Tornado survivors heal as they dig

Travis Cotten was in a jocular mood for someone who had just lost everything.

“I’m going to quit being a hoarder,” he said as his granddaughter handed him the polished stone base of an award from the Future Farmers of America, pulled from the bottom of a three-foot-deep pile of rubbish in what used to be his dining room. Into a trash bag it went.

“I’ve been meaning to clean out the attic,” he said, lingering over a waterlogged, streaked photograph of his nephew and middle sister, who died of cancer. He placed it carefully in a blue plastic storage bin with other photos and crayon drawings by his grandchildren.

In the tornado-stricken neighborhoods of Moore, residents are combing through the flattened ruins of their homes that once were filled with stuff. The lucky ones find enough to fill two or three storage tubs.

Disaster zones are other-worldly scenes.

For the Patteson family in Moore, Ok., small victories--like finding a lost wedding ring--mean everything. The tight-knit community has helped the Pattesons maintain composure as they search the debris of their home for any salvageable belongings. (AJ Chavar/The Washington Post)

In the neighborhood surrounding Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children died, residents climb atop mounds of rubble with rakes and shovels, scouring for salvageable gems like ragpickers in a Third World garbage dump. They do a form of triage on their possessions. One small pile is items worth keeping. A slightly larger pile is left at the curb for passersby to help themselves. The biggest pile is for the bulldozers to clear away.

A single-engine propeller plane circled overhead Friday, trailing a banner with the logo for Farmers Insurance and a telephone number above big red letters “File a Claim.” An endless stream of cars and vans cruised past. Some held police, insurance adjusters and National Guard troops. Others carried nurses giving tetanus shots, church groups handing out replacement Bibles, or people offering homemade barbecue sandwiches, Ga­tor­ade and water. In some driveways, the stacks of donated food and water were larger than the pile of retrieved possessions, and several residents joked that they had gained weight since the disaster.

Occasionally cheers arose. A group near the school found a scared and hungry kitten. A block away, a group came across a woman’s white Coach purse. They said it was on the living room couch when the owner sought shelter in her closet and was found buried under rubbish on the patio where the hot tub once stood.

Cotten, a 61-year-old boiler engineer who has worked 34 years for the same company, lived in the neighborhood for 36 years. He and his wife raised four children there and have 13 grandchildren.

The Cottens were on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when the tornado leveled their home Monday, but one of their daughters was able to get to the house Thursday to assess the damage. Rummaging through the ruins, she was able to find his gun in a drawer of a smashed dresser, the safe where they kept their credit cards and even the key to the safe.

Members of Cotten’s church, co-workers and two grandchildren accompanied him to help look for more belongings. A small pile began accumulating: A jug of vinegar. A green plastic sieve. Training manuals from work. His grandson brought over a soggy manila folder holding the Cottens’ wills. The originals were in a safe deposit bank at his credit union, which was destroyed by the tornado. Cotten tore the copies into shreds and threw them in a garbage bag, figuring his lawyer will have copies.

Someone found the orange-and-black clock that used to stand on the piano, stopped at 3:23, about the time the tornado swept down to destroy his house. The fireplace was the only part of his house still standing, and someone propped the clock on its ledge.

“We don’t really know what we’re looking for,” said Cotten, his twang betraying his Texas upbringing. “But everyone wants to help. So why not let them? If it makes them feel good.”

Cotten considers himself a lucky man. His insurance company contacted him the day he returned from vacation. The company has rented him a three-bedroom house and promised that furniture, linens and dishes will arrive next week.

So he makes light of his loss.

“My wife wanted to renovate the kitchen,” he said. “I told her she prayed too hard.

“I’m not tough. This bothers me. But we know who takes care of us. God said he’d never forsake us. He’s already given me a house and filled it with furniture.”

But even tough Oklahomans have been bowed by this tornado. Bryan Baker, a former neighbor, stopped by to talk to Cotten about insurance matters. Baker, 63, sold his house down the street to his daughter two years ago. She was home alone, huddled in a closet, when the tornado hit. Survivors emerged to hear trapped children in Plaza Tower Elementary calling out for their mommies and daddies, and his daughter went over barefoot to help them escape. Then she walked a mile to the high school to find her son.

Now she can’t bring herself to go back, Baker said.

“She’s too traumatized,” he said. “But my oldest daughter has come here and is looking through things. Digging through is part of the healing process for her. She was so proud. She found photos I didn’t remember existed. One of my grandmother, her great-grandmother. Another one of my parents. Those are things that can’t be replaced. The rest of it is just stuff.”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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