Weeks after an unrelenting EF5 tornado snatched Moore, Okla., into the sky and viciously slammed it back to earth, the cleanup continues steadily and the hope of rebuilding and restoring remains a far-off, but stoutly believed in, dream.
This storm, which hit on May 20, touched down at 2:45 p.m. and stayed on the ground for 20 minutes during which it released 200-mph-plus winds on a 17-mi. (27 km) long, 1.3-mi. (2.1 km) wide path. The storm claimed 24 lives, caused countless injuries and, since it was a spring storm, left untold numbers of orphaned newly born wildlife scattered.
The destruction numbers in terms of buildings and property are currently at 4,000 homes and businesses, including the complete destruction of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where students and teachers were trapped for hours in the debris. Initial estimates put the damage to Moore at $2 billion.
Moore, however, has not been the only target of the particularly venomous storm season Oklahoma has experienced so far this year.
On May 19 at 6 p.m. and lasting until 6:50 p.m. an EF4 tornado with winds up to 200 mph cut a 20-mi. (32 km) long, 1.2-mi. (1.9 km) wide path through the towns of Shawnee, Pecan Valley, McCloud and Little Axe.
A third storm, known as the El Reno tornado, another EF5 incident, touched down on May 31 at 6:03 p.m. and lasted until 6:43 p.m., tearing a path that was 16.2 mi. (26 km) long and 2.6 mi. (4.2 km) wide through the towns of Union City, Mustang and Yukon, earning the distinction of being the widest tornado on record in the United States.
All of these devastated towns have been under the care of The First Response Team of America, a group of first responders dedicated to helping in the first crucial hours and weeks after a natural disaster. The team embraces several roles, one of which is using heavy equipment to clear what are all too frequently nearly unrecognizable roads so that all other first responders get to where they need to be as quickly as possible. Another, emotionally difficult role the team uses the equipment for is meticulously lifting pieces from devastated buildings where people are believed to be trapped. The team also has water rescue equipment and thermal cameras that can detect body heat, so they often are members of search and rescue teams themselves in addition to handling heavy equipment.
Weeks after the storm, the team has stayed with Moore, in an effort to help the town move toward recovery. Working as they do with The Weather Channel, the team was able to position itself just out of range of the accurately forecasted Moore tornado and thus was poised to be on the scene at Plaza Towers Elementary School within two hours of when the storm hit.
The passable roads were jammed with cars and pedestrians leaving the area so police escort was called to take the team to what was left of the school. Search and rescue workers were already on site and needed more paths cleared in the debris to reach what they hoped would be survivors.
With more than a million dollars worth of equipment, much of which had been previously donated by RAM, Caterpillar, The Pete Store, Ledwell Trailer, Allmand Light Tower and Lincoln Electric, the well-practiced team quickly set up and began the painstaking, heartbreaking work.
The founder of First Response Team of America, Tad Agoglia’s voice is steady as he speaks of his experience at Plaza Towers, but the compassion and grief are there nonetheless.
“Working at that school, using our equipment to lift off the rubble where we thought there might be young kids trapped. That was, seeing all those desks in the rubble…. We’ve been to about 50 disaster sites helping out but this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Agoglia said.
“We helped with search and rescue using our Prentice loader crane mounted on a 367 Peterbilt truck, our Allmand Night-Light Pro — II V Series light tower, Caterpillar 299 multi-terrain loader and Tomahawk Lincoln Electric plasma cutter donated by The Pete Store, Caterpillar, Lincoln Electric and Allmand Crane, plasma cutter, light towers and compact track loader,” Agoglia said. “Then we went on to general search and rescue in the community using our night vision and infrared rubble cameras. Then onto clearing roads and home sites, which is what we are doing now with the help of the local Caterpillar dealer Warren CAT, who provided a Caterpillar 420 backhoe and 246 skid steer, allowing the team to perform dozens of home demoes at no cost to the homeowners of Moore, Oklahoma City, Shawnee, El Reno and other surrounding towns affected by the disasters on May 19, 20 and 31.”
The construction community is always ready to step up during disasters, something which people outside the industry might not focus on in the midst of tragedy. But disaster, whether the recent natural wrath of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, or manmade horror as on 9/11, offers the industry a unique way to help, and the industry always does, marshaling equipment and operators and finding transport to places that need help. The violent tornados in Oklahoma are no exception.
Agoglia emphasized his thanks to Warren CAT, with sixteen locations in Texas and Oklahoma, a neighbor to many affected by the tornadoes that was quick to reach out to First Response Team with donated use of several hundred thousand dollars of equipment. With ample locations near the devastation, Warren CAT staff knew that its dealership was able to deliver the equipment quickly so that more people could begin working on site and coordinated closely with Agoglia to see that everything arrived in the areas most in need.
Ronnie Lane, vice president, machine division, Warren Power & Machinery, said, “I knew about First Response as I had met Tad at a Cat Rental Summit earlier this year. He is supported by the Cat Foundation. I was very impressed with his dedication and commitment to help others in need. When I learned that he was in Moore as one of the first responders I reached out to him and offered our assistance. In addition to the Cat equipment that First Response already owns, Warren is providing a backhoe loader and skid steer loader to Tad’s team for their use in the cleanup effort. Tad is always very gracious and thankful for our support. He claims we are truly his partner in his efforts.”
Lane pointed out that since several different communities were affected by storms during the month of May; the biggest challenge was not getting equipment to the various locations but identifying and prioritizing who needed the equipment the most.
“We had many customers, both private and governmental that rented or purchased our equipment during the normal course of business that is now being used in the cleanup efforts. Several of our customers are the primary contractors for the cleanup in Moore. We have donated the use of multiple machines to various volunteer groups where our employees are involved. For example, our employees have volunteered in Shawnee, Moore, Bethel Acres, Little Axe, Carney, El Reno and Newcastle utilizing our donated equipment in their cleanup efforts,” Lane said.
In addition to donating machinery, Warren CAT has leveraged its status as a large engine dealer and has assisted with providing power for a number of venues, including more than two megawatts in generator sets for the Toby Keith Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert that took place on July 6.
Warren CAT also has donated portable generator sets to power the “Loads of Hope” mobile washing facility sponsored by Tide.
Warren CAT stepped in and, in partnership with Holt CAT, the authorized Caterpillar heavy equipment and engine dealer for 118 counties in south, central, north and east Texas; and Foley CAT, serving 104 of 105 counties in Kansas and 40 counties in western Missouri, including the Kansas City metropolitan area; provided standby power for the Oklahoma water treatment facility in Moore that was damaged during the storm.
In fact the entire Cat family has been there for Oklahoma and for Warren CAT, which as a dealership did not escape the storms unscathed.
“We had about 10 employees whose property sustained some level of damage in the various storms. One employee lost his home completely. After about a month in a hotel he has relocated to a rental house until his home can be rebuilt,” said Lane. “Our main Oklahoma City facility received significant roof and cosmetic damage during the May 31 event but nothing to hamper normal business operations.
“The support from Cat and the Cat Dealership family has been outstanding. We have been contacted by more than 16 Cat dealers from across the country offering support, equipment and donations to help us clean up and get moving. Cat Inc. also has supported us with expedited shipment of equipment, support and offers of donations. The entire Cat network including the dealerships has flexed its considerable strength to reach out and support Warren as we support our community and those affected by the storms,” Lane said.
Although long out of the headlines, Oklahoma will need that support for a long time to come, and the construction industry and First Response Team will continue working closely with the local fire department in Moore and the other devastated towns to find people still in need, helping to clear home sites and prepare the sites for rebuilding. The work is emotionally draining and there is so much of it to be done.
“It’s not often we see F5 tornadoes much less one that hits a city directly,” said Agoglia. “With thousands of homes and business completely destroyed the work we are doing can be daunting because as soon as you clear debris from one homeowner’s property you see there is another devastated home next to it. But I think that’s what’s important…to help one person, one family at a time.”