It’s the smell that hits first, dank and permeable, the kind of smell that unsettles you, that seeps into your clothes and your pores, warning that things aren’t right. At least that’s what it was for my friend Germaine and I on Monday as we turned the corner from Santa Fe Avenue onto SW 15th street, in Moore, Oklahoma, our Zone 1 assignment where we’d spend the next few hours helping with tornado clean-up. Not that there’s much to clean up, although there is, blocks upon infinite blocks of debris, the remnants of lives shattered as just one week prior an F5 tornado waged its wrath upon a 17-mile swath of now-barren landscape.
Visually, I’d become inured to it, at least from a distance. Photos from friends and in the newspaper, eye-witness accounts in the media and on the internet helped brace me for the enormity of it all. But then stepping off that bus and smelling it; smelling made it real.
I didn’t expect the smell, a fetid cocktail of rotting drywall, rain-soaked carpet and churned-up plywood. It was deep and heady, laden with the musk of dampened dust, both sour and earthy in one inhale -- like scavenging through grandma’s attic where years of neglect have settled, caking every surface.
When we got to the site at 1017 SW 15th, this band of twenty or so strangers, we really didn’t know what to do. We had no individual assignments, just shovels, gloves, dust masks and a willingness to dig in and make what progress we could. But somehow the rubble told us what to do, and we fell into an instinctive rhythm: big pieces first, then medium-sized things like shingles and chunks of insulation. Pieces then turned into morsels, which we dug up by the shovelful, hoping that with each layer uncovered, we might find something the family valued. We were ants on a hill, marching, digging, clearing, moving, never really stopping to talk or rest, as piece-by-piece and shovel-by-shovel we slowly dug down to the floor.
Large debris, such as walls and portions of house frames, were carried out with quiet precision, flanked on each side by volunteers. Like pallbearers at a funeral, they moved with purpose, striding gingerly from where the house once stood to the growing mound of detritus along the curb.
We identified rooms based on what was found there: the kitchen (tupperware and a Bundt pan), a bedroom (a comforter, pillow and waterbed still in tact), the living room (a maroon faux velvet La-Z-Boy and TV), the bathroom (toilet, still bolted to the floor and buried under several feet of debris). As we dug, the family’s story emerged. Cards from two versions of Trivial Pursuit - 80s and Silver Screen - were strewn about almost every corner of the site. There were cancelled checks from 1980 from when the family lived in Hawaii. We found random rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, a Barbie Doll, its hair still attached to the original packaging, a cut glass dish, dirty but undamaged, men’s 36” x 30” trousers still with the tags on, a Harry Potter book (Half-Blood Prince, to be exact), toiletries, and a Woman’s Day magazine from 1992.
Our conversations were minimal, “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “Thank you,” “Do we have any wire-cutters?” For the most part we worked quietly, lost in a reverent silence, creating our own syncopated cadence of scraping shovels and the clatter-clap of wood being thrown onto the pile. From time to time, our song was punctuated by the squelching beep of a tow truck as it removed damaged cars from the street. But there were no other sounds: no birds singing or dogs barking at squirrels, no radios blaring as cars passed by, no children playing in yards. No life.
What personal items we found were amassed onto what turned out to be the garage floor, awaiting their owners’ return. All other debris was thrown atop mountainous piles along the curb where it will remain until hauled off by front-end loaders a few weeks from now. We celebrated minor victories: finding a box of new clothing virtually untouched, ladies’ jewelry found deep amid crumbled drywall near the bedroom area, a torn photo or two and silverware, mud-caked but still intact. We had no idea if the items we were collecting even belonged to the family, or to those from the family next door, or the next street over, or from a half a mile away. The monster tornado, which churned through the area with wind speeds topping 200 MPH, pulverized everything in its path, mixing and blending houses and their belongings into a dense soup of hardwood and brick.
One reporter on the ground, upon first seeing the damage after the storm passed, said it looked like what you’d imagine if you put a house into a blender, turned it on high, and let it go. Homes and businesses were ground into crumbs, cars shred to ribbons of steel that were then wrapped around trees like some macabre holiday tinsel. The few trees remaining were stripped of their canopies and bark, and now stand naked but no less proud, their sharpened branches reaching heavenward like ghostly cathedral spires, monuments to the power of nature and the unknown.
Our goal, such as we had one, was to unearth a shadow box of military medals belonging to the homeowners. Fitting that on Memorial Day we would focus our efforts on the home of a veteran. Whether by happenstance or design, it gave more meaning to our task knowing that we were serving someone who had once served us. Unfortunately, by the time we left, we hadn’t found the beloved box. We’re hoping it may still be unearthed somewhere, and that whoever finds it will post photos of the medals to one of the online communities for mementos of its kind.
The task ahead seems daunting at best and recovery will take months if not years. The house we worked on was but one of thousands, and while we felt our progress was mighty, its contribution to the overall effort seemed miniscule.
Jennifer Lindsey McClintock, Alpha Iota-Oklahoma is a member of the Oklahoma City alumnae chapter.