Dear friends in Oklahoma: Hope will find you

In Alabama, we have an idea of what you are going through in the Oklahoma community of Moore. We continue to recover from the tornado that destroyed much of our city, Tuscaloosa, in 2011. If there's one thing we learned, it's that hope will find you, even when you can't find it.

Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman/AP
Brian Mullins and his father Terry survey tornado damage to the home of Brian's girlfriend Sara Robinson, right, on May 21 in Moore, Okla., after Monday's tornado. Op-ed contributor Meredith Cummings writes, 'Moore will benefit greatly from patience even though, if you’re like me, all you want to do is snap your fingers and put things back the way they used to be.'

Dear friends in the Oklahoma community of Moore: Here in Tuscaloosa, Ala., our hearts are breaking for you. We have an idea of what you are going through, as we continue to recover from the mile-wide tornado that took 53 lives and destroyed much of our city on April 27, 2011.

Ketchup is what ultimately brought me to tears following our tornado. After days of holding back emotion and being strong for my child, I stood in what was left of my historic neighborhood, sifting through rubble, glass, and insulation at my home, which had been severely damaged.

The Red Cross came by handing out hot food. I got a hamburger – the gift of a hamburger. (You might find that everything now feels like a gift.) A friend made her slow way through the debris to my house from another part of town that was not hit by the tornado. “What can I bring you?” she texted. “Water? Food? Clothes?”

“Ketchup,” I texted back. I wanted ketchup with my burger, but on barren, charred land with ruins all around me, ketchup seemed unattainable.

When she arrived with ketchup, I wept. I was overwhelmed that something so simple was now a luxury – and that I was alive to enjoy it. Just beyond my backyard, people had died. How surreal the entire experience was.

In the coming days, Moore will not want for toothbrushes, clothes, and toilet paper. Necessities will be in full supply thanks to aid organizations and the goodness and kindness of strangers. But somewhere down the road something simple will bring you to tears, and you will realize, like we have, that hope exists. You might not be able to see it, but if there is one thing we learned in Tuscaloosa, it’s that hope will find you.

Like Tuscaloosa, Moore lost major infrastructure and schools. And, like what Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox told me yesterday, “The sober reality of what is in front of them is massive.” But, he added, it can be done. We have proof.

Our tornado, like yours, struck in the late afternoon on a work day. It reached winds of nearly 200 mph. More than 5,000 structures were destroyed in our city. People flocked to help. The city, Mayor Maddox admits, was not prepared for the massive influx of volunteers. Organizing volunteers is a huge undertaking. Coordination is key. It’s a good problem to have, but logistically difficult and not to be underestimated.

I know Moore has experience with tornadoes. Our tornado two years ago was also not the first, though it was by far the worst. We love our respective towns, so we soldier on. You imagine Moore can come back better and stronger. The people of Tuscaloosa attest that it can, and you know from your own experience that it can. I don’t dare speak for a whole city, but I believe Tuscaloosa is being rebuilt in a better and smarter way. Our new schools, for instance, will have storm shelters.

Rebuilding takes time. Moore will benefit greatly from patience even though, if you’re like me, all you want to do is snap your fingers and put things back the way they used to be. The longing for what once was will not go away, but it will change.

In Tuscaloosa, Mr. Maddox and our city council were wise enough to not only take time to step back, think, and plan rebuilding and growth, but also to put the master plan online and have community meetings, which still go on today as we progress. On we can still find recovery planning and information – from who is responsible for debris removal, to housing needs analysis, and also information to help those hardest hit.

The loss of life is something infinitely harder to deal with. The memory of those lost will be with you forever, and that’s the way you want it. Recently, on the second anniversary of our tornado, I sat down with some other survivors and read through a list of names of people who died that day. I went to a memorial service. I grieved. We all did. And now we grieve for you. But remember that without those sometimes painful memories, those people could fade as well. It’s important to speak their names often and forever so they will be remembered.

Moore’s focus now should be patience, with city officials and with one another. The next few months and years will be an important process in which the journey is just as important as the end result.

I have a sign I saved after the tornado struck Tuscaloosa. My then 8-year-old daughter made it in her crooked little handwriting, complete with a star on top. It is close to my heart, tucked away in my nightstand drawer for tough days. It’s a reminder for when I have no patience, and for those times when I grow frustrated waiting for the next building or piece of my city to be completed, even now, two years later.

She wrote a reminder to us all, a cliché that took on new meaning coming from a child: “It’s not about how you fall. It’s about how you get up.”

As Tuscaloosa’s mayor told me when we talked about Moore, “There are moments of hopelessness. But the people of your community, and the people of your nation will not let you fall.”

Meredith Cummings is a professor of journalism at the University of Alabama.

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