Media coverage of the Moore, Oklahoma, disaster relief efforts led us to think that thousands of workers were here, efficiently razing houses, removing debris, and restoring order to the Oklahoma City suburb. Megan and I were somewhat concerned that we would merely be in the way.
The reality, of course, is quite different from the TV version. Volunteers poured in from all over the country, but most came the first week. Although it’s difficult to estimate how many are here now, I can tell you there are certainly not enough. We expected the City Rescue Mission gym to be lined with cots just a few feet apart, packing in a hundred or so workers. Tonight, just 16 of us remain — 12 women (mostly college girls) and four men.
Yesterday morning at Serve Moore, the site that is coordinating volunteer efforts, several clusters of a dozen or so people wearing matching T-shirts (Lutheran Youth League, Southern Baptists of Alabama, and the like) waited for instructions from a couple of 20-something organizers. As we cruised the affected neighborhoods — most of which are sandwiched between 4th Street to the north and 19th street to the south, and stretching over a couple of miles from east to west — looking for our own work site, we passed a half dozen similar groups of volunteers already at work. But the majority of houses sat untouched.
The volunteer work itself can be frustrating and tedious. After a Tuesday afternoon full of false starts and dead ends, I was sharing my frustrations with a couple of Alabama ladies wearing chaplain T-shirts. The women looked at each other and nodded knowingly. “We had the same thing happen to us the first time we did this,” one said. “You need to be trained. Then you can go in immediately, before the organizations take over and make everything more difficult.”
Her words named our reality. We could look around and see an overwhelming amount of work to be done, but the actual tasks we were allowed to complete were limited by insurance processes (evidenced by company names and claim numbers spray painted on garage doors), utility companies, local officials, FEMA, and other powers-that-be, all of which are vital to restoring a community, but most of which combine to create gridlock.
Yesterday ended in frustration. We both prayed for patience, but asked God to please use us and the others who had come so far to help. It didn’t seem right that so many people needed what our group had to offer, but yet connections weren’t being made.
This morning at first appeared to be more of the same. After meeting up with our group at Plaza Elementary to sort a pile of bricks (the Hope Raisers group wanted the good bricks saved to give to the families of school children and teachers), we planned to meet up with some Baptist pastors who had heavy equipment to raze a house for an older woman. We waited at the partially demolished house for a half hour, talking with the woman, who shared her family’s story: Nine of them (including kids and grandkids visiting from out of town) hid in the backyard storm cellar, which had the door sucked off by the twister. They survived unscathed, but the house did not. The front was ripped off, exposing the rooms inside. We could see her bed still sitting in a room upstairs.
The Baptists arrived and decided they couldn’t use us until tomorrow because the heavy equipment needed to be brought in first. So we drove back to Serve Moore to await further instructions.
Our next site was more fruitful: We met Martin, a Harley rider who, along with his wife, survived the storm by putting on his motorcycle helmet and hiding in a closet as the house crashed down around him. His story made CNN. He showed us the spot in the backyard where he planned to build a storm cellar. At Martin’s house, we cleared debris, carrying pieces of wood and metal and random items — including football gear from the neighborhood junior high school — to the curb for the FEMA trucks to pick up.
Finally, our last work site of the day was most productive. We joined another mid-sized group at the home of a retired college professor who had lost everything. Our job was to sort through an incredible amount of rubble to save anything of value. As we did, we hauled larger pieces to the curb to begin clearing the site. The work was painstaking, hot, dusty, and exhausting, but there was something satisfying about helping recover some small pieces of this man’s life. We only made a dent in the pile of splintered wood, twisted metal, and shredded books that used to be his house, so we will go back tomorrow to continue the task.
We are learning that this is what disaster relief is like: there is no completed project, no fulfilling ending. Just many small phases, each tackled by a different group of people from a different place at a different time, one group picking up where the last left off.
To be continued…