May 29, 2013

The Land I Belong To is Grand

Well, my last post promised I would have more to write about soon. I certainly do that.

I was at work last Monday, stuck in the back working on solo projects, when I got a text message from a friend of mine: Have you talked to your mom???

Um, no, why?

Seemed odd and ominous, and then I remembered reading that the Central OK area was developing severe weather patterns. Growing up in Oklahoma, that’s the kind of news blip that sticks in your mind. We call that being “weather alert.”

So what do I do? I pull up the facebook app on my phone. I’m not supposed to access social media sites from work computers, and I figured if there was any real news, naturally it would be on facebook.

I didn’t know how right I was.

For the next 3 hours, I wore my battery into the red refreshing over and over, desperate for news as I saw a massive live-tracking of the tornado all over facebook from family and friends back home. Cell phone service there was patchy, so people posted requests for others on facebook to try and find their relatives for them. “Can’t get ahold of grandma, is there anyone near 27th and Eastern who can tell me if the houses are still standing?” And of course, the elementary schools. I had a friend who was a teacher in Plaza Towers. It was hours before we heard from her. Long, agonizing hours.

Meanwhile, there I am at work, in El Paso, “watching” the place I grew up being destroyed and unable to do a darn thing about it. And I cried. Thankfully it only took about 15 minutes for me to make contact with my immediate family, and most thankfully no one in my family was hurt.

And that’s usually as far as people get with the asking.
“Was your family okay? Is their house okay?”
And that’s it.

And I appreciate the asking. But there’s so much more to it than that.

I got to see, in real time, my home being destroyed. Yes, the house is still there, but my home – my home.

Pictures cropped up of neighborhoods, what had been neighborhoods, now junk piles of shattered picture frames, broken toys and splintered I-beams.

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That’s one of my childhood friends holding his son. That pile behind him was their house. They survived by taking cover in their underground storm shelter.

Many, many pictures like this began to fill my facebook feed. People taking pictures of where their homes used to stand. Stills of TV screens showing the path of the tornado through the city as though someone had taken an eraser and dragged it across a page. Pictures of loved ones that couldn’t be located, some weren’t found alive.

People lost homes, pets, parents, and the children – Dear God, the children! And thanks to social media, we got to experience it in real-time, even 700 miles away.

It was traumatic. All I could do was cry, sit in the back room and cry for my home and my friends and count down the minutes till I could go back to my house and give my undivided attention to keeping track of everything.

Slowly, stories of goodness began to pop up, too. One of the local news stations had announced they would be a donation center “if anyone would like to donate items for the victims.” Within 30 minutes, there were hundreds of cars in a line over a mile long, waiting to drop off donations. At midnight they finally shut down, still with a standing line of people, announcing they literally could not accept any more, their staff would be up all night sorting through the donations.

The Oklahoma Blood Institute posted Tuesday that they were flooded with donations, didn’t have room for any more, please stop coming.

Every church in the metro area turned their parking lots into tent cities for displaced Oklahomans – and they had to turn away volunteers because they actually had more hands than they knew what to do with!

Wednesday morning, when the city finally allowed people to enter Moore city limits on-foot only, nearly 1,000 people parked and made the 6-mile trek to the disaster areas, carrying their personal shovels, wheelbarrows and brooms, to help out.

And of course, the night of the storms, hundreds – literally, hundreds – of citizens ran into the demolished neighborhoods to assist first responders in digging through the rubble for survivors, saving dozens of lives.

Every day more and more stories like this come out, and it makes me miss home so much. It also reminds me that the home I remember, in large part, isn’t there anymore.

Anyone who knows us knows that SoldierMan and I spend a good part of every day talking about going back to Oklahoma. We can’t wait. Since the day we left, we’ve talked about going home. It’s so difficult to think about that so much of what we know as “home” doesn’t even exist anymore.

People ask if your family is “okay.” If you mean healthy and unharmed, yes. But unless you’ve lived through a major natural disaster (and this is the second to hit in my lifetime) you know that “okay” is a very, very broad term. It’s not unusual for survivors of disasters to develop PTSD. After the May 3 tornado just over a decade ago, the very next time a tornado hit, several elderly people died – not because the tornado came near them, but they literally died from the stress and fear related to the May 3 tornado. And last week’s was even worse.

There’s an intense psychological toll natural disasters take on survivors. You can’t stop a natural disaster. You can’t fight it. You can only survive it.

And we do survive. Oklahoma will survive. It’s not like this is the first time we’ve been through this. But even still, especially for the families who lost loved ones, everything changes.

We still treat weather forecasting like football season. We still go outside and take pictures of large and funny-shaped hail. We do because it’s just part of life. It’s part of coping. You have to embrace it or you fall apart.

And you rebuild. You stay and you take what was destroyed and you make it better. Several people, even to my face, have blatantly said, “Why would anyone want to live there, in tornado alley? Why would anyone want to stay there?”

To quote a TV show: “Plain, old human stubbornness, I guess. When something we value is destroyed, we rebuild it. If it's destroyed again, we rebuild it again. And again, and again, and again - until it stays. That, as our poet Tennyson once said, is the goal: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’”

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You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma.

3 comments:

  1. I know it doesn't mean too much but I'm so sorry. I felt similar when sandy hit my home town. It is a horrible, gut wrenching feeling. Here is to rebuilding and human resilience.

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  2. I felt similar, though not as strong, feelings when Colorado Springs was on fire. Nature can be cruel.

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  3. I have personally never been hit by a natural disaster. In Minnesota, something gets hit by a tornado every year, but always down in the valley (not the city.)

    Obviously, those fires hit hard in Colorado last year, but never made it close to me.

    And yet, still, I feel affected by the suffering of my neighbors. Even more, I am deeply moved by the outpouring of support when they happen. The volunteers, the heroism, the American spirit. It happens everywhere when something like this occurs and it makes me so proud to be from this country.

    Glad to hear your immediately family is safe and that Oklahoma is already starting the heal. Hugs to you!

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