Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trip to Little Axe

FreeOK organized a group of volunteers to caravan down to Little Axe, OK this weekend so I asked that one of them write a post for the blog. Seth Moody was so kind as to oblige. Thanks!
To rip a quote from the Grandad’s Bar website,
“Wish in one hand, shit in the other and see which one fills up first.” – Kenneth J. Seal
Kai Tancredi and Aimee Breeze agreed to use their FreeOK nonprofit to help out in Bethel Acres.  They planned on doing this before the tornado hit Moore on the 20th, and they stuck to the plan after that second disaster.  They borrowed the Red Dirt Party Bus, which James Speegle had lent to the Grandad’s Bar owner, Greg Seal, for recovery efforts, and invited heathens to meet up at the Red Dirt Report office Saturday morning to carpool out to Bethel Acres.
I met Andrew Griffin and Joseph Saunders there at eight o’clock, then went to Lowe’s to get some tools and supplies.  When I came back, Patrick McFeeters, Russell Golden, and about ten others were there, ready to work.  Kai brought breakfast.  We decided who would take what vehicle and headed out a little before 10 o’clock.
Six of us took the party bus down to a Walgreen’s in south OKC at the corner of Penn and SW 119th street to get supplies that were being donated by store manager.  But first, I mixed up the address by a power of ten, so we passed our destination and careered south.  We drove through Moore and saw the randomly destroyed houses, the city workers, the families, and the chaos.  We received a lot of curious looks as we drove south in our party bus, and we all felt like giant dicks.  Or at least I did.
After we turned around and got to the Walgreen’s, we met with a member of Occupy Oklahoma and a couple of other folks there to help.  We formed a conveyor line to transfer rubbing alcohol, peroxide, and Frito’s from a parked Walgreen’s trailer to the party bus.  About a hundred boxes later, some of us pulled bandanas over our faces, and two of the volunteers took our photograph in front of the trailer.
Supplies in hand, we drove out to Bethel Acres and met Kai, Aimee, and others at a convention center.  We transferred some of the supplies into an AOKer’s Volkswagen so he could transport them to Little Ax, and then we took the rest with us to our destination.
I had never heard of Bethel Acres before the Tornado.  It’s a small town, which, according to wikipedia, the citizens incorporated in 1960’s, spurred by fear that Tecumseh, Shawnee, or OKC would annex it and destroy their rural lifestyle.  It roughly tripled in size in the latter third of the 20th century.  Now it’s about 3,000 people.  Wade Hayes was born there.  He’s a country and western singer.
We drove down narrow country roads, saw a lot of fallen trees, and arrived sooner than I anticipated at a dirt road, the entrance to one of the communities hit.
There was confusion.  A man told us brusquely that we couldn’t go any further because of dump trucks, but a lady with a firearm on her hip told us, after we parked near the entrance and hiked farther up to figure out the story, that, on the contrary, she would assure that we could drive farther down to unload our supplies at the donation site.  We listened to the lady with the gun, and pushed inward to where a small field was filled with tarps, stacks of bottled water, food, medical supplies, and other necessities.  
I asked what would happen to the supplies when it rained, and a lady said that there was a tarp for each stack.
We passed several Red Cross trucks.  People and vehicles lined the road, and utility carts darted up and down it, most of them carrying a few cases of bottled water.   A priest with what appeared to be an escort roamed gingerly from lot to lot.  
We found CJ Flesher, who was helping to disassemble a tree with some friends.  We coordinated the tools we had brought, and soon everyone found a task.  At this lot, a shed had been crushed at a downward 45° angle, as if a giant had kicked a ball at it and it had struck the building on the descending arc.  The trailer was relocated, and the front was ripped off.  There was poison ivy.  There was glass.  Everywhere, there were boards with nails.  I asked CJ for the strategy.  He explained that, basically, there are structures, which get thrown into trees.  The trees fall down and act like spider webs for the stuff flying around.  So, you break down the spider webs, sort through the stuff, separate the salvageable personal items, the trash, and the burnable stuff, and you move to the next lot and ask if you can help.  That’s how I interpreted it, anyway, and that seemed to be what we were doing.
I wandered to different lots for few minutes after the work was finished on that one.  I talked to a couple who both looked like they were in physical pain.  They were digging through a pile I can’t even describe, except to say it was twisted aluminum siding, a tree, fiberglass insulation, trash, and things that I could physically see but to which I was unable to assign a noun.  I felt like I was walking through a world which had a vocabulary I was unacquainted with.  I asked the couple if they needed help.  They said, no, that they were just sorting through the last of their stuff before they headed back into the city.
I walked to another lot where a couple was leaning against the back of a pickup truck, which had several pieces of framing lumber in it.  I asked them if they needed help.  They, too, declined, and said they were about to leave.  They described how their father had survived the tornado in his subterranean storm shelter.  They explained that he wanted them to go back and salvage any good wood they were able to get from his property.  I looked at the storm shelter, and saw that even now it was covered with branches and debris.  I asked how long he had waited there before someone rescued him.  They said that emergency vehicles were on site almost immediately after the storm, and they located the storm shelters very quickly.  I later learned that everyone who has a storm shelter is strongly encouraged to register them, so that emergency crews know where to go to find survivors who may be trapped.  http://okc.gov/action/stormshelter/
The group moved to another lot and had a quick meal from one of the many volunteer food trucks on site while I fiddled with a chainsaw, trying to figure out how to start it.  By time I got there, work was well under way.  Trying to recall now, I can’t envision where the trailer had even gotten to.  It was just a lot with a sturdy front porch made of pressure treated lumber; the rest was piles and fallen trees.  
We repeated the process of removing limbs, sorting through debris, salvaging items and storing them in blue rubber totes, and forming piles of stuff that could be burned, and stuff that couldn’t be burned.  
Periodically, a fire was started in a nearby lot, and thick black smoke filled the air.  Several of us wore dust masks.
After getting about a third of the way through a tree filled with personal belongings, pressboard, insulation, a love seat, curtains, sheets, reading material, family photographs, baseball cards, and a toilet, I took a break to eat.
I wandered over to a truck run by two gentlemen and a lady from Baytown, Texas.  They run a nonprofit called For Him, Inc., and they served hot dogs, beans, chicken burritos, and hundreds of bottles of water and several cases of Gatorade®.  As I walked up, one of the guys got up and asked me if I was hungry.   I said I was starved, and they helped me prepare a plate and invited me to sit down with them.  I took the food gratefully, declined the seat, and walked back to the lot.  Patrick later asserted that they were serving the best hot dogs he had eaten in his life, and I agreed.
I worked with Patrick and Joe Saunders for a little while after that and then gave up.  I was feverish, had a headache, couldn’t catch my breath, and felt intensely sad and confused.  I’ve had heat exhaustion twice, and I seem to get it more and more easily, especially without prior acclimatization.  I spent the rest of the day sitting in the shade back at the For Him, Inc. truck.  We talked about natural gas pipeline in Pasadena, Texas, their nonprofit, another nonprofit called Samaritan’s Purse, and the Red Cross.  A member of the military, there on a four day leave, and a member of a saw team, talked about the burn piles.  He had a thick Louisiana accent and was energetic.  He said he was texting the fire chief, and they agreed he would start his fires after most of the volunteers had left, to minimize smoke inhalation.  
Several AOKers and FreeOKers came over periodically to check on me.  
I walked over to the lot shortly before it was time to go.  Two trees had been completely disassembled.  Three piles had doubled in size.  Two totes had been filled with personal items.  Patrick and Joe had sifted diligently through a large pile of debris, leaves, dirt and personal items, separating them carefully and saving what they could.  We covered the totes and stuffed them under the sturdy front porch.  We agreed that if we were ever in a tornado, we’d dive under the front porch.  Then we agreed that we wouldn’t.
We looked around.  It made me think of photos I had seen of Manshiyat Naser, and also of a Beckett’s trilogy.  The city was offering free tetanus shots.  I asked if it was painful, then filled out some paperwork and got stabbed in the arm.  It didn’t hurt at all, but, at the time of writing this, it’s a bit sore.

Kai and Aimee are making arrangements to head out again next weekend.   https://www.facebook.com/freeok.org?fref=ts


  1. Nice to read a day in the life of a tornado clean up crew and the images of chaos and disarray that it brings to mind.
    People helping people is what is great to see.
    Thank you for writing this.

    1. Thanks, Lee. It's almost devoid of visual details. That wasn't a deliberate decision, but something I realized later. Sorry about that.

    2. Not for me, it gave me very detailed images in my mind.
      Reminded me of the way J.R.R.Tolkien wrote.

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