Yesterday, I received an email at work asking if anyone wanted to volunteer to go down to Moore, Oklahoma and help man a Mobile Battery Center near the devastation caused by the F5 tornado that tore through the community on Monday. I volunteered immediately. I found myself on I-44 westbound at 8:00 AM heading to the center of the state.
As anyone who has driven from Tulsa to OKC can tell you, the drive is pretty bland. I drank my coffee, sang along with my iPod, and kept myself entertained as best I could. Once I got to Oklahoma City, I saw the newly completed Devon Tower rising above the rest of the skyline. It was a shining beacon of reflected sunlight and prosperity. About five minutes later, I saw a water tower letting me know I’d entered Moore’s city limits; traffic slowed quickly. One minute, everything was fine, and the next it looked like a bomb had detonated. All of the buildings were damaged. Billboards were twisted, signs were bent. You could see where the monster tornado crossed right over I-35 S. Then, everything just as quickly seemed to return to normal.
I arrived at the Wal-Mart on 19th Street just before 10 AM. This was one of the staging areas for relief workers and recovery efforts; there were tents everywhere. Kellogg’s had a tent serving breakfast, Tide had an area to do laundry for folks, even the salon inside the store was offering free shampoos. I parked and walked over to our tent, up by the entrance, and met the sales folks that were running our Wireless Support Station. U.S. Cellular was offering free loaner phones (no information required), a quick-charging station, and had a good supply of car and wall chargers for people to take with them. After a few minutes, one of the leaders there offered to take me to their second location, half a mile west next to a church on Eagle Drive.
After being introducing to our guy there and taking a little time to get situated, I was given a backpack full of car chargers and the two of us set out to offer help. Up by the main road, houses were still mostly intact. Once we rounded a corner back in the neighborhood, everything changed.
It’s hard to pin down the emotions I felt as I walked by houses that no longer resembled homes. People were gathering debris and cleaning up what they could, but where do you start when there is nothing left but rubble? Many people took us up on our free chargers, and although nobody needed a loaner phone everyone was thankful. Other relief volunteers from countless organizations had food tables scattered throughout the area and others rode up and down the streets in four-wheelers offering food and drink. Some people just sat, shell shocked, while others embraced and wept. I walked right by Plaza Towers Elementary School and the temporary memorial that looked very familiar to anyone familiar with the Murrah site in Oklahoma City. In that area, not even frames were left. Everything was gone. Trees were nothing more than giant sticks in the ground with metal wrapped around a branch here and there.
Ruined cars littered the landscape. Police and National Guard roamed the streets. In the distance, you could hear the beeping of dump trucks and front-end loaders…but most folks just had a pair of gloves and their own strength. People were friendly to each other and there volunteers from as far away as Joplin, MO and San Antonio, TX…and I’m sure there were others around from even farther away. Volunteering for clean-up, passing out food, doing whatever they could to help. Even though I was only amidst the destruction for an hour, it felt like a week.
At about 2:00, the others from the Tulsa Care Center arrived and I headed back home. I am humbled by my experience in Moore and thankful I work for a company that rushed into the community to provide assistance. It may seem trivial to some, but people sure were thankful to have a way to reach their loved ones when they had no power and little else.
The images of today will stay with me for a long time.