The most exciting two days of my post-graduation career began on Wednesday when I was hired on by SKY News to work as their local fixer in Oklahoma. Based out of London, they needed someone familiar with the area and highly adept and resourceful to help them cover the tornado and its aftermath. After my interview with them early that first morning, they offered me the position to work with them, and thus began my intriguing, emotional, and mind-blowing journey into the ground zero area of Moore.
Earlier this week, I wrote a an article that chronicled the destruction and devastation in Moore after the massive EF-5 tornado hit on Monday. On Thursday, my adventure continued, taking a much needed divergence from heart-breaking to heart-warming.
We started our day at the Wayland Bonds Elementary School, where they were hosting the students from the destroyed Briarwood Elementary School.
We were the first news crew on site. Law enforcement did an impeccable job of maintaining security in Moore and keeping everything flowing on the roads. Here they were guarding the school.
The police were also there to project an image of safety and to let the traumatized kids know everything would be all right. However, this was just a minor precursor in comparison to what they had waiting for them inside!
We were the only news crew allowed into the Wayland Bonds Elementary School. I approached the school principal along with SKY News' correspondent Michelle Clifford. Over the past day, I had been training my British friends about the nuances of Southern culture and how they could help their reporting cause. I wore my hunting jacket, my Oklahoma City Thunder shirt, and my OU hat. Moore residents really opened up for us with me tagging along. Even with the day's ominous weather, kids and families began pouring into the school.
On Monday, the storm destroyed their school during the last few days of the term. So this special event was a way for them to collect belongings that had been recovered and reunite with their teachers.
Here, a mom escorted her young Cub Scout into the school.
Teachers, students, and their families continued to file into the school through the afternoon. The environment was cheerful and warm, with the kids full of smiles because they were handed brand new stuffed animals as they headed home for the day.
After we grabbed our initial shots inside the school, we retreated and filmed our live shots and interviews from the Church parking lot across the street. This was my SKY News crew today.
As the activity at the school began to lull, we decided to venture out. Our camera man, Jake Britton, and I ventured out for a human interest story. Before we were able to reach our targets, we were met with torrential downpour and flash floods.
Luckily Jake had rented a Jeep, so we were able to prevail onwards. What we found was the most heart warming scene of the day.
The volunteers of Southgate Pentecostal Holiness Church were eager to help, immediately offering us cases of water and a free meal. Pastor Lynn Ice greeted us as soon as we exited our Jeep and reiterated the offer of a free meal.
We of course were fine and told them we just wanted to grab some photos and possibly an interview. Everybody was so kind and we had to fight them off to make sure the food was given to the actual victims. Pastor Ice's mission was blunt: It did not matter who you are or what you believed, just that you had a stomach and wanted some food. As an atheist myself, I respected Pastor Ice's dedication to the victims and his passion to help others.
Shortly after we arrived, an Oklahoma National Guard convoy rolled in and began offering help and interacting with the church volunteers.
One of my favorite photos of the day was the one I snapped next. The picture was a perfect summary of the volunteer relief effort. Pastor Ice talked to the National Guardsman and was able to arrange for his grandson, Chapman McCully, to sit in the Humvee and have his picture taken. The little man was just a cute, energetic presence, smiling the entire time, but when he sat in the driver's seat, Chapman just lit up even more.
Chapman was one of the most avid volunteers, repeatedly trying to load me up with gatorade and a bag of chips.
The coolest thing about Chapman was his customized volunteer shirt. In permanent marker, he had sketched out the initials 'K.D.' on the back and had written the number 35 on his sleeves as an homage to Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Jake and I quickly did a few more interviews and then we headed on our way. Our mission was now to go to Newcastle and see what damage was around the tornado's point of origin.
On the drive out there, we were met with the stark memory that while recovery efforts were well under way, the damage was still rampant.
As we continued along back country roads, we were met with road blocks. We had decided to take this back route to avoid the congestion on the main highway I-35. We went for the local secret of I-240 and while it was about 16 extra miles, it cut our travel time in half. We were making a good pace, but decided to pull over and have a look at these mangled power lines.
These twisted and pulverized metal remains looked more like a piece of modern art than a row of power lines. I threw on my high contrast black and white filter and snapper away.
From our vantage point, you could see miles of major power lines. It became quite clear how powerful and large the tornado was at just an earlier EF-3 stage. At this point in the corridor, the tornado had not yet evolved into the fearsome EF-5 that struck Moore. Regardless, the energy imparted on row after row of power lines was an immense kinetic force.
Jake and I wrapped up this shoot and I went back into Moore to retrieve my truck. I still had one mission left. I mentioned it briefly at the end of the tornado article I wrote on Tuesday. Thanks to local Tulsa businessman Pete Womack and the generous donation from his company, I departed from Tulsa late Tuesday night with a truck bed full of water, powerade, and other much needed supplies. I had been offering water and refreshments to the officers working the road blocks, but they had largely cleared out or either had an abundance of bottled water already. As such, I too still had the better part of a truck bed full of water. So I knew what I had to do.
I returned to the earlier location of Southgate Pentecostal Holiness Church and was again greeted with hugs and the offering of food. I dropped my tailgate and helped them move the rest of my supplies to their donation intake center. And again they tried to get me to take a burger and a couple of hot dogs for the road, but I reiterated that there are people who need it more than I. However, I later learned that while I was distracted talking to the Pastor, somebody snuck over to my truck and threw in a bag of chips for me.
I said my goodbyes again and headed to the dinner with my SKY News companions. With that I completed my mission for the day. While stuck in traffic, something caught my eye. I grabbed my camera, stopped traffic, at least more so than it already was, and took this both heartwarming and heartbreaking picture.
Someone had taken a piece of debris from their house and spray painted a concise but profound message. From the destruction of the tornado, again, hope and recovery is blossoming.
For my fellow Oklahomans reading this article, please stay safe and take cover if the weather demands it. And for those not in the Oklahoma area, here is my Oklahoman's guide to passing time during a Tornado. Follow me on Twitter @TheNolanK and stay tuned for continuing tweets and updates from ground zero!