BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs has been watching the news from Oklahoma with a perspective few of us have. He wrote this about what he sees and knows is happening behind the scenes.
You can read all the news reports you like, and watch more on TV. But they won’t help you look inside the soul of a catastrophe like the tornado in Oklahoma. So I’m going to try. Because if there is one common thread to natural disasters I have covered across the country and around the world, it is that volunteers come out of the woodwork, and victims support one another, and those who’ve lost everything say they haven’t because they still have their lives.
One of those calamities was Hurricane Katrina. A cameraman and I got there before the winds stopped howling, and didn’t leave until the smell of death was nearly gone. One thing you have to understand about Moore, Oklahoma, just like New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi after Katrina: “the smell of death” is not just a cliché.
In Biloxi we tailed a search team. Firefighters who’d driven all night to get there from South Carolina. And a search-and-rescue dog unit from Ohio. The search is guided by that smell of death. Anyone in the business recognizes it. Except the dogs. They don¹t smell death. They smell human hair.
When they’re young pups, they’re taught by their trainers to play hide and seek. What the trainers hide is hair. So when the dogs go out on a mission, they are sniffing for the smell of hair. On a body, alive or dead. Even after Moore turned from a rescue operation to just recovery, those dogs were smelling for hair.
And it’s not a matter of sweeping their way down city streets. It’s all unbroken piles of rubble. So they’re climbing over rubble that rests on the ground, but not necessarily the ground it occupied before the storm. Roofs and walls and porches fly away with the wind to new positions. Sometimes far from where they had been.
We came across one couple in Biloxi who looked almost catatonic. Although mostly collapsed, a house stood squarely on their property. But it wasn’t their house. Theirs had blown into a million pieces. Someone else’s landed in a heap where theirs had stood.
We came across another woman, sitting on a concrete wall that had defined her driveway. Her house was gone too. This was a full week after the hurricane and she really had no reason to be there. But she said she also had no reason to leave. Where people go when everything they own is gone, I just don’t know. Neither do they.
Yet in both Biloxi and New Orleans, almost everyone I talked to spoke with gratitude if not hope. Like people we¹ve seen in Moore, they were thankful for their very lives, thankful that their families survived. One woman even joked, “I had too damned much stuff anyway. Now it’s down to what’s important.”
What’s important to some is religion. In New Orleans on a Sunday, we found some people from a poor black church. They had dug up folding chairs and were singing like it was the happiest day of their lives. The minister was right out of central casting for a Southern holy-roller preacher. He didn¹t just look like Little Richard; he even sounded like him. And when he told this crowd that had just lost everything they owned that their faith would get them through, they said Hallelujah. Because faith was one of the last things they had left.
Faith, and friendship. A chain restaurant called The Waffle House reopened in Biloxi the day we got there. I don’t know how, because power was out and after four days, all the food had spoiled. But somehow they got eggs and white bread, and electrical generators, then gathered all the staff they could locate, and opened their doors for three hours to anyone who found out about it.
The place was frantic with activity. The cameraman and I found seats at the counter, and I happened to be watching a young heavy-set black man turning eggs on the griddle as fast as he could. Suddenly an older waitress, white, came along and just put her arms around him and gave him a long hug. And when his face turned so I could see it, tears were streaming down his cheeks. And hers. Who knows what they lost? But there they were, working. Cooking for us.
Natural disasters bring out the worst of Mother Nature. But the best of the human spirit. You can bet it¹s all happening in Moore, Oklahoma, right now.