The Lost Mementos of Moore: Tornado Victims Search for Family Photos

Amid the storm's destruction, residents are working hard to find their most precious keepsakes

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Jason Owen walks past an open door as he helps his mother to salvage items from her uncle's home after it was almost destroyed by a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, May 23, 2013.

Jason Owen walks past an open door as he helps his mother to salvage items from her uncle's home after it was almost destroyed by a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, May 23, 2013.

As Monday’s 1.3-mile-wide tornado descended on Moore, Okla., it tossed debris four miles into the sky, damaged 12,000 homes and took 24 lives. But amid the scattered two-by-fours and shingles, there were also generations of memories: family photos, heirlooms and mementos.

Dawn Melbin, 59, who lost her home and whose granddaughter was trapped for more than an hour at the Plaza Towers Elementary School after the tornado, said she hoped to recover some of her granddaughter’s things. “She’s been asking for her bear,” she said, “I don’t know where it is, and I don’t know what to tell her.”

The first priority for most families coming back to homes destroyed by the tornado is to salvage sentimental belongings. “We had a safe box, as is recommended, for all our important papers,” says Justin Stephen, 28, digging through the remnants of his home just off Telephone Road in Moore, near the destroyed Moore Medical Center. “We found that right away. But we were really relieved to find the photos. That was the most important thing to us.”

Sitting outside her sister-in-law’s ruined home, Angie Tennyson held her family’s photo albums like they were sacred treasures, raptly flipping through the plastic pages and sharing stories with her two kids. “These are memories. They’re priceless,” she says.

Others weren’t so lucky. Amy and Scott Johnson, whose home is three blocks away from Plaza Towers, haven’t yet been allowed back in to the site to assess the damage or look for photos. Storms drenched the rubble on Tuesday and again on Thursday, dropping four inches of rain on Moore, a flood that likely warped or destroyed fragile keepsakes. “We may lose our home, we lost our vehicles, but that would be okay if we can save our pictures,” she says. “I just hope they’re still there.”

On Wednesday morning, as some areas destroyed by the storm were opened to thousands of volunteers to help with cleanup, officials asked the army of rake-bearing helpers to safeguard any personal items they found. Chris Fox, a volunteer coordinator for the local church group Serve Moore, said his team recovered boxes of photos on Wednesday that would be turned over to the city. Fox said the city hopes to digitize the photos and post them for residents to claim. But the heavy rains and lightning on Thursday morning dampened volunteer efforts.

Many family photos are scattered miles away from damaged homes. Ann Feinstein, a North Carolina writer and former resident of Moore, founded the Facebook group “Mementos From Moore OK” with an Oklahoma friend on Tuesday to link recovered photos with their owners. In the hours after the storm another group, “Moore Oklahoma Lost and Found,” appeared on the social network and has since earned more than 10,000 likes.

Hundreds of photos of recovered items have been posted. Amid all the destruction, there’s still hope that Moore residents can recover some of what they lost: a child’s blanket, a teddy bear, pictures of grandparents or a varsity letter jacket.

— With reporting by Jay Newton-Small/Moore, Okla.

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