Sunday, June 9, 2013

Moore, Oklahoma: A good day to make a difference

I'm not much of a morning person but this morning was different. On this morning, June 1st, we were heading to Moore, Oklahoma as part of a tornado relief team; we were going to help people.

On 20 May 2013 in the afternoon we stood around the dining room table and watched (live via the weather channel) as an EF5 tornado swept through the city of Moore, Oklahoma, leaving nothing but a brown coloured strip of destruction in its wake. Even though with my mind I understood that people's lives were changing before my very eyes, it felt a lot like watching a movie.

For someone who is originally from South Africa the closest I've ever come to the aftermath of a natural disaster is the photo's and footage of television and newspapers, but this day I was going to experience it up close and personal for the first time. And not just experience it, but I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the solution. I would realize that the reality is a far cry from the movies.

With a roughly two and a half hour drive ahead of us, we hit the road bright and early. This was going to be a busy day.

We reported for duty at the Journey Church in Norman, Oklahoma. Volunteers are arriving from everywhere to lend a helping hand. I could see clearly that these people know the drill. Not only have there been countless natural disasters in the US, but it is also the third time that this particular area has been hit by tornado's. 

The first time was in May 1999, EF5 strength, killing 36 people, destroying and damaging 8,000 homes and damages amounting to $1 billion. This tornado is considered the most brutal of the three. Then an EF4 tornado struck again in May 2003, but thankfully this time it moved through less populated areas and no fatalities were reported. The third time being May 2013, EF5 strength, killing 23 people, destroying an estimated 12,000 homes and damages estimated at over $1 billion.

In this session we were briefed on the registration process, the availability of tools, supplies, restrooms, lunch, work orders, the importance of the home owner's signature to avoid law suits, etc. Yes, it has happened before that home owners have sued volunteer organisations/people based somehow on their assistance after such a disastrous event. So even while the intentions are good, you cannot lose sight of the legalities, therefore unless the owner has signed consent for the work order to be executed we were not allowed to start the work. 

This is not exactly the kind of thing that is mentioned in the news paper but it made me realize that there is more to this kind of disaster than prayer, compassion and quoting Bible verses... a lot more. On the one hand you have the heart issues for the people, but on the other these events have to be managed very similar to a business.

To add insult to injury, a second storm (including another tornado) hit the area just the evening before our arrival - thankfully not as severe as the storms from a week ago, but sadly still reporting another nine fatalities. In addition it brought down the tent in which all the relief supplies were being collected. (The collapsed red sail in the background above.) So today this tent would have to be pealed back and all of the supplies be retrieved and re-organized in a new holding area.

Work orders in hand we set off in search of the address. The easiest way to navigate through the area is probably by GPS or map - methods that don't require street name boards. Very few to none of those were left, and it's easy to get lost. 

Driving amongst the piles of debris really drives the reality of this awful, awful disaster home. About a week prior to this storm tornado warnings were issued in the area where I live. Lying in the bathtub, mattress overhead and praying that God would see us through, I have never before felt lightning strike so close or so loud, but I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to emerge from a shelter after a storm to the sights above. 

I don't think hearing of these disasters on the news make us realize the true depth of the tragedy. Every hour bulletin reports a new dilemma, tragic disaster and catastrophe. By the end of the day hundreds of lives have been changed forever and the next day it starts all over again. But for months (or even years) after the media has left the scene victims continue to work on restoring some kind of normalcy - life the way they remember it. There's insurance issues, the cleaning up process, building permits, careful financial decisions and trying to avoid the loopholes of small print. In the meantime they have to figure out where else to live while attending school and work as usual. The news bulletin is really only the tip of the iceberg.

This link is an interactive map that shows satellite pictures of the affected areas before and after the tornado.

The project that we worked on for most of the day was the home of a family with a young baby and a nine year old boy. Thankfully the whole family was safe. Above is what it might look like when winds of an estimated 210 mph (340km/h) rips through a home. With no roof and the extra rain from the storm the previous night everything was soaked through, smelly and an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. 

At first my basic instinct wanted to sift through things and see what could be salvaged with some soap and water, and what was simply a lost cause, but considering the health issues with a tiny baby, most everything had to go in the trash in the end. Health and safety issues: another something I did not consider.

From an emotional perspective it was easier for me working outside in the yard. There it seemed more like debris and less personal. Inside the house I tried to imagine what this home looked like before the storm. I tried to imagine the family living there, playing there, baby crying there, kids doing homework and mom cooking dinner. 

In my mind home should be a haven; a safe place to go to when it feels like the world is caving in. It should be somewhere where you feel loved and safe, where you can breath, where you can kick your slippers under the bed.   It is not just about the things. These people have lost their haven. We weren't just helping the process of rebuilding homes, but rebuilding lives. We were helping to bring hope that things will get better. 

The back room of this house was basically completely demolished. On the left is what it looked like initially. On the right is the back yard when we were done. All that was really left of the back portion of the house was the foundation. Also on the right is the first storm shelter I've ever seen for real. There's many different kinds of shelters, but this one is basically a round tubular hole in the ground with concrete walls, I'm guessing about seven or so foot in diameter, and about ten to twelve foot deep and covered with a steel lid. I imagine this particular hole in the ground having saved a few lives over the years.

As you're working through the debris your mind wants to automatically assume that the mess and the particular house go together, but that is not necessarily true. Tornado's can blow debris and belongings for miles around. Anything can end up just about anywhere, either never to be found again, or perhaps months or even years later.

In the later part of the afternoon we had a very interesting visitor drive by. Jack Haden survived the tornado hiding in a storm shelter. He emerged to find his Ford Mustang having been flung several feet into a tree. At that moment he couldn't possibly have imagined what would happen to his beat up car next.  Within just a few hours his Mustang had gone from

Pic from KSBI TV video clip

Pic from KSBI TV video clip


Picture taken by our team leader
After clearing off the rubble Jack discovered that the engine was still running. It may not be roadworthy exactly, but for the time being this make shift go-cart of sorts is bringing many smiles to this wounded community. 

Within just a couple of weeks pictures of this Mustang has travelled as far as Canada. I'd say this says something very real about the durability of the Ford brand. Who knows, perhaps Mr Haden is in for a brand new promotional vehicle in exchange for the advertising? How about it, Mr Ford?

It was a long day. It was a busy day. I was a good day. Usually I have a lot to say, but sometimes doing something achieves more. It was so awesome to see and be the Bible in motion. As we were shovelling debris to the curb I could feel a sense of hope; That everything is going to be ok, even if it takes some time. Now I realize that the journey is a long, slow one, but I'm thankful for the privilege I had of helping this family take some steps - albeit baby steps - towards a better tomorrow.

In the final analysis it is not so important who does what exactly, or how much of it, but together there is a solution, there is progress, there is comfort, healing and hope. Every single contribution is a practical difference with profound, eternal value. After all, even the two loaves and five fishes fed a multitude when Jesus was done with it. Every gesture is instrumental in honouring the Lord, used to be Jesus with skin on to people who is very much in need of God's help, a very present and well-proved help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1 Amp)

A few days before the trip I read a post on Facebook about something that a 12-year old volunteer had to say; something about not being happy for the people having lost their homes, but being very happy to help them get it back. Now, on the other side of my volunteer experience, I understand first hand what he meant. 

There was no other place I would rather have been on this day.

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