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Habitat volunteers pitch in to clear the way for rebuilding

Judy Johnson, 85, rode out the storm in a bathtub in her home. She said that all the people who have compared the sound of a tornado to the sound of a train are exactly right. Photo by Ezra Millstein/Habitat for Humanity International
Central Oklahoma Habitat board member Bill Shanahan says, “Until you see it, until you touch it, until you feel it, you can’t understand the devastation.” Photo by Ezra Millstein/Habitat for Humanity International
Kaila McWilliams’ in-laws lost their home in Moore, Oklahoma, to the May 20 tornado. Photo by Ezra Millstein/Habitat for Humanity International

Before long-term recovery can begin, cleanup is a priority

By Soyia Ellison 

MOORE, Oklahoma (May 30, 2013) — Judy Johnson needed help salvaging bricks stripped from her home by the EF5 tornado that devastated this neighborhood May 20, 2013.

 And so on Thursday, a team of volunteers from Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity picked up bricks scattered across the yard and stacked them in neat piles near the house. They also helped tear down a ripped tarp and haul bags of debris to the curb.

 “Everyone is so kind,” Johnson said as she watched the team work. “People came and prayed for me. They were from a church in another state. I was so surprised.”

 Johnson, an 85-year-old immigrant from Japan, rode out the tornado in her bathtub. Her son Norman came for her as soon as the storm passed, parking as close as he could to her house and running the rest of the way.

 “He is 61 years old,” she said, “but I saw him come running like he was 40.”

She doesn’t know yet whether her house can be repaired. For now she’s staying with another son, Henry. He said that he and his mother are grateful for all the help volunteers have provided.

 “They went above and beyond,” he said. “They’ve been a godsend.”

 Central Oklahoma Habitat is just one Habitat affiliate helping with cleanup in the Moore area. A group from Stillwater Habitat for Humanity, about 70 miles away, helped on Tuesday. And Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity will send in teams Friday and Saturday.

 “We’re really just trying to get the cleanup going so that then we can start helping rebuild,” said Central Oklahoma Habitat’s CEO, Ann Felton.

 She said the affiliate, which typically builds about 45 homes a year, should easily be able to help 100 families this year through new construction and its critical home repair program. A $1 million donation from Hobby Lobby will help.

“I really think at the end of the day, we’ll probably help 200 over three or four years,” she said. “The outpouring of generosity — not only financial but also volunteerwise — has just been overwhelming.”

 Some of that volunteer support came from Bill Shanahan, a Central Oklahoma Habitat board member and a manager at Linn Energy who took a vacation day Thursday to help.

 He marveled as he watched the others work.

 “They just don’t stop,” he said. “And they’re not doing it for money. They’re not doing it for any reason other than a need to help.”

 Working alongside Shanahan was Julie DePriest, a manager in the meat department at Walmart. Thursday was the first time she had helped with cleanup, and she said that watching news coverage hadn’t prepared her for the devastation.

 “It’s worse in person than it is on the news because you can see the details, like the slivers of wood that have gone clear through the houses,” she said. “Seeing all the kids’ toys just about kills you.”

 DePriest came out at the invitation of her son, who had volunteered with Habitat in Louisiana a few years back. Despite the magnitude of the destruction, she felt good about making a difference as she helped remove logs and brush from the back yard of a mostly intact house.

 “It would take one family months and months to clear all this.”

 Volunteer Christine Berney, who is the community relations director for the Oklahoma City Thunder professional basketball team, said she’s seen improvement over her visits in the past few days.

 “You can tell that the process of recovery has started. In the midst of chaos, it feels like a very organized process,” she said. “The very first time — I have never in my life seen something like that. Just the amount of devastation was incredible.”

 Berney helped put together a crew of about 50 from the Thunder’s front office. They had worked with Habitat before, she said, helping to build a home during the basketball lockout of 2011.

 “We absolutely loved the experience,” she said. “Habitat is on our short list when we want to find out how to help after a crisis.”

 For one of her coworkers, Kaila McWilliams, the experience felt a little more personal. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law lost their home in the tornado.

 “I feel like whatever I can do to help, I should do,” she said.

 And she had a message for others looking for ways to help.

 “I think it’s great that people are out here volunteering their time,” she said. “Just remember: This is not a monthlong healing process. These people are not going to have homes for six or 12 months. They will still need your help and need you to keep them in your prayers.”