Oklahomans Find Solace in Tidying Plots of Tornado-Torn Cemetery

Photographer: Tannen Maury/EPA

Volunteers clean debris from a cemetery in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 21, 2013. Close

Volunteers clean debris from a cemetery in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 21, 2013.

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Photographer: Tannen Maury/EPA

Volunteers clean debris from a cemetery in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 21, 2013.

Courtney Green planned to spend today celebrating her ninth wedding anniversary.

Instead, she and her husband spent it cleaning up debris in a cemetery with hundreds of volunteers who streamed into Moore, Oklahoma, as the city dug out from a deadly tornado.

“When you have these terrible disasters, it really restores your faith in humanity to know that people are good, they want to help,” said Green, 31, who lives in Norman.

Moore officials posted plans yesterday on their website for a cleanup at the cemetery. The event tapped a vein of support from residents in surrounding communities who had been looking to help since the May 20 tornado. By 8:30 a.m., turnout swamped preparations, Parks and Recreation Director Todd Jenson said. Many people walked more than a mile from a mustering point to the cemetery, carrying tools and trash bags.

“It’s unbelievable -- there’s a line to get into the cemetery to clean up,” Jenson said. “That says it all.”

Other organizations provided free food for the workforce, which fanned out to pick up debris in surrounding neighborhoods. The worst-hit areas were still off limits except to residents.

Tangible Benefits

Hands-on labor is more satisfying and can have more impact than donating money, said Cody Scott, a volunteer with the nonprofit group Love OKC.

“If I give you a hug and ask about your problems, it’ll last a lot longer than giving you $5 that’ll buy you one meal,” Scott, 30, said.

Moore Cemetery lies just north of the Plaza Towers neighborhood, which lay directly in the storm’s path. The twister, topping the National Weather Service severity scale, cut a 17-mile-long swath through the town of 55,000, destroying Plaza Towers Elementary School and a hospital. Winds exceeded 200 miles an hour (322 kilometers an hour), killed two dozen people and left the city a shambles.

The cemetery, which is more than 100 years old, is one of two owned by Moore, according to its website. About 75 trees were damaged on its 20 acres and the ground was littered with debris.

Working under a crystal-blue sky with a light breeze, the volunteers picked tufts of home insulation out of the chain-link fence and tossed twigs and wood scraps into trash bags. A front-end loader and other heavy equipment handled larger items and a pickup truck relayed trash bags to dump trucks idling by the curb.

Tree Remembered

Sandra Factor, 67, brought her husband and granddaughter to help. She used to live in the destroyed neighborhood and four of her five children attended Plaza Towers Elementary School. Her former home was probably destroyed, and she was left to wonder about a tree that marked the field at the elementary school where her husband coached youth football, she said.

“To know that’s all gone, it kind of touches your heart,” she said.

The turnout wasn’t surprising, said Trent Bettis, a 23-year-old student.

“I know everyone really wanted to come down on that first day,” he said.

Sara Coleman, a 21-year-old student, said she felt compelled to come after hearing about the event through her church in Oklahoma City.

“I’m sure they would do it for me,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Lee in Moore, Oklahoma at mlee326@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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