NORMAN, Okla. —
A small group of people from Kentucky and Indiana came together to form a relief group after a series of tornados devastated parts of Oklahoma May 19.
The 12-person group, some of whom were victims of the March 2, 2012, tornado in Southern Indiana, named itself Indiana Cares, and in a caravan of five vehicles packed full with relief supplies, departed for Norman, Okla. from Henryville Friday and made the return trip Sunday.
The group had planned to drive the 775-mile journey straight to Noman, nine miles south of heavily damaged Moore, Okla., where it had made contact with a church that was going to delegate its volunteer efforts in the surrounding area.
But, while driving through Carthage, Mo., nearly 255 miles from their destination, fierce storms forced four of the five vehicles to leave the interstate as another set of tornados had begun to touch down in the Moore area about 9 p.m. Friday.
A full-sized van driven by Leroy Swanson, 74, the eldest of the volunteers, of Greensburg, and occupied by Paula Myers, 58, of Vevay, continued into the storm, and would remain separated from their fellow volunteers until the following afternoon.
In Carthage, the group waited outside of a McDonald’s parking lot for the storm to subside, but the 10 remaining volunteers soon found themselves taking refuge in the restaurant’s bathroom with teenage McDonalds employees.
The city’s emergency sirens rang loud as the weather worsened, and black clouds, rain and hail quickly descended on the small Missouri community. It was at this point the volunteers, who had left Indiana to give tornado relief, first thought they may soon be on the other end of relief efforts.
Nearly an hour later the severity of the Carthage storm subsided slightly, and the group, led by Indiana Cares organizers Jennifer McConahay, a stay-at-home Henryville mom, and Jennifer Corkum, of Scottsburg, a college student, pushed on to Norman, still more than three hours away.
Back on the road, the caravan was immediately met with excessively heavy rains and lightning that struck so strongly and so frequently, it was as though the group was driving underneath a giant strobe light.
Less than 70 miles from Carthage, the group, again, decided the interstate was too precarious to traverse, and the now four-vehicle caravan sought refuge in Big Cabin, Okla.
The group made its way to a Super 8 motel as the rain poured down, but the facility was without power, and despite hard raps on the door by Indiana Cares volunteer Mindy Stephan, 33, of Switzerland County, no motel employee came to the door.
The group then drove to a truck stop in the immediate area to escape the relentless rain and heavy winds.
At the truck stop — which had also shut down because of the storm, but employees were allowing people seeking shelter inside — the Indiana Cares volunteers, with options decreasing by the minute, gave consideration to camping out for several hours on the tile floor as the storm passed.
After assessing their unexpected status and speaking with people in the area, the group was told they could find a hotel in Vinita, Okla., just 10 miles away.
The short drive was made, and close to midnight the Indiana Cares volunteers found themselves safe, exhausted and elated to have a warm bed at a Holiday Inn. The first day of their three-day trip had come to an end, and the volunteers were still 185 miles from the destination they had hoped to reach the night before.
With an early start, the caravan regrouped and was soon passing through Tulsa, then into Oklahoma City to gas up the fleet.
The first two gas stations the group has stopped were without power and unable to sell gasoline due the previous night’s storms and recent flooding. While only 24 hours into the trip, the group had learned to handle setbacks, and it rolled on to another gas station on the edge of the city.
It was near this time in the trip, close to noon Saturday, that the group was informed the church it had made contact with prior to departing no longer had a need for their supplies — a wide variety of toiletries, hand tools, clothing and other relief products — or volunteer services.
The volunteers were alerted of two other area relief services in the Moore area, and neither accepted its relief materials or the open-ended volunteer services they deeply wanted to provide.
After another last-minute change of plans, the volunteers were told of a small community southwest of Moore, where the May 19 tornado caused its most significant destruction, that was operating a makeshift distribution site. The site was located in the tight-knit, 5,000-population community of Little Axe, Okla.
Area residents had set up the distribution center the day after the tornado that had damaged much of the area nearly two weeks earlier.
The community was also hit by heavy storms the night before, but area residents said the storm had caused more fear than damage. The center was set up in a parking lot of an antiquated Shell gas station and community store.
Volunteers were received with open arms by the locals operating the site, and the supplies were unloaded from the vehicles and added to the center’s inventory.
Indiana Cares volunteers interacted with the center’s organizers and those in a steady stream of area residents who were arriving and cherry picking from the goods.
Jimmy McConahay, 39, of Henryville, husband of Indiana Cares co-coordinator Jennifer McConahay, shared with the some of Little Axe residents his story of how the March 2, 2012, tornado destroyed his home, took his belongings and sent him whirling into the same shock the people there are currently enduring.
“I know what these people are going through,” Jimmy McConahay said. “I know because I’ve been there.”
After a day of sharing stories, tears and embraces, the group left Little Axe and drove to Moore, where seemingly endless swaths of land where neighborhoods and commercial properties that prospered only weeks ago laid completely wrecked.
Massive steel beams were found twisted like pieces of tin foil. Vehicles sat upside down and torn. Toilets could been seen, apparently untouched by the storm, but the homes around them had vanished. A speed boat that had been flung into the sky was positioned high atop a pile of wooden debris.
When Indiana Cares volunteer Robert Pangburn, 35, of Jeffersonville, was asked why he wanted to make the relief trip, he responded, “Why wouldn’t anyone want to come?”
He said meeting the victims in Little Axe made him realize how quickly a person’s life can change, and how helpless people can be when change occurs.
“Seeing all of the destruction, it was really distressing. And seeing all of these people — they just carry on immediately after all this happens, and they are doing everything they can to possibly get through the event, and they are so grateful,” Pangburn said.
He said visiting the disaster site in Moore took a toll on him emotionally and physically.
“My brain is racked, and my stomach is just mush,” Pangburn said several hours after leaving Moore. “It was a bit much, and I’m just at a loss for words.”
Corkum, who organized Indiana cares, said late Saturday night that while the trip had a number of unexpected turns, it was big success.
“We did an awesome job today,” she said. “We helped a lot of people, and we got a lot accomplished.”
Corkum, who worked long days volunteering in the Henryville area after the tornado last year, said the experience of helping the people of Little Axe was bittersweet.
“I’m happy because we were able to help people, and I’m sad because I know what they are going through,” she said. “I know how hard it is.”
She said victims in Little Axe were so shocked, they weren’t even sure what items they needed to take home from the distribution center.
“I had to ask them, ‘Do you have a toothbrush? Do you have cleaning supplies? Do you have pets [that need care?]’” Corkum said.
The group traveled nearly 1,500 miles and acted out of sheer selflessness while doing whatever they could to make other’s lives better.
“Even if we just help one family, it was all worth it,” Corkum said.