I have been to four different regions for disaster recovery in the last 8 years. Each place has its own feel and stories to tell. Mississippi had a resiliency that grew with each trip. Galveston, TX felt like a resort town that had been forgotten. Joplin, MO had a feeling of despondency that was there long before the tornado. Oklahoma, Moore, had a heavy weight of depression. For the first time in all these trips, hope seemed far, far away.
Now, I may be extra sensitive to depression these days. I've been under that cloud in the last couple of years. I could have sensed something that wasn't as deep as I perceived it to be but when I think about the week in Moore and the people I met, which weren't that many, the overwhelming feeling I got from them was depression.
Of all three areas, Moore was the one area that was rebuilding the quickest. There really wasn't many visible remnants of the tornado, at least to someone who hadn't been there before. The schools were the most noticeable but they are definitely rebuilding them. There are housing subdivisions going up all over the place. The hospital is still four mobile units in a parking lot where something else used to be, but I didn't see piles and piles of debris or such vastly cleared land that it was obvious that a tornado had come through. I saw that in the eyes of Eliza (name changed).
Eliza was the one homeowner my team worked for that we met. The first day she drove up in her mini-van and said hello, conversed briefly and went inside. The second day she drove up, said hello and went inside. Later she went out, picked up her children and then came back and talked a little more. The third day I coaxed a little of her story out of her. Eliza and her children were in Plaza Towers Elementary school when the tornado hit. Plaza Towers is the school where several children lost their lives. She and her daughter were hurt, with her daughter receiving injuries to her back and neck. Eliza didn't elaborate and I didn't push. Just getting that much information from her was tough. There have been other things that have happened since the tornado adding to the burden on Eliza's shoulders. Her father had a stroke at Thanksgiving and Eliza is responsible for taking him to his therapy appointments. In her eyes I could see just how tired she was. The burdens she is carrying are huge and yet, as she stated, she is a survivor.
Dwight was a man who happened to walk down the street as we were packing up one day. He stopped to say hello and 10 minutes later I had learned that his daughter had lost her house in the tornado. She had moved in with Dwight and his wife, which turned out to be a blessing as Dwight's wife had cancer. She passed away in October. Dwight looked at me and said "At least she got to spend the last 6 months of her life with her daughter." He was a little amazed that we had come all the way from California to help. There was a little more spark in Dwight's eyes but the heaviness of life's ups and downs was evident again. He continued on down the street, after advising us of the best place to eat in Oklahoma City, off to Bingo at the church that night.
The homeowners at other sites were around more. One team wound up helping multiple people on a block. At the end of the week, we all gathered in the driveway at one house for lunch. That homeowner couldn't have been more delighted that we all showed up to her house. She had us take a team picture, right there in the driveway. Another homeowner made key chains for everyone on the team with wood from the tree that came down in her yard during the tornado. They too had the same weight of despair and yet, by the end of the week the teams had done their jobs. Maybe they hadn't gotten all of the physical work done but they got the emotional work done...they brought hope. These rebuilding trips aren't just about physical buildings, many times it's the emotional and spiritual rebuilding that is most needed.
On Friday, my team was painting a shed at a house that is still under construction. The homeowners needed a place to store items, so a shed was built and put on the site. 5 young women gathered around that shed and about 20 minutes in I realized the sound of their laughter and singing could be heard clear down the block. I thought about telling them to hush for a split second and then continued to paint the trim on the back of the shed. These young women were bringing something desperately needed to this town...the sound of joy and laughter, the sound of hope and friendship. It was a beautiful way to end the week.
Four different places, four different feelings and yet the need remains the same. I believe, in our own unique ways, in each place we have accomplished the goal set before us by God...throughout everything we continue to remind people to have hope.