Watching the news coverage of a tragedy like the Moore, OK, storm is always difficult. We see the photos. We hear the stories. Our eyes well up at the youtube videos showing the kid reunited with his missing dog.
But today marked the first time I’ve seen a story like this with my own eyes — and discovered that the TV version only skims the surface of the violent reality.
This morning, Meg and I were ready to jump in and start volunteering with the group that we met at the shelter last night, who invited us to join them. After several long days of clearing debris, they were ready for some fresh faces. However, they warned us that we needed to explore the devastated area for a while before going to work. “It’s shocking,” one woman told us. “You will be very emotional, and you’ll need time to process it.”
So we heeded the group’s advice and plugged Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children perished, into our GPS. The other group said we should start there because the school was in the center of the hardest-hit neighborhood.
Moore is less than 10 minutes south of downtown Oklahoma City via I-35. As we exited the highway, we noticed some debris, and stores with missing signs and roofs. There was significant damage to a shopping center on 19th Street. This was more evidence of nature’s violence than I’ve ever seen, but it was to be expected. Then, a mile or so down the road, the GPS instructed us to turn onto Santa Fe Avenue.
We rounded the corner — and everything changed.
Both of us stopped talking. My foot slipped off the accelerator inadvertently, and the car slowed. At first, my eyes couldn’t even make sense of the scene before me: Tornadoes are known for their randomness — a house ripped apart here, while the one next door is left intact. But on this stretch of road just west of Plaza Towers Elementary, there were no houses. They were simply gone. Piles of rubble remained, punctuated by the occasional tree — not uprooted, as with most storms, but sheared off just above the trunk. Standing like lifeless, limbless sentinels, guarding the debris. Cars were crumpled and strewn about, as if in a junkyard.
“Oh…” Meg choked out. “It’s so…” There were no words.
The devastation continued as we wound through the streets of the housing development surrounding the school. Finding our way there was like solving a maze; rubble barricaded some streets, while huge, noisy FEMA trucks and bulldozers blocked others.
After a few minutes, the GPS told us we had arrived at the school. But there was no school — only a chain-link FEMA fence surrounding piles of brick and dirt. We parked, got out, and walked toward a white tent set up just behind the twisted metal school sign, which proclaimed, “May 20 Awards Day — May 22 Super Kids Day!”
The tent was sponsored by Project Hope, whose volunteers stay for weeks at disaster sites like this one, helping victims process and begin to heal. We talked briefly to a volunteer who had lost her husband and 8-year-old child in the Joplin storms two years ago and learned that the first person she met at the tent was a father whose daughter had died in the school. Talking to the volunteers made us both cry, so we left them to explore the perimeter of the school grounds, where hundreds of stuffed animals, plastic flowers, and messages were tucked into the chain link fence as a makeshift memorial.
Just on the other side of the fence stood seven small crosses, each bearing the name of a child. In the middle, a taller cross with the number “7” at the top stood watch over the rest. We didn’t know what to do, so we just pressed our faces against the chain link, looked at the crosses, and prayed for those families… trying to fathom what they felt when they rushed to the school to find their children and saw the trusted, solid building leveled to the ground.
There was something about that place. Maybe it feels like that anywhere children die. It was unfathomably sad — but not dark. Despite the noise of trucks and dozers clanging in the background, it was peaceful. Serene. Like God was more fully present there. (I found myself wanting to stay, and later in the day I went back. It’s hard to explain.)
After paying our respects at the school, we quietly walked the streets of the neighborhood for a half hour or so. It is a modest neighborhood once filled with simple brick, ranch-style homes. A crew of volunteers wearing matching church T-shirts were hard at work in the front yard of one partially destroyed house. FEMA dozers razed what was left of another house, farther down the street. A police cruiser slowly drove past, carefully weaving around the debris piles that lined both sides of the road. An older woman sitting on a lawn chair in her garage nodded at us, and we waved back. Hers was one of the few houses that still appeared livable; others were boarded up, or demolished down to concrete slabs.
We made our way back to the Hope tent, where we purchased T-shirts to help with their work. On the back of the shirt was space to write a prayer or message of encouragement. We borrowed laundry markers and carefully wrote these words from the prophet Isaiah:
“…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
And then we got in our car, and drove to join the rest of our group, who were clearing debris from someone’s backyard. Tomorrow I’ll write more about that.