While we were in Oklahoma City helping out with Samaritan’s Purse, there were several storms that came through the region. While none of the storms spawned tornadoes in or near OKC, there were dozens that set down in OK and the nearby states from April 27 through the 29th. At least 7 of those tornadoes were deadly, and the wide-spread storms even caused extensive flooding in Florida.
One of the towns that was hit was 4,200 resident Baxter Springs, which is located in the south-east corner of Kansas. Just a mile inside of the Oklahoma/Kansas border, an EF2 twister plowed a swath a mile long and 2 blocks wide through the town, destroying 100 homes and 12 businesses.
When all the tornadoes hit, we knew that we wanted to go help, somewhere, but we didn’t know if that would be a possibility. Vaughn was finally getting to volunteer some with SP, but the kids were not able to volunteer there. He had committed to pouring a house foundation for the Norman (OKC) rebuilds, and then said that he could finish out the week there. After pouring the foundation and some storm shelter anchors (which may very well be the first concrete that SP has not subbed out), then driving truck for them (V has a Commercial Drivers License), we packed up and hit the road to put in some volunteer hours cleaning up in Baxter Springs. A short 230 mile drive brought us to downtown Baxter Springs, where we drove straight through the destruction.
The town had had to use backhoes to scoop the debris off the main road to allow search and rescue efforts to move ahead.
Buildings were hastily being boarded up and lots along the main road were being leveled and cleared as quickly as possible.
I’m not sure we will ever really get used to the exacting swath of a tornado.
Where often on the edge of the destruction path, one house or business is completely decimated, the one next to it is structurally destroyed but mostly standing, and the next has just minor damages… One house will have to be demo’d, while the next one might just need a few shingles replaced. It is so bizarre and intriguing.
The first day that my volunteer crew put in (our SP crew is Vaughn (dad) and kids Beth (18), Jake (16), and Thomas (15)), they worked on Larry’s house. When the tornado came through, it ripped off part of Larry’s roof (his sister’s house, to the right, had to be demolished). Also, a large tree next to his house had been damaged, taking out the power to the house, and as a result, the city came by and condemned his home.
Larry was feeling pressure, from the city and other entities, to demo his home. But he didn’t have insurance, and he could not replace the structure. Razing his house would have left him and his wife homeless.
While my tribe was in Baxter Springs, they worked almost exclusively with a tree climber named Keeth. Keeth is a college professor in real life, but he takes his vacation time and plays saw monkey for Samaritan’s Purse (that orange dot in the tip-top of the tree below is him).
This was not the first time we’ve worked with Keeth (and pray it isn’t the last!).
The crew was taking this big tree down, piece by piece, so that the power company could come back in and re-run power to Larry’s home. His hope was that the city would allow him to rebuild the roof if he could get power restored again to the house. In the middle of town, you can’t just cut a tree down like we would back home when getting firewood; no sawing across the base and yelling ‘timber’ as the tree crashes down. Between safety issues, and protecting structures, the trees have to be taken down, piece by piece, from the top, in manageable chunks, and lowered down section by section.
One day, while our crew was working on Larry’s property, both taking down the tree, and cleaning up the scattered debris, a city official came by to tell Larry that he was going to have to demo his house. Larry did not have insurance, and he cannot replace the structure. The official was standing on the porch, not really listening to Larry’s plan to get electricity restored and to rebuild his roof, and was trying to hardball him into razing his house. Vaughn happened to notice, and as a carpenter, Vaughn knew his house could be saved, so Vaughn motioned over a couple of the other SP volunteers, and they politely stood near the bottom of the porch listening. They were not being intimidating, more being curious and concerned for Larry, but seeing that she now had an audience, the city employee became much more congenial, and ended up working with Larry to get his ‘habitable structure’ status back. Larry’s property was the first job that my tribe worked on in Baxter Springs, and by the time we left town, Larry was beginning to rebuild his roof himself. Several of the SP guys, Vaughn included, had a desire to help him fix it, but Larry had very limited resources, and was going to have to ‘hack’ it together; while Vaughn felt it would be fine, he did not feel that he could help him out due to liability issues. Isn’t it a sad thing that we have to consider that these days? Someday we are going to win the lotto and be able to just go in and do things like rebuilding Larry’s roof for him… (ok, not really holding our breaths to win the lotto, because we don’t gamble. lol)
We have not been in a tornado yet. I simply cannot imagine it.
My crew was on tree duty for the time we were there (young muscles 😉 ), but there were other SP crews doing other tasks. Like sifting through rubble helping to find personal belongings…
and tarping roofs, hoping to minimize the water damage coming through tornado compromised roofs from storms coming through before owners had a chance to repair them. Some people ask why the crews aren’t up there re-shingling roofs for these people, but after a disaster, the first step to relief is to secure the safety and property of as many people as they can; the repair has to wait until that is first done. SP does not always go back and rebuild after disasters – a lot of factors figure into the equation of whether or not they will rebuild, including amount of homes effected and how many of those have insurance (SP is very careful to only do work that people could not otherwise afford due to lack of insurance and financial standings. They do not want to take work away from contractors/laborers).
Along the main street (Military Ave), several businesses were leveled. The area was being cleaned up during our time in town…
All of that rubble creates an incredible amount of dust and air pollution as it is stirred up during any winds, and during cleanup efforts. On bigger jobs, there would often be a water truck spraying the rubble piles in an effort to keep the air-bound particles in check. Several of us (me, Dana, included) felt like we spent our whole time here having one big sneeze attack. lol.Even though we arrived a week after the tornado went through, there were still some streets that had not been cleaned up and re-opened.
And the big push was simply to get the huge piles of rubble hauled out of the town and to a landfill so that the residents could assess what to do next.Many of the business sites along Military were so thoroughly reduced to rubble that if you hadn’t been there before the tornado, you would not have any idea what the business had been. Except for this site…
As the cleanup workers picked through the rubble and loaded it in semi trailers to be hauled off, the operator of this excavator would nimbly shuffle through the rubble pile, pick out the bowling balls with his bucket, single them out, and roll them towards the curb.
I think it was my favorite site to watch the progress on. After a few days, the lot looked like someone had swept it off, except for the nearby cluster of bright bowling balls, which were nested in a bordering grassy area. I don’t know if the owner of the bowling alley will use them again, but the pile of balls was a sign of a community looking out for one another, helping to salvage what they could of the lives of those affected.We ended up being able to volunteer in Baxter Springs for just one week. Because we didn’t get here until a week after the tornado came through, and because this little town had such an influx of volunteers and helpers (it is a mere 12 miles from Joplin; they had lots of people come from there to assist), the many work orders were taken care of in 2 weeks. As Samaritan’s Purse wrapped up, the boss man asked Vaughn if he would be able/interested in driving one of the SP trucks back to the North Carolina headquarters for them. The rest of us had a safe place to stay and we liked this little town, and the drive sounded like a new adventure to Vaughn, so he said yes. So, on a Monday morning, Vaughn climbed behind the wheel of a heavy hauler pulling a commercial kitchen trailer, and they hit the road for NC.
The rest of us checked out the little town of Baxter Springs, hitting the playground and visiting the fabulous museum they have here (diff post to come). That Tuesday night Vaughn pulled in to Charlotte where he dropped the truck off (someone else was going to take it the last little leg of the trip to the headquarters). On Wednesday morning, he woke up and hit the tarmac. He flew in to Joplin on Wed. afternoon, and we were there waiting for him. Then it was back to Baxter Springs, where we got the rv ready for our quick jaunt to Montana and the beginning of a new adventure!