Out of destruction….
June 13, 2013 Leave a comment
On May 21, one day after an EF5 level tornado ripped through central Oklahoma —leveling homes and killing 23 people — American Red Cross Eastern Virginia Region Director of Donor and Media Relations Jonathan McNamara (’05) boarded a plane for Oklahoma City. His assignment was to provide assistance as attaché to the region’s overburdened disaster relief unit. Severe weather cancelled Jon’s direct flight, forcing him to fly to Dallas and drive 200 miles to Red Cross basecamp in Moore, Okla., 11 miles south of the state capital. His deployment lasted nine days. Once Jon had a chance to breathe, he talked to JMU Alumni Association’s James Irwin (’06) about what it’s like in the aftermath of a destructive storm.
Hope from help
By Jonathan McNamara (’05) as told to the JMU Alumni Association’s James Irwin (’06)
I don’t think anyone can prepare for the images we saw in these neighborhoods. You couldn’t tell where one house was supposed to end and a new house began. You had things that were really difficult to process, especially when you would see cars where cars didn’t belong — washing machines, boats, garages … all these things in places you don’t expect.
Hundreds of volunteers were pouring into the area and I was assigned as part of a public affairs team for Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant and his teammates. Two hours earlier Durant had given a $1 million donation to the relief effort. We visited with a local CBS affiliate doing a telethon and then we toured a neighborhood devastated by the storm.
I really got to see what it means to have a guy like Durant be engaged in the response to a disaster like this. People were incredibly grateful for relief assistance from the Red Cross and Salvation Army and other volunteers, but more than that they truly were grateful that someone would take the time to walk through and see how they were doing. It almost served as a pressure-relief valve for these people who had some incredibly difficult days ahead of them. It really touched Durant and brought a personal level to his donation.
I had a chance to go through neighborhoods with an elite group of Red Cross volunteers called the “Disaster Assistance Response Team” — part of the New York City fire department. These are firefighters who lived through 9/11 and have dedicated their lives to provide help for communities — they were in Joplin after the tornado and in Boston after the bombings. When we walked through the neighborhoods, to see the joy not only on the faces receiving the assistance but to see the joy on the faces of the firefighters … it was a pretty remarkable sight.
What you start to see, after you get used to the sights and sounds and smells — people are burning debris — is you notice countless examples of small acts of kindness. You see a person sift through rubble for days trying to find baseball cards or family photos. We found a football player from the University of Oklahoma who was looking for his conference championship ring. And they would just stop, because they would see someone next door dealing with the same things, and they would walk over and help that other person for three, four, five hours.
I met a few kids in a neighborhood in Bethel Acres who really got into the process of making this short video we were creating for the Red Cross. What took me aback was I realized that probably was the first fun thing they had done since 16 minutes before the storm, when the first warnings came through. Then there was a lady who drove from Louisiana and made homemade beef stew all day for people. She had driven through the night because she said she couldn’t imagine people going hungry during something like this. There were truly incredible acts of selflessness everywhere you looked.
You know, your first thought after something like this is to feel bad. When I would ask people what they want others to know about this, to a person they would say they wanted people to heed the lessons of disaster preparation, because the ones who did fared significantly better than the ones who didn’t.
One of the things I’ve always loved is the idea of an engaged community trying to make the world a better place — and that’s such a key part of the JMU educational experience. I was one of numerous JMU grads who played a role in responding to this Oklahoma disaster. Heather Robertson (’10) in Roanoke was involved, and Adrienne Alberts (’95) is in our D.C. headquarters and was part of our national response effort. I think the work I’m doing now and the skills I developed are a testament to my JMU and School of Media Arts education. I don’t think I did anything extraordinary; I just did my job.
Jon McNamara returned to Richmond on May 30. His flight left just prior to another band of storms striking the region, causing more damage in Oklahoma, and in Texas and Arkansas. Relief efforts in Moore and surrounding communities are ongoing. To contribute visit http://www.redcross.org.