MOORE, Okla. — I was on vacation in Oklahoma at the end of May, to visit family. My wife and I were actually looking forward to a change in climate and the potential for some thunderstorms, but were not expecting what would come May 20.
I grew up in central Oklahoma, in the areas directly affected by the recent EF-5 tornado that devastated the place I call home. I attended Moore High School and had a civilian job in that area before joining the Air Force. While I wasn’t in Moore during the 1999 tornado, I remember seeing the destruction that had been caused then, and how it was similar to the tornado this spring. My upbringing in Oklahoma, along with the training and education I’ve received from the Air Force, helped me know how I could help once the storms were over.
We already had our day planned the morning of May 20, but the weather had other intentions. Instead of running our errands that day, we sat in my sister’s house fixed to the news watching as a monster tornado came barreling towards my hometown, my family and my friends. As we looked outside, we could see the tornado as it passed through Moore and into more rural areas. We watched as the power flashed on and off and observed the incredibly large intensity of the storm from a distance. After the storm had calmed, my wife and I set out to make sure our loved ones were safe.
The quickest way into the heart of Moore is by Interstate 35, which the tornado had passed right over. Instead, we took a more rural route. The closer we got to Moore, the slower traffic became, as commuters were being diverted off I-35. The closer we came to town, the more debris we were able to see.
Driving into town we saw insulation, metal, shingles and paper of all kinds littering the roadways. Our first stop was across the street from Moore High School, about a mile away from a relative’s house. After we parked we ran the additional mile, past debris and downed power lines, until we got to the house. After making sure everyone was well, we returned to the car and pressed on to the area where the tornado began its path, in an attempt to locate my cousin.
The area was nearly impossible to get into. We entered the area from the north and began walking south, toward the area most heavily affected. At first everything seemed normal, but after a few blocks we began seeing the damage; debris everywhere and power lines downed like dominos. The struggle to find my cousin’s street was immense – all visual landmarks were erased, homes were flattened and street signs had disappeared. The destruction was completely random. For example, the house across the street had only minor roof damage, but one street over only concrete slabs remained where homes once stood.
My wife was the first to recognize the street we were searching for and suddenly we were staring at the half of my cousin’s house that remained standing. We soon found out everyone was safe and after exchanging hugs and sobs of relief we sprang into action. I grabbed documents and keepsakes, collected photo albums and birth certificates, and located clothing for the children. My wife helped comfort their son. My cousin was in disbelief, having just lived through something 24 others had not been so lucky to survive. Her husband tried to collect any personal possessions he could find, while tears streamed down his face.
Once were had established my cousin’s family was safe, my wife and I sat out to help others. We headed toward the Plaza Towers Elementary School, traversing power lines, fences, building materials and an assortment of hazardous debris. It didn’t take long to find someone who needed assistance – a woman who looked to be in her 50s, with a broken leg whose house was completely devastated. Her husband was wandering around in a house slipper and tennis shoe, searching for their pets. A group of police officers who were nearby lent a hand and, together, we dug through the rubble and found two of their pets – the third was gone.
Moving farther into the neighborhood, we continued to search for others in need of help. By now, we were on a mission. I didn’t want to stop for anything. Beside me, my wife was comforting everyone she encountered. We searched a while longer, but were soon asked to leave the area. Looters had started to come and officials were asking to have only uniformed personnel in the area. We could hardly sleep that night, with the memories and events of the day cycling through our dreams.
In total, first responders found more than 100 survivors in homes and shelters through the night. Tuesday, I went back and worked with the Red Cross. They had a 20-foot box truck filled with supplies and additional food coming in by the hour – more provisions than they could manage. With the influx of food, their biggest worry was that the meals would spoil. I began to formulate a plan.
The drive to the Red Cross staging area was nearly impossible; it was a mere two miles from the destruction, but military and police checkpoints were restricting access. We grouped together and prepared boxed meals, juice, water, and an assortment of donated food and, with my military ID and a truck, set off for the affected area. After some time we made it to the most devastated areas and began deliveries. Many of the people we meet were so grief-stricken we had to force them to take food and water. “Please you’ll need this later. It’s going to be hot today,” I would tell them.
Nearing my last days on vacation, we returned to my cousin’s home and continued to search for opportunities to help. Eventually we were met with an amazing conclusion – there was so much response and help we were no longer needed. A number of vendors and local restaurants had opened their doors to the public and were feeding the masses. Donations were flowing in and resources from all surrounding states were coming into the state.
Because I grew up in an area often affected by tornados and bad storms, I understood how much destruction weather can cause. Because I joined the Air Force and received training on things like self-aid buddy care, leadership and emergency response, I had the knowledge to respond to an event this massive. While there was still a great deal of work left to be done once we left, we had a peace of mind knowing we had helped, even a little.