Tornado-Ravaged Moore Takes First Steps to Recovery

Federal assistance, insurance claims and neighborly aid are helping residents of the Oklahoma City suburb begin to rebuild their broken lives

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Early Wednesday morning, the residents of Moore, Okla., gathered at the First Baptist Church in the shadow of the town’s water tower. Pallets of groceries arrived at one end of the parking lot and small boxes left in the beds of pickup trucks at the other. Outside the church, a Midwest shoe retailer fitted residents with work boots. Inside, the building was transformed into a makeshift disaster recovery center, one of three in the area. Insurance agents, Red Cross workers and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials manned tables, trying to help the steady stream of citizens put their lives back together.

Two days after a tornado more than a mile wide ripped through this suburb of Oklahoma City, killing 24 people including 10 children, its residents are still coming to grips with the full scale of damage cause by the storm. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said the tornado caused $1.5-$2 billion in damage to more than 12,000 homes. Thousands of people are homeless or without electricity and clean drinking water. The storm’s debris—insulation, sheet rock, family photographs and leaves kicked up by 200 mile per hour winds—formed a thick paste on everything within a few blocks of the tornado’s path.

(PHOTOS: Moments of Hope in Oklahoma: One Photographer’s Story)

For the moment, the road to recovery seems unimaginably long for the families affected by the storm. Some of the worst hit areas remained off limits for much of the day Wednesday as emergency workers tried to repair gas leaks and other hazards. Before rebuilding, residents must pick through the debris for belongings they can salvage, negotiate settlements with their insurers, and work with FEMA to obtain additional aid. Even before that, they need to find someplace for their families to sleep. It’s daunting. But the work has begun.

Barbara Bryen, who has lived in Moore since 1971, rode out the storm in her closet, hoping the tornado would miss her house. That closet was one of the only surviving parts of her home, which is just a few blocks from the leveled Plaza Towers elementary school. Her insurance company gave her a lawn sign reading “this home insured by Shelter Insurance” so adjusters could find it amid the rubble. Bryen’s husband, Kirk, said their policy won’t cover the cost of rebuilding “but it’s enough to live on—enough for a small home,” he said. They registered with FEMA after meeting with their insurance company at the church, hoping that the federal government can make up the difference so that they can rebuild.

Amy and Scott Johnson were also waiting in line to meet with FEMA to request supplemental assistance on top of their insurance. They had been staying at a hotel for two nights, and will remain there until at least next week. (Only 29 people are staying in area shelters, officials said Wednesday — most were either in hotels or staying with friends and family.) The Johnsons’ home isn’t livable now, and as of Wednesday morning, they didn’t know how long it would take to repair. “There’s no ETA,” Amy said.

Earl Armstrong, a twenty-year FEMA veteran who’s worked through Gulf Coast storms and two previous Moore tornados, said the agency is ready to help the uninsured and the underinsured, but warned that sometimes the process can be long and confusing. “If you get a letter saying that FEMA can’t help you because you have insurance, read on,” he said. “The letter says if the settlement is low, we can help. Come back to us and we’ll do what we can.”

(MORE: For Republicans, Oklahoma Tornado Revives Questions About Disaster Relief)

“Please contact FEMA,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a press conference Wednesday in between tours of the disaster area. “We are here to stay. Even after the cameras have gone.”

Before it can give aid, the disaster response agency needs people to register, and that process has gotten easier since Hurricane Katrina. “You can do it by phone, online or on your smartphone,” Armstrong said at the church, where more than 20 FEMA staffers were registering hundreds of Moore residents. “But for those who want the comfort of face-to-face contact, we’re here.” By 3 pm Wednesday, FEMA had registered more than 1,500 people—a number that’s expected to quickly rise. FEMA teams began going door-to-door Wednesday to visit those who hadn’t yet registered.

Help can’t come soon enough for Chris Drevecky, 27, and Tiffany Knox, 22, who’ve spent the past two nights in their house a few blocks from the tornado’s path. Their roof is damaged, the garage door was blown off and debris is everywhere. The lack of clean drinking water and electricity has stressed out Knox, who is 32 weeks pregnant.

“We’ve got nowhere to go,” Drevecky said after registering with FEMA. “They told us two weeks to hear back and that we’d have to go halfway to Texas to find a hotel room.” They’d leave, Knox explained, but they’re worried about looters. “They drive down at night with their lights off,” she said, explaining they get past roadblocks because “They’re kids from the community—people that you live with.”

But most Moore residents have been looking out for their neighbors. KTOK, the region’s talk/news radio station, ditched its syndicated political talk shows for the week to coordinate relief donations. Morning host Reid Mullens stayed on the air all day, tearing up at times as callers offered money, resources and time.

(MORE: Obama: Nation Will Stand With Oklahoma “As Long As It Takes”)

On Wednesday morning, hundreds of volunteers carrying rakes and shovels gathered at the Moore Community Center to march into the disaster zone to begin cleanup. Industrial generators powered lights and televisions for the kids. Dozens of cots lined a gymnasium, as volunteers manned rows of tables and chairs, ready to feed the displaced. Towers of Gatorade and water bottles flanked the doors and hallways, donated by church groups and volunteers from hundreds of miles away.

John Ballard, 33, of Fort Worth, Texas, dropped off huge amounts of diapers, wipes, toilet paper, granola bars, crackers, band-aids, trash bags, hand sanitizer and Gatorade he bought Tuesday at his local Sam’s Club. The first center he tried wasn’t accepting donations anymore, so he drove to the Moore community center. “I don’t have time to wait around with the hat collecting money,” Ballard said, “and [residents of Moore] don’t have the time either.”

The region’s corporate citizens pitched in as well. Pepsi, Walgreens, and Oklahoma-based chicken supplier Tenderbird deployed trucks to deliver food and supplies to relief centers across the area. Two employees of AT&T drove a yellow Penske truck to the community center Tuesday afternoon from Dallas with hundreds of cellphones, ready to help customers regain communications.

That kind of assistance is helping Moore get back on its feet. But it’s no replacement for a lost home. The Bryens, who have been staying at a relative’s house, said they don’t have a long-term living solution. “I’m just happy I have my life, and I have my pictures,” Barbara Bryen said. “I’m just going to take it one day at a time.”

With reporting by James McGirk and Jay Newton Small/Moore, Okla.

VIDEO: Jay Newton-Small on the Oklahoma Tragedy

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