Oklahoma City starts to dig out from tornado

May 22, 2013

Cathie Parker and her two daughters brought their wheelbarrow, rakes and shovels to the Moore city cemetery Wednesday, wanting to make sure that the victims of Monday’s monster tornado are buried in a place of peace and beauty.

“Memorial Day is next week, and we know there are going to have to be some funerals here in the next few days,” said Parker, 52, a corporate trainer who was among hundreds of volunteers who flocked to the cemetery to clear graves and walkways coated with soggy insulation ripped from homes. “We don’t want them to come and see this terrible mess. We don’t want them to have to be reminded of the disaster.”

The cleanup of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City that bore the brunt of the tornado’s deadly force, began in earnest Wednesday, and among the first tasks for the survivors will be to bury the dead.

The town’s 55,000 residents are still digesting grievous details of damage and loss from the twister that cut a swath 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide Monday afternoon. The Oklahoma City medical examiner’s office said that all 24 of the known dead have been identified. Ten are children, including two infants, 4 months and 7 months old, who both died of blunt-force trauma to the head.

The White House announced that President Obama would visit the area Sunday to survey the damage, thank the first responders and offer condolences to families of the dead.

In Moore, Okla., residents, officials and volunteer workers come to grips with the aftermath of the EF-5 level tornado that levelled hundreds of homes in the town. (A.J. Chavar/The Washington Post)

The search for more victims is nearing an end. Search-and-rescue units from Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas have canvassed affected neighborhoods, and on Wednesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency teams combed through open fields and cluttered streams and under ragged trees with twisted aluminum siding hanging like moss from their branches.

“We’re going to be looking for something that doesn’t look like a body,” said Steve Dolezal, part of the search-and-rescue team from Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., before the 80 members of the team fanned out across a muddy, snake-infested field behind a church. “Hair mashed up. Clothing. That stuff. Take your time and verify what you see.”

Many residents took advantage of sunny skies to wash away clumps of insulation that looked like mud sticking to their rooftops, doors and walls. Tiny specks of insulation drifted in the air, causing children to cough. Others returned to leveled neighborhoods, scavenging what few personal possessions they could find. At a few homes that lost roofs and windows but are still partially standing, brand-new American flags have been raised. The sound of bulldozers filled the air.

The experience is so wrenching, many do not know if they will ever return.

“It’s too early to make a decision, but my first inclination is no,” said Theresa Modena, 60, standing in a shredded garage holding the dented and dirty yellow 1970 Mustang her husband spent years restoring. “We lived here for 35 years. My children were raised here. I don’t think I have the heart and stamina to go through cleaning this up, then dive into rebuilding.”

‘I’ll rebuild what I can’

But others cannot imagine abandoning their homes just because their houses need rebuilding.

“This is my neighborhood,” said Steven McDonald, 36, who has lived in the same neighborhood his entire life. “I’ll rebuild what I can. We’re strong.”

McDonald “just barely” outran the tornado in his van, then turned around and drove a few blocks to the school he attended as a child — Plaza Towers Elementary School. “I knew the kids were there.”

In the heat of the afternoon Wednesday, McDonald recalled pulling more than 50 people from the rubble. The one he remembers is the one he didn’t pull out because he knew the boy was dead. “He was face down with his arms out. I couldn’t see his face.” He said he had to pull the other students out over the boy’s body. Seven children died at the elementary school.

Moments after recounting his story, McDonald noticed a small boy and his family standing beside a red wagon. “Xavier?” McDonald asked with surprise. “Did I pull you out of the school?”

Xavier Delgado, 9, looked up at the broad-shouldered McDonald and nodded yes. McDonald swept him into his arms. Xavier’s parents, Simon and Athena, cried out and from two sides hugged the boy and the man. “We didn’t know who pulled him out,” Athena Delgado said, tears streaming behind her glasses.

“How’s your back, buddy?” McDonald asked Xavier, who pulled up his shirt to show a row of stitches. “Yeah, I figured he would [have stitches] , ’cause when I pulled him out, I said, ‘Be careful with his back,’ and he asked me, ‘Am I bleeding?’ ” McDonald patted the boy’s close-cropped brown hair. “It’s nice to see you, brother.”

Only the foundation of the Delgado home is still standing. Their neighborhood around the school is now desolate, reminiscent of photographs of Hiroshima in 1945, after allied forces dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city.

In neighborhoods where the damage was not so apocalyptic, officials are working to make them habitable soon. Electricity is expected to be restored in some of the areas so residents whose houses sustained minimal damage can return home.

Lingering perils

But dangers remain. Nails driven airborne by the monster winds litter the fields, and two of the search dogs brought by the Nebraska search and rescue team have been sidelined after stepping on them. Household chemicals used for cleaning have soaked into the fields. In some neighborhoods, the faint odor of gas can be detected from ruptured lines.

Tensions flared at a police barricade where residents waited most of the day to be allowed to get back in and check on their homes. When an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer told them they had to stay out because of the potential for gas explosions, a loud “No!” rose from the crowd. A young man approached the officer, cursing and crying. He begged to be allowed access to find his lost cat, who he said might be trapped and dying.

“It’s going to be all right,” the officer said.

“It’s not going to be all right,” the man shouted.

Eventually, police said the residents would be allowed entry to the neighborhood in the late afternoon, prompting cheers and applause from the crowd.

Survivors can expect to have emotional repercussions for months to come, said Brad Thavenet, head of the Nebraska team, one of 28 groups around the country called to natural disasters. Thavenet has been to many disasters with his team, but his perspective is personal. When he was a teenager, his childhood home was leveled by a tornado.

“All your keepsakes from when you were a child, your parents’ pictures, they’re all waterlogged or disappeared,” he said. “Then you may be daunted by being forced to deal with contractors and insurance agents. But material things can be replaced. And you see the community come together to help.”

Pitching in to help

After Hurricane Sandy struck the New York area in the fall, many residents complained that federal and state officials were not rushing to their aid. In Moore, residents expressed gratitude for the response from officials and from their fellow citizens.

So many volunteers have streamed to the worst-hit areas, desiring to help, that it created traffic jams. The city announced on its Web site that the ravaged cemetery was the only place where it needed a hand.

“Due to the overwhelming generosity of our friends and neighbors,” the notice read, “the City of Moore is no longer in need of donations.”

People heard about the cemetery cleanup through Twitter and Facebook, and by mid-morning, close to 1,000 people were working around grave sites that were sodden with water and littered with debris. Two carried a plastic tub through the crowd, asking volunteers to deposit photographs they found strewn around the cemetery. The photos will be dried out and posted on the city’s Web site, along with hundreds of others that residents have been finding and turning in.

Sean Evans, a pastor whose church was among 20 that helped sponsor the cleanup, said the effort was a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of families who are going to need to bury their loved ones,” he said. “We want them to be proud of the cemetery.”

Tami McKeever, 54, a retired accountant, drove to Moore from her home in rural Cashion, 40 miles away, because she wanted to do something. Her own town has been hit by a tornado that came within half a mile of her house.

“It hits close to home,” she said as she picked up bunches of debris and stuck them into a plastic bag. This is Oklahoma. People want to do something. It’s not a big thing. But it’s something.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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