Thursday, April 8, 2010

Passion and compassion

Picher, Oklahoma, 2 years after the tornado

Picher, revisited

On a stormy spring day in 2010, we drove by a small town plagued by tragedy. A town that once was a thriving community, a town that was dealt a final blow on May 10, 2008. A massive EF-4 tornado tore through what was left of the town that terrible day. 6 people lost their lives in Picher Oklahoma that day, and dozens were injured. Hundreds of lives were changed forever.

I head up a disaster relief ministry called Mission of Compassion and the day after the tornado devastated the area, we jumped into action. We gathered up food, water, and cleaning supplies and drove the next Saturday to the areas that were hardest hit by the storms. You can visit my blog here and read about the trip. Little did we know that Picher would never rebuild. Still, we left water, food, and hugs with the victims and relief workers that day.

My son, his best friend, and I were on a storm chase that led us through Picher just the other day. On the way home, we decided to stop by and take a look at the town. Was I ever surprised! It was like a ghost town! Keep in mind, FEMA and all government relief money went to relocate the victims instead of rebuilding due to the fact that the area had been declared hazardous and is a Superfund buyout site, but the scene was still surreal. I have never seen a ghost town in real life until now. There was even an auction in the middle of town selling off someone’s belongings.

As we drove through what used to be a nice neighborhood, my heart sank. I could hardly bear to see all the destruction-most looked as if the tornado had just gone through. Trees were still laying on homes, windows blown out, roofs missing off of homes, etc. Some homes had been razed and replaced by empty lots and overgrown vegetation. Trees were torn off at about the 15 foot level and mangled. The streets had deteriorated and had grass growing up in the cracks. Power poles were missing and electric service meters were gone from the homes that were still intact. Nary a car or person in sight, save for the activity of the auction.

It was here, in the middle of “ground zero” that I began to weep and to question my passion, storm chasing. I thought to myself why do I chase something that is so destructive? I hate to see people suffer, why do I chase tornadoes? The answer came quickly for me. What if all the TV stations and the National Weather Service had no spotters or chasers to provide ground truth? What if there were no warning sirens activated in Picher that day? Would it have been six lives lost? Or sixty? God only knows, but I am determined to do my part by calling in severe weather my TV station or calling the local emergency manager to inform him about the situation. It’s my passion. It’s who I am.

I am a storm chaser.

Jeff Smith