By TEDDYE SNELL
In times of peril, stories of heroic acts surface, bringing to light the better side of humanity.
Thanks to one teacher’s heroism during the Moore tornado Monday, three students – including Tahlequah High School science teacher Vickie Elliott’s niece, Briann Buck – are home safe with their families today.
“My niece, a sixth-grader, was in Plaza Tower School when the tornado hit,” said Elliott. “This is the second time my sister, Patty, has been through something like this. She witnessed the tornado in 1999 and the storms again in 2003.”
When Elliott learned of the devastation, she called her sister immediately.
“She was on her way to the school from work,” said Elliott. “Well, in the meantime, my other niece, who lives in Midwest City, saw the tornado damage on TV and just lost it. She called my sister and told her the [Plaza Towers] school was just gone. My sister was hysterical. She was a mile from the school and couldn’t see it; all she could see was black smoke, which was from a truck fire, but she didn’t know that, and thought the school was on fire.”
Elliott, still on the phone, tried to calm her sister, who had arrived at the school site.
“She said there were kids everywhere, blood everywhere, parents everywhere,” said Elliott. “It just looked like a war zone.”
After some time, Patty was reunited with Briann, who related the story about how her teacher saved her life.
“Bri said the students were taken into the inner halls, but there was not enough room for everyone,” said Elliott. “One teacher took Bri and two other students into a small closet in a teacher workroom, and held on to the door as the tornado passed over. The door finally gave way, and the teacher threw herself on top of the students. The teacher had lots of glass and debris on top of her. She’s OK today, aside from having some cuts. The kids have a few cuts, but they’re OK.”
Elliott said once her sister finally arrived home, she found her house intact, except the windows.
“But the houses directly across from her were completely devastated,” said Elliott. “I don’t know if you can feel luck, but she feels thankful. She has survivor’s remorse. Her child survived, but there are children in there who did not. It’s really difficult for them right now. She won’t let my niece watch TV at all, and won’t let her out of her sight. It’s pretty traumatic.”
Teams are continuing to comb through the rubble in Moore, 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, after Monday afternoon’s more than half-mile wide twister. On Tuesday, Gov. Mary Fallin said they have yet to determine the number of people missing.
According to the Associated Press, hospital officials in the area have treated more than 200 patients, including dozens of children. Entities involved include Integris Southwest Medical Center, OU Medical Center, St. Anthony Hospital.
The revised death toll is 24 people, including seven children. Authorities initially said as many as 51 people died, including 20 children.
Locals spurred to help with recovery
When tragedy strikes, people often look for ways to help, even when the victims are hundreds of miles away. A number of local businesses, organizations and entities were taking donations and planning relief efforts as early as Monday night.
Juliet Burk and her husband, Reed, own LSI Foot Clinic, and are no strangers to storm devastation. The pair began a shoe drive Tuesday, and are working with the Salvation Army in Moore.
“My family lives in New York, and in 2011, their town was flooded out,” said Juliet. “A lot of my high school friends, as well as my aunt and uncle – well, all of their stuff was ruined. They’ve been rebuilding for the past two years. We’re familiar with what happens first and what’s needed later.”
Juliet contacted the Salvation Army, which indicated only new shoes can be transported directly to Moore for distribution.
Gently used shoes will also be accepted, but will be taken to a local Salvation Army Thrift Store, then transported to the relief area.
“The LSI Foot Clinic will be collecting shoes in good condition for residents of Moore between now and May 29,” said Juliet. “They can be dropped off during regular business hours at the clinic next to Pizza Hut on Downing Street. We ask the shoes be tied together by their laces or with cable ties.”
LSI is also partnering with Dr. Comfort and Brooks to donate new shoes.
“If any locals are interested in buying new shoes in the box and leaving them at LSI, we can get them to Moore directly as a corporate donor,” she said.
Stacy Matlock, of L&S Auto Repair, 4619 S. Muskogee Ave., is also accepting donations to be trucked into Moore via a corporate entity.
“We’re looking for work gloves, water, snacks, diapers, formula and pet food,” said Matlock. “Sometimes, Tahlequah gets carried away, so we may end up with a truckload or more, and that’s a great thing. Whatever we can do to help, I’m good with it.”
Northeastern State University President Dr. Steve Turner indicated efforts are also under way on campus.
“The tornadoes in our state over the past two days have caused much suffering and destruction, bringing into sharp focus the fragility of life,” said Turner. “But they have also presented an opportunity for us to demonstrate resilience, determination, and a strong instinct to help our brothers and sisters in need. Our students, faculty, and staff are committed and stand ready to provide support to our neighbors. As we did in the wake of the Joplin tornado in 2011, we will respond through a coordinated plan to donate supplies and assist with clean-up efforts.”
NSU also launched a website, www.nsuok.edu/ relief2013.aspx, for more information on donations and volunteering.
Items most requested include bottled water, diapers, wipes, formula, toiletries, non-perishable food items, hand sanitizer, flashlights and batteries. Clothing is not being accepted by most entities at this time.
As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, local sites that notified the Press of relief efforts included the United Keetoowah Band Lighthorse Division, NSU, Chili’s, Century 21 Wright Real Estate, Cherokee County Pay It Forward, Reasor’s, and NSU’s Lamba Chi Alpha Alumni Association.
The UKB has designated its UKB Civil Defense Building, off West Willis Road, as the drop-off point for donations. Chili’s, on South Muskogee Avenue, is accepting donations at its restaurant. Donations made to Cherokee County Pay It Forward can be dropped off at 1315 W. Choctaw. The Lambda Chi Alpha’s drop-off site is the CASE Building on the NSU campus, next to the transcripts desk on the second floor, 701 N. Grand Ave. NSU’s drop-off site is in the University Center Circle Drive of the Tahlequah campus.
Reasor’s is partnering with the Salvation Army to collect donations to help with disaster relief across central Oklahoma. People are asked to text the word “Storm” to 80888 to give $10, and Reasor’s will match the first $10,000 donated. All 17 Reasor’s locations throughout Northeastern Oklahoma will be collecting the most-needed items, including brooms, mops, gloves, buckets, hand sanitizer, shovels and rakes.
The Dollar Tree at 409 Daisy Drive – in conjunction with the Salvation Army – is taking donations for Moore. The Salvation Army will be taking shipments to Moore intermittently.
According to Denise Deason-Toyne, the local Kiwanis chapter is also aiding in relief.
“The Texas-Oklahoma District of Kiwanis International has a Disaster Relief Backpack program that our current governor, Ann Wilkins, initiated last year as her project,” said Deason-Toyne. “We will be collecting money to send for backpacks and items to go into those backpacks for children.”
At press time, the Cherokee Nation was in “stand-by” mode, ready to assist Moore residents as needed. The tribe’s emergency management team is organizing tribal resources and awaits further direction from those managing the crisis in central Oklahoma.
“Words simply cannot describe how heartbreaking the scene in Moore and the surrounding area is, and will continue to be,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “Our hearts, minds and prayers are with all those affected by this terrible tragedy, especially the two dozen victims and their families, a number which includes at least nine innocent children. The Cherokee Nation is in constant contact with emergency management teams in the area, and we have offered every available resource to assist with rescue, recovery and ongoing support.”
Helping in the right way
Ryan Hardaway, director of the Eastern Oklahoma Region of the American Red Cross, understands the desire people have to help others in need, but he wants to make sure their efforts are put to good use.
“As far as Red Cross is concerned, we’re accepting monetary donations,” said Hardaway. “The Moore storm operation will be a $ 2.5 to $5 million project for the Red Cross, as it’s a Level 5 disaster operation. We’ve got shelters open, we’re doing mass feedings. Once the damage assessment is completed, we’ll be able to provide monetary aid to people.”
The Red Cross is also accepting volunteers, said Hardaway.
“If people want to volunteer they can go to our website, www.redcross.org/ ok/tulsa/about/chapters/muskogee, and click on the volunteer button. They need to fill out background information online and then a volunteer coordinator will be in touch.”
Hardaway stressed that individuals should find a sanctioned organization with which to volunteer or make donations.
“If they want to do something outside what Red Cross is doing, if they want to be a part of cleanup, they need to find a different agency,” said Hardaway. “What they don’t need are rogue volunteers showing up in Moore. It causes trouble for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the local police. [Volunteers] need to be part of a response agency when they go - a church group, the Salvation Army, or partner agency they can be a part of.”
Hardaway said he is constantly amazed at the willingness of others to lend a hand.
“It’s amazing how people pull together during these emergencies,” said Hardaway.
“People care; that’s all there is to it. People want to help and they don’t always know how to go about it. They just have to take the right avenues to get the help in the right place at the right time.”