the volunteers warmed my heart.



We went across the street into Zone 6 - the amazing people at www.servemoore.com had the volunteer efforts coordinated so well.  Definitely visit the website if you're interested in going up to Moore to help with clean up efforts.

Here's one of the streets Alison and I worked on.  The street was covered with debris - lots of sticks and insulation.  We even phone some photographs.  After tackling a couple of streets, Alison and I realized we were pretty much toast.  We wanted to keep going but we were tired.  Our arms were aching from our tetanus shots and the sun had worn us out.  We were about ready to head home.


We went back to the community center and we heard someone ask for volunteers with cars to go out into the neighborhoods and take water and snacks to the residents.  Alison and I looked at each other and without hesitation raised our hands.  We piled her truck up with water, Gatorade, apples and crackers and set out into the hardest hit areas.

All of the roads leading into the neighborhoods were barricaded - police officers and national guardsmen stood guard.  They allowed us in when they saw all of the water.  The first neighborhood we entered was demolished.  House after house after house was just gone.  We briefly chatted with a family who lost everything.  We told them we were from Texas - they said they were going to move back.  They seemed to be in good spirits but were obviously hurting.

These pictures, as awful as they are, don't truly capture how bad things are up there.  Alison and I both felt a little sick to our stomachs.  The shock made it difficult to cry.  But it was awful.  As we drove from one neighborhood to the next, we thought it couldn't possibly get worse, but it did.









One thing I remember from the movie Twister was the randomness of tornadoes.  I believe it.  We drove into one neighborhood where the first three or four houses were destroyed.  And these were big houses.




Right down the street in the same neighborhood, this home was seemingly untouched.


We drove by another house that was leveled except for the kitchen.  And there, sitting on the counter, was dish soap.  We could do nothing but stare.

We drove down another street with three houses on it.  The first one was still standing but had sustained some damage.  The other two were reduced to nothing but their foundations.  Even in some of the harder hit areas, there were still remnants of a house.  Here, there was nothing.  The owners were just seeing what remained of their homes for the first time - they were clearly in shock.  But they were happy to see us - I don't think any volunteers had made it their way yet with water and snacks.

Alison and I decided to hit the road and head back to Texas.  But we have vowed to go back.  Alison has already gone up there again with friends and we plan to go back this week.  Both of our arms are still sore from those tetanus shots.  And I'll be "fixing" this farmer's tan on my back for months to come.  But the pain and horrible tan lines are just a small reminder of the terrible things we saw that day.  But I have no doubt that our neighbors to the north will persevere and rebuild.  Moore will be stronger than it was before.  And I'm glad I was able to help.


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