Mike Farrar’s Experiences During the Oklahoma City Tornado Disaster Relief

MikeFarrar.jpg
Story and photography by Mike Farrar, Long Beach Chapter, RFL Mentor and Volunteer

 

Day 1: Arrived in Oklahoma City today at 5:00 and was informed to report directly to the hotel for the night and be at Headquarters at 8:00 am tomorrow. I am here to do Safe and Well Linking (SWL), which is to help people communicate inside and outside the disaster area. We will also search for vulnerable people if they have a pre-existing health condition.

 

Day 2: We spent 11 hours in Headquarters making phone calls to clients from outside the disaster area wanting to fill out inquiry forms to find information on family members inside the disaster zone. We then separate them into 3 categories: 1) General Welfare Inquiries (GWI) - the most common which is where someone who was in regular contact with family now is not after the disaster; 2) Emergency Welfare Inquiries (EWI) - where if the client is vulnerable such as elderly, handicapped, or has medical issues we will go into the field and try to find them; and 3) Family Reunification Inquiries (FRI) - where we try to reunite a family that has been separated within the disaster zone. Tomorrow I will be going to the city of Moore to do EWI to try and locate some of the clients that still haven't talked to their families.

The hospital where the tornado first sat down.

The hospital where the tornado first sat down.

A map in Headquarters showing the path the tornado took.

A map in Headquarters showing the path the tornado took.

Day 3: Another long day of doing SWL. Today was very humbling, dealing with clients in the city of Moore who have lost everything but their life. Due to the clay soil there are no basements. That's right - in the middle of tornado alley with no basements. What they do have are dug out cellars in the garage floor they crawl down into and pull the metal lid over the top of them. I have talked today to 7 clients who waited up to an hour to be dug out. We were able to take care of 9 clients that needed to be logged into the SWL system. I have never seen anything like this ever in my life. Going into shelters and seeing a wall covered with pictures of missing pets, mostly dogs. Our team today consisted of George from Texas, Stacy from Oklahoma City, and me. 

 

The memorial created in front of a school for the seven children who lost their lives.

The memorial created in front of a school for the seven children who lost their lives.

Day 4: We were told to come back to our hotel today at 5:00 pm due to the approaching storm. We are expecting severe weather for the next 4 days, but not to worry, we have safe spots located in the hotel just in case. Anyway, today involved a lot of walking through the neighborhoods again talking with clients about their families and signing in at the (MARC) Multi-Agency Resource Centers. 

 

Three cars picked up off the freeway and dumped on the roadside by the tornado.

Three cars picked up off the freeway and dumped on the roadside by the tornado.

Day 5: Sitting in my room under a tornado watch until 10:00 pm tonight. A lot of lightning and rain earlier but it seems to be letting up some. Anyway, today we spent time in the neighborhood where Brairwood Elementary School was. Thankfully all the children made it out safe. I'm very amazed and impressed at how these communities have pulled together in such a devastating time. I came across a group of seven young adults helping clear out debris and stopped to ask how they were doing. They told me that they had driven up from St. Louis just to help. They were all under the age of 22 and were staying in a tent. So I told them where to go to register as a spontaneous volunteer so they could sleep in our shelters instead of a tent, which made them very happy. We reconnected 3 family members today and registered even more. I will tell you one thing - walking through all this destruction and having people, and I mean men, women and children, take the time to climb out of the rubble that was once their home just to give you a hug and say thank you gives you a feeling no money can equal. It’s what being a volunteer is all about. 

 

Damage to the hospital in Moore, OK as a result of the tornado. 

Damage to the hospital in Moore, OK as a result of the tornado. 

Day 6: Made it through the night with no tornado activity, so today was again spent doing outreach within the disaster zone. We went out to St. Gregory's University in Shawnee OK and talked with the Vice President of Operations about SWL and how to register his University as an organization in the web based system. That way, he can send out the information to his students and staff to register not only for this outbreak but for future emergencies. We also visited MARC 2 and 3 to talk with clients. As a civilian I would imagine that this devastation is about as close as you would come to experiencing the armed conflict areas that some of our troops experience in battle torn zones. 

Day 7: Tonight's update will be a little later; there is a tornado on the ground 18 exits away heading towards us. Sirens are going off so I am heading to an inside room on the bottom floor. I will be in touch when the storm passes.

Dozens of volunteers from the community walking a field to pick up people's personal belongings and turn them in for identification.

Dozens of volunteers from the community walking a field to pick up people's personal belongings and turn them in for identification.

Day 8: We had to move out of our Hotel to a staff shelter today because they still don't have power. I want to thank everyone for prayers last night because it worked. The tornado hung above our hotel long enough to pass us, but it did take part of the roof off of the Red Roof Inn. Today we went into the newly hit areas. There were three tornadoes that touched down. 

 

Oklahoma State Sen Roy Justice took the time to sit down and fill out a SWL registration form.

Oklahoma State Sen Roy Justice took the time to sit down and fill out a SWL registration form.

Day 9: Today I teamed up with a new partner to train. The ironic thing about Richard is he was the one who trained me on my first deployment 4 years ago in Fargo North Dakota in Disaster Assessment. So we did some driving today - 107 miles each way to Broken Arrow, OK. The neighborhood was called Rolling Meadows Estates. The tornado affected about a dozen homes, some totally destroyed. On a brighter point, we decided to stop at the local cafe for lunch and, when we walked in, were mugged with affection from the local residents. Not only would they not let us pay for our lunch, but they also gave us double portions. How could you not feel appreciated? 

 

Day 10: Nice relaxing day off. I headed off to Oklahoma City and went to the site of the 1995 Oklahoma bombing this afternoon which is such a surreal site. It looks like severe weather is going to be rolling back in later this week, but my 2 weeks will be up on Friday and I will be coming home.

Day 11: Spent 9 hours in Headquarters today entering registrations into the SWL data base. We entered over 100 new clients into the system, which is a good thing. I was also able to create my list for tomorrow's search. I'm training another new associate tomorrow, and we have 9 clients to try and locate for their families. Just in case you would like to know, one of the first things I try and make a new SWL volunteer understand is that when we are looking for these clients, we need to put as much effort into each case as if we were looking for someone from our own family. We have a great team here and have done some amazing work. I'm really looking forward to coming home in 3 days but, as on every deployment I've been on, you kind of feel like you are leaving before the job is done. And that's okay because I know that we have done all we could to reconnect the families that needed us.

Destruction following tornado in El Reno.

Destruction following tornado in El Reno.

Day 12: Looks like the bad weather has finally moved out for now. My new partner and I worked on 9 new cases today of clients that still haven't checked in with family. Let me tell you, it is really hard to find a family member when the family member either gives you the wrong address or doesn't have it at all. Luckily with the experience I have with International Tracing, it's hard for them to stay missing for long. We are actually having great success. The picture shown is of the destruction at El Reno. The El Reno tornado was 2 1/2 miles wide with winds reaching over 200 MPH; the widest tornado recorded in history. To get an idea of how wide that is, the next time you get in your car set your trip odometer and go 2 1/2 miles and just imagine what it would look like.