Everytime I almost go to sleep, I see tree branches flying at my head.
It was a scary couple of days.
Everybody imagines the most gruesome part of being a first responder is the fatalities, and the things we experience while searching for survivors and not-survivors, and the things we experience as we recover those not-survivors. That’s true, and those experiences come through our senses: things we see, hear, smell, and touch.
But in those moments, we are going on adrenaline and a drive of determination, desperate to find life. The intense physical labor and its dramatic mental impact go un-noticed in those moments.
What is scary in those moments is that the storms keep coming. Just because we get to a site doesn’t mean the rain stops or the wind settles or the thunder dissipates. We drive through the storm to get there, and the ongoing rain makes our work far more difficult and dangerous.
We worked the sites in Carney, Shawnee, and Bethel Acres for a full day before the tornado in Moore hit. We were there when other microbursts and high wind storms threatened us again. We had already not slept for two days and a night before Moore happened.
I did get about a three hour break in which I parked behind the LDS ward building in Shawnee and try to sleep a little, from about 1am to 4am. No first responder wants to leave the scene. How can you sleep when you know people are trapped? But at that point, we knew everyone was accounted for and there was little we could do until the sun came up. So some of us that had arrived first were sent to rest, and then we met again to let families back in to recover personal items at sunrise.
Crews worked so hard and fast, but there were still live wires to drive around or under. There were trees uprooted, trees stripped of their branches and leaves, trees landed in strange places at strange angles. Because of the rural community with all its farms, and the mobile home park that was hit directly, there was shredded tin wrapped in everything: around fences, braided into the branches of trees, woven through the remains of roofs or walls or debris of what used to be homes.
Driving to the site was a surreal experience, like in some kind of bad dream or a movie. It was raining wallpaper. Bits of trees were still falling, papers and pieces of books fell on my car, and also a chicken and a piece of something else that I don’t even know what it was. There was hail and rain and mud alternating from the clouds. There were animals, trees, and pieces of cars in the road. The pavement had random bits of debris so that driving – even slowly – was very difficult and slow. When I stopped for gas in Stroud (because you cannot get gas on site, so you have to make sure to arrive with as full a tank as possible), they had just found some toys in the parking lot that had a Shawnee address written on them in Sharpie. After the Moore tornado, they found debris as far as Branson.
Before I left for Shawnee, Nathan gave me a blessing. It was very powerful, and it helped me throughout my days of working. There were several times the wisdom and counsel from that blessing kept me safe, including the timing of when to travel or not travel. At one point, they said I had been working the scene too long and sent me back to the hotel to rest. The hotel was about a half hour from the site. Others had come, and there was some confusion about rooms (I had not checked in yet) because so many volunteers were showing up, and so the hotel sent me to a different hotel. This hotel was almost an hour away, a whole hour and a half from the site. I didn’t see any reason in driving an hour and a half for a hotel when I could drive two hours and sleep at home. I got the very strong impression just to drive home and rest, have a good shower, and then go back. It was while I was at home sleeping that the tornado hit in Moore, and the others along the highway. The hotel they had assigned me to, where I would have been sleeping (without my ears on), is gone. I really believe that one line in a very powerful blessing, and heeding its counsel by being wise about where and when to travel, I really believe it saved my life.
Naturally I felt that my life was saved, and so therefore I should be a good steward of it by throwing myself right back into the mess of it all. I headed back soon as it was my time they would let me.
Obviously, Moore was a very different scene than Carney or Shawnee. It was bigger and longer, and hit a very populated area full of businesses. The good side of it being so big and traveling for so long was that the people had a LOT of warning, comparatively. It may be one of the most destructive storms in history, and may have left behind a complete mess, but there was little loss of life. In our first 24 hours at Moore, we pulled out more than 100 people alive. Compared to Joplin, which had no warning in an area of old homes that had no protection, in those first 24 hours we pulled out almost 120 people – of whom only 8 were alive (and one of those passed en route). Moore, thus far, has a fatality total of 24 – which is tragic – but Joplin had a fatality total of 158. Moore had more warning, stronger buildings, and more shelters, so that even though they had greater damage more lives were saved. The debris in Moore is brick and concrete, plus the home construction and regular debris, but we pulled people out intact and alive; the debris in Joplin was splintered wood and shards of metal, and we pulled people out in pieces, and they were not survivors.
Every storm is different. The amount of warning time is critical, as is the degree to which people are prepared. Other than fatalities caused by the storm itself, or drownings of trapped people afterward, many of the injuries from these storms are actually caused afterward. People who are prepared for a storm, with long pants and good shoes on, receive fewer injuries than those who are not prepared and are still wearing shorts and flip flops trying to navigate a debris field. People with 72 hour kits with water, snacks, and first aid have fewer injuries than those who have access to nothing and are unable to care for their immediate needs. People who have a plan – where to meet, who OUTSIDE THE DISASTER ZONE to contact so that the people outside the local area can contact all your family and friends (because cell coverage is little to none inside the disaster area) – find each other more quickly and are less panicked than those who have no idea what to do. Churches and organizations with systems for checking on its members are more quickly accounted for and more quickly receive help than those who do not already have a system in place.
There is a lot of work to do for cleaning up from the storms – not just in Moore, but also Carney and Bethel Acres in Shawnee. It will take time, but people will work hard as a community and get it done. There is grief for those lives that were lost, and for the loss of things people loved and places people called home. It all takes time.
It is an experience like none other to work side by side with fire-people and police-people and doctors and nurses and EMT’s, all of us on a team to save lives. There are three levels of care to what we do: rescuing the people and immediate assessment, getting the people medical care and shelters and mental healthcare, and referrals for ongoing services and treatment. Those of us in that first level of care on the scene also provide care for other first responders when they need it. It is very intense and very emotional, but the stuff of which miracles are made.
Last night I kept finding myself clawing at Nathan, checking to make sure he wasn’t buried under bricks. I kept jolting awake with the vision of that branch landing on my car. Or worse, I see the pictures of mom’s accident again, except it is all flying through the air with all the trees and cows and houses landing on top. I kept having nightmares of people we couldn’t get to, or visions of things we saw there.
During the day, I repeatedly check the weather and find myself at doors and windows, checking clouds. I jump if the wind blows enough to bend a tree even a little, and stop breathing if the wind stops all together. I am fidgety and distant, trying to go through the motions of real life while still vibrating from intensity.
My brain will detox and settle down. I know that it is still compensating for the days without sleep, and my trauma response is filtering through the REM cycle, and that it will settle down over time. I know that my senses are still primed with adrenaline, watching for danger and trying to protect me. I also know it is just a really brutal experience in the middle of what has been a really brutal year, and that my brain and my body are just worn out.
I find as many physical activities as I can – the pool, the garden, working out, cleaning the garage, to flush the adrenaline and cortisol out of my body. I eat vegetables from the garden and farmer’s market to fill me back up with good nutrients and happy chemicals. I sit in the finally-sunshine and breathe slow, deep breaths. I pray, and read my scriptures, and talk to friends, and try to filter the details that want to come flying out of my mouth or onto the keyboard.
My head knows I am safe, that tornado mess is now just cleanup, and that everything is okay. I am just waiting for my body to catch up and know it, too. Sleep will help, but sleep is still hard.
It’s been a really hard year. Not bad – I wouldn’t trade any of the lessons I have learned, not for anything. But definitely hard.
So sometimes, in a very rare moment of feeling extra vulnerable, in the dark where no one can see or hear, when a tear escapes and this very hard year seems too heavy for me to breathe, I roll over in the night and cling to Nathan and whisper, “Please don’t let me blow away.”
And he squeezes me tight, and tangles up his feet with mine until I am locked in place.
I feel his hand on my head, and though I cannot hear him, I know he is blessing my head.
I can feel it.