On May 20th, shortly after an EF5 tornado demolished the town of Moore, Oklahoma, MSNBC's Martin Bashir called it "perhaps the worst tornado in the history of the planet."
Slight exaggeration. Even still (it was Oklahoma's 9th most-deadly in recorded history and besides, the 1925 Tri-State twister killed nearly 700 people), this one was significant in that it remained on the ground a full 40 minutes, unheard of as far as tornadoes go. That conjures up the image of a mixer being used on an anthill. It's estimated there were 14,000 homes damaged and destroyed, displacing over 33,000 people. Yet, only 24 lives were lost.
By the following Thursday, Volunteers from the Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN) were being deployed. I'm a Chaplain with ADRN but had to wait until Saturday to arrive due to a wedding I was officiating here in town. I headed to Moore directly after the I-do's, arriving about 11 PM. After having recently been deployed to the West, Texas explosion, we were assigned to a beautiful high school in Oklahoma City, just outside of Moore - Westmoore High - in order to assist the Survivors. The compounding of the names of the two towns we'd recently served intrigued me.
STORY AFTER STORY
There are many faces in Moore I can't forget, including a 3-year old cutie named Reilly who said, “My school is broken...my friends are gone...” No sooner had she said that to me when a classmate named Lillian came running up to her. The two little ladies touched each other and seemed to dance together for a moment until Lillian's parents ushered her along, both girls smiling broadly, eyes locked.
I'll remember a 4-year old boy who said he could see blue sky through the tornado over his head with cows in the sky above him and the story of a man whose safe containing $75,000 had been carried off by the twister.
The first Survivor I spoke with was at Ground Zero, across from the elementary school, a man working in what was once a laundry room. I couldn't get close for all the rubble between us but, as we talked from about 10 feet apart, he began laughing when he found his grandmother's clothes still in the washing machine. His sister approached from behind me and told me she worked a daycare and usually had eight kids to care for. The day of the tornado, only three showed up. I heard many stories like that, people who deviated from their routine or changed their schedule, only to have that be a decision that may have saved their lives. Yes, this twister brought about the end of many people's worlds as they knew it, but it was an event that will prove to be a stumbling block to their progress, or a springboard to greater things.
One woman shared with me how her mom had been brushing her teeth using a paper Dixie Cup. When she returned to assess the damage of the 200-MPH winds, the house was destroyed but the Dixie Cup was still on the sink where she'd left it. Amazing.
Equally as amazing was the story another woman shared of a birthday cake she had placed on her table in preparation for her son's birthday and, though her kitchen was destroyed, the cake was unscathed, still there on the table where she'd left it.
I was shocked at the huge patches of grass that had been sucked out of the earth leaving brown soil exposed everywhere.
I'll never forget the memorial inside the fence at the grade school – a school I described to my son as “looking as if a Giant had stepped on it” - containing nine crosses for the children who had died there and the many stuffed animals, flags, and notes stuck in the fence. Weeping people were drawn there from all over the nation to pay their respects. Along with three other ADRN Chaplains, we approached many and ministered comfort, prayer and consolation.
At Westmoore High, a woman waiting her turn for assistance told me she was in the final phase of ovarian cancer, just out of the hospital 2 weeks after her 5th surgery, and survived the tornado. She had been given three months to live, now this. As she considered her own survival, she shared how she'd been asking herself, “Does that mean God still has something for me to do?” I ministered healing to her and she hugged my neck, eyes filled with tears.
AGAINST A COMMON ENEMY
So many people told me they were touched and impacted by the army of Volunteers who were there to assist them in getting their lives back together. One woman, after asking where my own team of yellow-shirted Volunteers were from, with tears streaming down her cheeks, exclaimed, “We're die-hard O.U. fans but I really LOVE Texas right now!”
Though the Red Cross was in charge of the relief operation, along with the ADRN, the Islamic Relief, a Buddhist group, Catholic Charities, The Knights of Columbus, Good Will, St. Vincent DePaul Society, Salvation Army, Texas Baptist Men, Operation Blessing, Samaritan's Purse, Save the Children, World Vision and various churches and many more relief agencies were participating and working side-by-side. AT&T had a bank of computers there so folks could eMail, check Facebook and play games. There were two TVs as well as a station for charging cell phones with little lockers for the phones so Survivors could walk away and tend to business. Trained and loving workers kept the children entertained, that is, those kids who weren't too frightened to leave their parents' side.
PEOPLE MAKING PROGRESS
A person can gain weight at a disaster site! Great free food is available everywhere. From cases of water found at nearly every street corner to Pizza Hut and Chick-Fil-A being handed out from the back of vehicles, people were standing in line waiting to be served whatever they preferred.
Local churches have been transformed into storage facilities as 18-wheelers arrived daily bringing tons of goods, everything a Survivor might need to re-establish their lives. People pushed shopping carts down aisles and loaded up, all at no charge, no questions asked.
Several asked me how they, too, could become an ADRN Chaplain or Volunteer and took a moment to jot down our web address. These included an East Indian Pastor from Dallas, a jovial Chinese Minister as well as two girls from Arkansas whose church came to assist.
Many things are engrained in my memory. There were so many Homeland Security vehicles and personnel, cammo-colored Hummers filled with airmen on security detail, cops, utility workers repairing stoplights, not to mention the many colored t-shirts of relief workers such as my own group, the ADRN. Of course, there were uniformed insurance adjusters everywhere carrying clipboards and cameras. Gawkers and rubber-neckers drove and walked “Ground Zero” from all over the nation. I even met several from Newtown, Connecticut and was told that one teary-eyed man said his church lost two kids in the Sandy Hook shooting.
I'll always remember the downed street lights, cars lifted high into trees and on piles of debris, mountains of once-precious belongings soaring high above the streets, cars looking as if they were made of colored tin foil, crumpled and broken while so few people suffered even a scratch.
Tuesday afternoon, the high school was cleared due to incoming severe weather. As another ADRN Volunteer and I were having dinner, a woman walked over with her son, about 9 years old, nudged the boy and said, “Go on, say it...” He thanked us for coming to help and his mom said he had lost two friends. That Volunteer and I headed for Ground Zero after we ate, him on the phone with his wife, attempting to describe the awesome scene and taking pictures. By now, the stench of spoiled food and growing mold was in the air, blown about by the strong winds.
I repeatedly made Survivors aware they had experienced an encounter with our merciful and gracious God whose angels were given charge over them and, in most cases, that realization hit them and lifted their countenance. It was wonderful to see people go from having that “whipped puppy” look to smiling and even laughing again. We helped them to have hope. We shouldered their burdens and kept them company from station to station as compassionate counselors asked questions and helped with paperwork.
I will ever be amazed by the fact so few people were killed. After viewing the carnage up close, comparing it to my hometown's local landfill, only criss-crossed with paved streets, I am still awed by that fact. Photos simply cannot do this disaster any justice.
ARE YOU A READY CHRISTIAN?
To those in “Tornado Alley,” I recommend you make copies of all your important papers and mail those copies to a trusted relative far away. In your shelter, place some cycling or motorcycle helmets, safety glasses and a whistle so you can increase your odds of survival. I met one biker couple who shared how they were so pinned down by debris, they had to be slid out of their helmets.
One last thing... is YOUR family prepared? Is your church, business, school ready, not only to shelter-in-place, but to reach out to those who survive the next disaster? It's a shame it takes a tragedy like this to bring folks together like this. Fact as, as Christians, we already HAVE a common enemy and a mutual cause to advance God's Kingdom upon the earth. Sadly, far too many choose to remain segregated, advancing the cause of our own denomination or church, if anything, making Sunday's into what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “the most segregated day of the week.”
We can do better. We simply must. You can start by sharing this message with your friends.
Donations are desperately needed and appreciated in order for restoration to come sooner. On several occasions, groups handing out Gift Cards had to ask people to come back later as they had run out of funds and were unable to purchase more until more funds were available. Please donate at the ADRN website: ADRNTX.org. By doing so, ADRN will be able to buy more Gift Cards and hand them to the many needy families to which we are privileged to minister.
As for me, though I arrived at home about 7 last night, I'm headed back to Moore tomorrow evening. Your intercession is greatly appreciated!
NOTE: Michael Tummillo submits this article only as a Christian writer, for your personal information, not as an ADRN Representative, and is not compensated for this message.