407: 5 Truths I Collected While Cleaning Up After a Tornado
Sunday night, an EF2 tornado touched down about 2 miles from my house. 20.4 miles later, after growing into an EF3 tornado, it finally left my community alone. Somehow, only 146 homes sustained substantial damage; and “only” 22 homes were total losses. The storm was fierce. An artifact from one house was found six miles from its flattened home.
Several nights this week, I have joined the large throng of folks who have volunteered to come alongside the victims. I’ve represented just one dot on the map that included school buses, caravans of personal vehicles, and convoys of commercial vehicles that have been unloading relief, recovery, and cleanup workers. My efforts pale in comparison to many in my community, but those few hours illuminated truths I hope I don’t soon forget.
As a group of my churchmates and I stepped out of our trucks Tuesday night into a flattened neighborhood, the magnitude of the work to be done seemed unconquerable. Literally hundreds of thousands of remnants covered yards and dangled from thickets. Scores of trees leaned on each other or sprawled prostrate. Everything was a mangled mess. We had two and a half hours until emergency curfew, but shock froze us for a couple minutes.
“We didn’t come all the way out here not to do something,” Joel said. Immediately, we scattered in different directions with no assignments. We all just started. We moved toward anything out of place. We kept doing that for a couple hours with whatever tools were in the back of the trucks that brought us. By the time we finished, almost the entire yard was clear. Much of the debris in the thicket was extracted. Huge, segregated piles sat at the road waiting for the chippers, excavators, and trash trucks. We didn’t untangle all of the property’s mess, but we finished enough to give the homeowners some sense of progress and maybe even some hope.
In our world apart from tornadoes, the same truth applies. Even if we can’t eradicate a problem, we can alleviate some of the pain. We can remove some pressure and add some optimism. We can’t help everyone, but we can “do for one what we wish we could do for all.”
Confront the chaos.
When one of my ministry teammates can’t participate with the rest of us for a serving event, I’ve gotten into the habit of assuring them, “Just be Jesus where you are, and we’ll be serving together.” At a conference two months ago, my biggest takeaway was something Matt Chandler said: “One of the ways we are most like God is when we bring order to chaos.” This unnamed tornado gave us all a new chance to be Jesus. It provided an illustration both practical and unmistakeable in how to represent God’s character: to bring order to chaos.
It all made me think of the craziness that is my day job, my ministry, and my schedule. Stuff is constantly in the air. I’m almost always juggling tensions between commitments. I can’t count how many times my heart and my head are at odds. My inbox and phone throw surprise grenades. Every. Stinking. Day. Everybody needs a resolution—yesterday, if possible. The same is true for you, too, I’m sure. All of it calls for one answer: order. Those of us with Jesus breathing inside us can bring enough of it for others to take notice, enough for our soul to feel our contribution. While our environment brings the noise, we can bring peace—even if only a small container of it.
Assess before you repair.
In some of the other recovery areas, owners and volunteers weren’t allowed to start the cleanup process. First, their insurance adjusters had to capture and assess the damage. They had to determine what was broken before computing the cost and process of restoration. Mother nature’s crime scenes needed to be combed for the full scope of remedy—and maybe problems that debris patterns could reveal.
In my marriage, family, friendships, and ministry circles, treating symptoms often elongates the healing process. Bringing trained counsel into our situations can help us clean out wounds instead of just bandaging them. Taking our time and asking more questions can hurt more in the short term but help us avoid infection. By pushing our sympathy to empathy—intentionally putting ourselves in others’ shoes—we can offer solutions that empower others in need instead of patronizing them. By asking more why’s about our own feelings, we can correct our motives not just our behavior.
Sort your failures.
One of the first directives we heard was to separate the pieces of tree from the inorganic refuse. While both might eventually make it to the landfill, much of the organic matter could be chipped for reuse or at least more efficient composting. In fact, some volunteers brought their mini excavators and chippers to eat the organic piles almost as fast as we could make them.
The shrapnel from past damage in life needs to go in two separate piles, too. Some of it is just waste. It’s not recyclable. There’s nothing in it that can be used to help something else grow. It’s a shame, but it really isn’t worth trying to reclaim, repurpose, or resurrect. Some of our failures, though, can feed new growth. Consequences can be chopped up, transported, and placed between beautiful things. Even trauma can be leveraged to make a messed up world just a little more beautiful. As some realities die, they can fuel new dreams and amazing growth.
Unlike on the scene of a tornado strike, the challenge lies in determining which is which: garbage or recycling. For me, that’s where prayer and counsel, audiobooks and conferences add value to my life. When I can’t tell the difference, someone or Someone else knows.
You don’t need a title to lead change.
First responders, professional arborists, and NGO personnel absolutely have made the work safer and more efficient. If they were the only ones who could respond, though, this effort would take multiple times the days to complete. Government officials, nonprofit employees, and commercial ventures alone can’t match the scale of human suffering.
You don’t have to have be in charge to make an impact, to push the world forward. You don’t have to go to school to learn how to show compassion, how to show kindness, or how to give hope. You just have to be willing for awkward conversations like the one I had tonight at a front door, “Um, would you like us to work on that mess in your back yard?” You’ve got to have some clothes—and hopefully some gloves—that you don’t mind getting dirty. You’ll probably have to give up some nights or weekends, and you’ll probably not get reimbursed for your efforts. Thankfully, you’ll get sounder night sleeps and some extra cathartic exhales.
I hope you never have to see these realities in action. Frankly, I hope I never have to see them again, either. But to see all this devastation and not learn something is to waste pain, to pretend it wasn’t as big of a deal as it was. Please join with me wherever you are on this planet right now and pray with me that God grows something bigger and more beautiful out of these ashes than just a blog post and some extra gratitude. Let’s not let others’ misfortune shrink to the scroll on the bottom of our flatscreen TVs.