By Shelby Reynolds
Sept. 13, 2013
A group of Wichita State students spent their Saturday doing something they would hope to never do again.
They tried to piece together personal belongings from the house that was once a home to a family before a May 20 EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, Okla.
Broken pieces of a mirror, a baby doll and a few mangled Bibles were what they found.
“It’s the personal things,” WSU sophomore Caylin Wiley said, while collecting shards of wood and roof. “I feel bad just throwing it away.”
Almost four months after the tornado ripped a 17-mile long scar into Oklahoma’s red dirt, the area is still in a rebuilding process. The storm destroyed more than 1,000 homes, with Moore suffering the most damage.
Fifty WSU students traveled to Moore by charter bus Saturday in a partnership between the Student Involvement office and a grassroots organization called Serve Moore.
“WSU Serves Moore” was a volunteer opportunity unlike any other, as many of the university’s volunteer veterans were exposed to a whole new experience this time around: a war-torn land in need of immediate help.
Getting it started
Following the town’s destruction, Moore was flooded with donations and volunteers. Several local churches and organizations including the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, Moore Public Schools and others, collaborated to form Serve Moore. Together, they worked to improve the flow of assistance.
Lyston Skerritt, coordinator of student organizations and civic engagement with Student Involvement, said working with Serve Moore makes the process much easier.
“If you need to send a group, this is where you need to go. If you want to send donations, this is who you contact…so that’s who we reached out to,” he said.
Serve Moore has seen more than 35,000 volunteers come through their headquarters since the tornado, which is relatively unheard of in the chaotic aftermath of a natural disaster, said Chris Fox, Serve Moore’s director of volunteer operations.
“Thank you really truly for coming,” Fox said to the crowd of yellow T-shirts Saturday morning. “This is our hometown, and we hope [the organization] is still going strong in 10 years.”
Last spring, when Student Involvement was brainstorming ideas for this fall’s civic engagement service opportunity, Skerritt said they wanted to do something different.
“This year, we wanted to give students a kind of immersion experience,” Skerritt said. “Moore immediately came to mind…It’s a different experience. It’s still a service, but it’s like you’re seeing the rebuilding. It’s very much not fixed.”
The group divided into two teams at the start of the day. One went door-to-door looking for families who had trees damaged in the storm.
Serve Moore, in partnership with Moore Beautiful, has 1,000 donated trees to replace the damaged ones. WSU students were responsible for finding families in need of replacement trees.
“Most of the houses were in bad shape,” said Oklahoma native and WSU senior, Isaiah Eldridge. “And a lot of them were gone. Pretty rough, I thought.”
The other group spread mulch on a playground at Briarwood Elementary School’s temporary location at Emmaus Baptist Church. Briarwood was one of the two elementary schools that took a direct hit from the tornado, and it is now adjusting to a new school year in a new building.
Senior Brittany Osborn didn’t think twice about registering to volunteer in Moore and feels every bit of help counts.
“This is going to make a huge difference to those kids,” Osborn said, while raking mulch. “They’re out of their element. They’re not able to go to their elementary school. They’re put in a church. This is kind of like a staple now that they can come outside and play.”
Picking up the pieces
For the first half of Saturday, most of the group had not yet seen the worst of the damage.
That afternoon, the atmosphere inside the charter bus took on a solemn air as the streets turned more desolate. Piles of wreckage grew larger in the neighborhood of Plaza Towers, one of the hardest hit areas. The same group of 20 WSU students was assigned to clean up one of its lots.
“I mean, it’s just devastating,” junior Jessica Newberry said. “To think about the destructive force of the tornado and what it’s done to this community…it’s just really sad to see how all these people lost their homes.”
The remnants of one house only had a corner of fence and a mangled tree, decorated with pieces of twisted metal and power line, left standing.
“It’s crazy to think about what’s happening to the people that lived here,” Wiley said. “If they made it through, where they are now, how they’re dealing with all of it. The fact that their house is just completely wiped out is just unbelievable.”
The worst of the damage
Some of the students didn’t get as immersed in the damage as others, so the charter bus took one last trip through the worst hit area in Moore. Ninety percent of the homes in this neighborhood received some kind of damage, many of them completely obliterated.
Piles of debris were all that was left of some neighborhood homes.
Although no volunteer work was done in this area, the sight alone made a lasting impression on the students.
While some felt as though their tasks might have been small, freshman Kiah Duggins understood it helped out in the long run.
“I guess I did a job that somebody else would have had to do,” she said. “I helped the normal volunteers to have less work.”’
Now that the whole group had witnessed the destruction of an EF5 tornado, it was time to return home.
“It’s really earth-shattering,” Duggins said, as students wandered the wreckage. “Because it’s like these peoples’ lives in a pile, so they have to just completely start over. It could have just as easily been us.”