Oklahoma tornado aftermath: Volunteers work amid surreal devastation

MOORE, OK - In this tornado-shattered city, where surreal sights of devastation abound, another unusual scene unfolded midmorning Wednesday as a procession of as many as 2,000 volunteers filed down a street toward the Moore Cemetery, a 20-acre resting ground that accommodates the city's earliest leaders and soon will receive some of its recent storm victims.

Toting rakes like soldiers carrying rifles, they heeded a call sent out over social media by civic and religious leaders to help clean up and repair the cemetery in advance of the burials and Memorial Day observances.

"We actually were looking for an opportunity to serve," said one of the volunteers, 24-year-old Colin Strickland of Oklahoma City.

He added that, "There's people here from all walks of Oklahoma City. I don't even know some of the people I'm walking with."

Two days after an EF-5 tornado, with winds above 200 mph, tore through this Oklahoma City suburb of 56,000 people, killing at 24, the ambitious cemetery cleanup provided an outlet for citizens otherwise unable to participate in the grim recovery effort.

Michael Carpenter wiped his brow with his forearm before picking up a black garbage bag and hoisting it into the back of a pickup truck already laden with a number of bags of debris.

Carpenter, a Moore resident, grabbed a wheelbarrow and started loading it with bags of debris other volunteers were filling. He said none of the volunteers had to be told where they were needed before they headed into the cemetery.

"Everybody just grabbed everything and started going."

Search-and-rescue teams such as the Shelby County-based Tennessee Task Force One, were nearly finished with the job of combing through obliterated residences.

On Tuesday, the 80-member Tennessee unit searched an area four to five blocks wide and 2 miles long, said Michael Putt, deputy director of the Memphis Fire Department and a task force leader.

"We didn't find anybody injured or deceased," Putt said, adding that the unit should be finished with its work in Moore within the next day or so.

As aid poured in from across the state and nation, residents returned to their flattened homes and began retrieving whatever valuables they could find.

Pat Peters, digging through the ruins of a relative's home, had one item in particular on his search list: The cremains of his sister-in-law's husband.

"And we found it," Peters said.

Peters, who lives about 90 miles from Moore in Clinton, Okla., remembers the similarly devastating Moore tornado of May 3, 1999.

"If there's a centerline to Tornado Alley, Moore's got to be on it," he said. "Do tornadoes have fault lines? We're on one here."

The power of the storm could be found not only in the neighborhoods and commercial areas, but in the cemetery, where the twister toppled scores of heavy headstones that had stood for decades.

Todd Jenson, parks and recreation director for Moore, marveled at the turnout for the cemetery cleanup, which he estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 people.

"People want to volunteer to do something," he said.

Moore resident Amy Webb, who showed up at the cemetery to help at 8:30 a.m., said, "You start cleaning an area and look back and see how far you've come."

Coming to grips with what happened Monday will take time, Webb said, "We're all just working through the shock."

Content producer Naudia Jawad contributed to this story.

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