Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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May 26, 2013

Generosity rises from tragic scenes

— As long as I live I will probably always remember my first encounter with the total devastation a tornado can cause. It was a Friday night and we were all home from school looking forward to the weekend. It was late in January, not too long after we had returned from school for Christmas break but the Tennessee ground was far from snow covered. In fact, it had been exceptionally warm.

That probably should have been our first warning. The tornado warnings had been in place by 3:30 p.m. that afternoon. Hail had come down from the sky but no rain. By 4:30 p.m., Mom had me and my little brother in the bathroom, covered in blankets and pillows. She came soon after, having seen swirling, green-purplish clouds in the sky not too far away.

We kept the battery-powered radio on through the howling winds. By 5 p.m. the storm had peaked. By 5:15 p.m. it was over. Our backyard swing set was toppled. Trees were broken. We were missing tiles off of our roof, but beyond that everything seemed fine.

Everyone in our neighborhood had handled the storm differently. Most people had hidden in their homes. A few on the nearby interstate had pulled their cars over and hidden in the ditch. At least one neighbor risked his life by standing in their kitchen and filming the tornado sucking the water out of their pool with a camcorder.

My dad didn’t make it home until late that night and had to pull out his driver’s license before the local police would let him into our neighborhood. They were trying to keep out the looters and lookiloos who still came, touring our devastation. A word to the wise: The best way to help someone recover from a tornado is not to drive through their destroyed neighborhood and take pictures. Dad had no clue until he saw our house still standing if we were all right. The first radio reports were already indicating the amount of damage that had been done.

My best friend who lived down the street and her mother showed up soon after, checking on us to make sure we were all right. Facing ahead, there didn’t seem to be much damage. We decided to head out onto the back porch to see how bad things were from that vantage point. I still remember the moment when my mother turned to my friend’s mom and said: “Janet, there are no houses.”

A block away and everything seemed leveled. Houses were down to their foundations. There was one house where the only part left standing was the linen closet where the family had gathered to hide. The second floors of houses were caving in on first stories. The tornado was classified as an F4 and caused a mere $4.7 million in damage. The storm traveled for 6.5 miles and destroyed 44 homes in our neighborhood.

In the midst of it all, people from homes that were untouched came running to help their neighbors. I was a third-grader at the time, but the scene of devastation in my neighborhood still sticks with me 16 years later.

The one thing I still take away from the entire experience was how quick everyone was to help, how people with first aid experience responded immediately. The day after the tornado, we headed out to help our neighbors pick through the wreckage, to salvage what we could for them. The community came out to clean up and give blood.  We were lucky. Only 18 people were injured in the storm. It would be our only direct hit, but it would not be the last tornado we lived through. My grandparents would see their neighborhood devastated 12 years later. In between, I spent a lot of my childhood hiding out from tornadoes in that same hallway bathroom where my sister still gets ready for school in the morning.  

I believe that first big tornado in 1997 was the first time my mother gave us a quote from that paragon of childhood trust, Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers once said in times of trouble to “look for the helpers.” I look for the helpers in incidents like Moore, Okla., and Joplin, Mo.

Already, we have seen the images of first responders sifting through ruined homes, parents being reunited with their children, and heard the story of a teacher who covered her students with her own body to protect them from falling debris. Neighbors formed human chains to help rescue survivors from the wreckage of the Plaza Towers Elementary School. Donations have arrived into the Red Cross for relief efforts from text, check, online transfer and mail.

The help will come, despite how dark things seem. One of the things about America that is truly great is that we are each other’s neighbors, that we work to help each other repair and recover. We will keep Moore and the entire state of Oklahoma in our hearts and prayers.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.

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