Two weeks ago today, a half-mile wide F5 tornado tore through El Reno, Oklahoma, which lies about 20 miles west of Oklahoma City. It lifted off the ground for about 45 minutes while the storm continued drifting northeast and re-energized itself. Then, it touched down again, and ground through Piedmont. At least nine people died that day, and over 120 buildings were destroyed or damaged in Piedmont alone. The swath of land in the tornado’s path still looks like a war zone. (Note: images in this post may be licensed through my Flickr page or my website.)
On Saturday, Nathan and I joined a group of his colleagues at Holder Construction to lend our hands to the relief efforts organized by First Baptist Church in Piedmont.
Each table is adorned with cards made by children at the church, reminding victims that they are loved and prayed for. A sign hung on one chair, reading “God bless you and hope when you start over you will have a life for God. Amen.”
A lost and found table included personal photographs recovered from the disaster areas, and acknowledgements to donating corporations (I had to laugh at the nod to Hooters inside a church):
The effort to coordinate volunteers is impressively organized. The “command center” as I called it, operated by Pastor Randy and some of his colleagues and other volunteers, features a floor-to ceiling street map highlighting damaged areas, a whiteboard with a list of families needing assistance, their addresses and phone numbers, and a list of that’s days volunteers with contact info. When our group arrived, Randy got on the phone to find a family that could meet us at their property, and off we went. Our first assignment was at Marilyn’s house. Marilyn lives next door to Don; their houses were hit directly by the tornado.
When we arrived on the scene, we all spent a few minutes standing around in stunned helplessness. We didn’t even know where to start. I can only imagine how Don and Marilyn felt when they first saw the damage. Don told us that he had to convince Marilyn to join his family in their storm cellar; she didn’t want to go. Don saved Marilyn’s life:
The spray paint on the front of Marilyn’s home, noting that the home had been inspected for survivors by search and rescue, reminded me of what I saw in the 9th Ward in New Orleans after Katrina.
Our mission was to prepare Marilyn’s home for demolition that morning. We collected personal items from inside and around the yard, and piled them up on the edge of the property. She was provided a 5′ x 10′ storage unit, so she isn’t keeping much – nor was there much left to keep. This is everything we salvaged:
The physics of a tornado defy logic. Don’s safe (visible below, top left), was inside of a storage Pod before the tornado, along with his wife’s quilting supplies and other items. After the tornado, the safe was still sitting in his yard, but they have yet to recover any sign of the Pod or the rest of its contents. In contrast, one of Marilyn’s ferns survived. She hung in a tree while we worked:The fern reminded me of the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. We also moved debris into piles around the property, to make it easier to haul away once a dumpster was delivered to Marilyn. As of Saturday, she was still waiting for the U-Haul storage unit and dumpsters that were promised. By the time lunch rolled around, other volunteers were pulling down the walls of Marilyn’s house.
On the way back to the church for lunch, we drove around the corner and saw this:
An entire neighborhood leveled. Slabs and shards of wood where people once lived. Addresses marked with plywood and spray paint for identification by insurance companies.One of the residents of this street saw me taking photos and ran over. “Do you work for the a newspaper? she asked. “No, I am freelance, but can I help somehow?” “Where is FEMA?” she asked. “Everyone is paying for their own demo.” I told her I would try to get some information for her. Clearly, Piedmont is a “disaster area:”
Pastor Randy told me that FEMA requires a certain percentage of structures within a community to be destroyed in order for it to be declared a “federal disaster area” and therefore qualify for relief. Since Piedmont is more sparsely populated (than say, Joplin), the damage there does not meet FEMA’s threshold, so its residents will not receive federal assistance. This is public policy with no heart.
After lunch, we went to help Nancy at her home. Nancy, her husband and their pets had only a few seconds to seek shelter. Their satellite dish lost service in the storm, and they couldn’t hear the warning sirens at their home. Nancy saw the tornado coming towards them through a window, and they ran to the master bedroom to hide. An abandoned pot of beans from the meal they had just finished was still on the stove when we got there on Saturday.
Nancy’s husband has MS and uses a wheelchair, so he can’t do much to help at their house. Their insurer totaled their home, although it’s still standing. They already sold the property and are moving into a house in Yukon – that has a safe room. We helped Nancy sweep out broken glass and debris and pack the belongings that survived, including the entire collection of her grandmother’s china.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Nancy said.