In response to the massive tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma last week -- claiming at least 24 lives, including 9 children -- countless volunteers flooded into the area. Conservative activist and political consultant, Aaron Browning from Pleasant Grove, Utah, was among them.
Browning said the sight of the destruction shown on the news was overwhelming and left him with no choice but to respond. Inquiring on his Facebook account if anyone would be interested in joining him in heading to Oklahoma, he said he soon received eight responses from strangers. Knowing only his roommate, Browning and nine others set out on an eighteen hour drive to the now ravaged town.Browning said he and his crew of volunteers were unsure where to go at first with so much needing to be done. "Just so much debris. Massive trees reduced to toothpicks," Browning said, describing the scene.
Recalling their first day in town, Browning said they helped salvage what was left of a lady's house that was near the elementary school that had been directly hit by the storm. Throughout the rest of the week, he and what he referred to as a "small army of boots on the ground" went neighbor to neighbor asking what they needed and how they could be helped.
Browning described the morale as being high and that locals seem to be "taking it well." Recounting dozens of stories from survivors, Browning characterized them as "both amazing and sad."
The most memorable, Browning said, was of a lady who upon hearing the tornado warning, proceeded to sit in her bathtub, wearing a helmet. After being pinned in her tub for half an hour, she amazingly survived Browning said, despite the rest of the house being demolished and a truck being thrown on top of it, a mere ten feet from her.
He continued to recite the personal accounts of locals -- many of whom were also assisting in the recovery effort -- for some time; including one woman's final moments with her husband, who was tragically pulled from her grasp as the EF-5 twister passed over.
Despite the devastation, however, there was much to be celebrated, he said, mentioning one mother who happened to have picked up her child from the aforementioned elementary school just five minutes before the tornado hit; as well as the inspiring response from Mormon missionaries and Baptist church members from all over.
Browning noted the majority of those aiding the survivors were local businesses that would "every hour ask if anyone needed any help, and the restaurants offered food."
Aside from those native to the area, he said the number of volunteers working directly in the town was rather small considering the size and scope of the area damaged by the storm. The mile-wide funnel cloud that reportedly destroyed or damaged 13,000 homes -- with a path stretching 17 miles -- has left residents with varying responses on what to do going forward.
Citing a very similar storm nearly 14 years prior, Browning said many homeowners in the area are resilient and have long accepted that this is simply a risk of living in Oklahoma. One family told Browning they're "waiting for bulldozers so they can start to rebuild."
Others say they've endured these storms for far too long and it's time to move on with their lives elsewhere.
Browning went on to express his disappointment with the response from Washington, saying:
"I haven't seen the government. We're told the government will come and take care of us, but they don't. It's regular people ."
Overall, however, he described the experience as "pretty overwhelming. Emotional, amazing at the same time. It's a roller coaster."
Saying he's grateful to have made the trip, he encouraged others to pray for the people of Moore, Oklahoma and to assist however they can. He said there is much work to be done.