Disaster – A first-hand account of devastation

On Saturday, April 29, six East Texas counties endured the devastating effects when several deadly tornadoes touched down, destroying homes and property in their midst. Hundreds of East Texas residents in Canton, Eustace, Emory, Fruitvale and others were displaced as the storms leveled homes and the Red Cross quickly mobilized to support the affected communities.

The Red Cross serves its mission thanks to generous support from donors and the response in East Texas was quickly met by individuals, businesses and foundations that wanted to do their part to help.

Neiman Marcus Group, headquartered in nearby Dallas, has been a longtime Red Cross supporter and, since 2014, a national Red Cross Disaster Response partner.

“After starting the Neiman Marcus Disaster Relief Fund in 2013, we decided to partner on a national level with the American Red Cross,” Kevin Hurst, director of charitable giving and associate volunteerism said. “We wanted to support the authority in disaster relief and that is the Red Cross.”

Annually, members of the Neiman Marcus Group family are encouraged to donate to causes that are important to them. The Red Cross partnership is supported through the Disaster Relief Fund, which in 2016 received 12 percent of employees’ donation dollars, the second highest designation among all disasters.

On May 4, Hurst represented the Neiman Marcus Group as he visited Canton and Fruitvale, delivering water and visiting with residents. He shared his experience with his colleagues and his powerful message to them is below.

by Kevin Hurst, Nieman Marcus Group Director of Charitable Giving

If you have not personally been affected by a man-made or natural disaster, then you most likely have not seen first-hand what the destruction really looks like.  The one-dimensional electronic images on TV, online, and print do not accurately portray the three-dimensional devastation.

As the director of charitable giving, and the steward of Neiman Marcus associate’s donations to the Neiman Marcus Disaster Relief Fund, I was recently invited to take a tour and witness the catastrophic damage that Canton Texas and the surrounding communities suffered when four separate tornadoes moved through the area on Saturday, April 29.  On May 4, I joined the American Red Cross and other corporate supporters for a 60-mile journey just east of Dallas.

During the drive, we heard all of the facts and figures;
·        four tornadoes, one of which was an F4 (the second highest type),
·        one tornado stayed on the ground for 51 miles, which is completely rare
·        7019 meals served to affected families and volunteers
·        2910 comfort and clean up kits distributed
·        The speed at which two emergency shelters had been set up
·        100 homes destroyed or uninhabitable

The facts and figures are just that…facts and figures.

On the day of our tour, the sky was a vibrant blue and not a cloud in sight…there was even a slight breeze to keep things cool. Just the day before, the area had once again been under a severe storm watch with the possibility of hail.  In fact, we were told to wear thick sole shoes and long sleeve shirts.  In addition to the storm damage, the demolition of homes had already begun causing insulation particles to float in the air.  I recall seeing one house being torn down as we drove down a rural road and thought about the juxtaposition of the destruction with the glistening elements in the air.  It almost seemed like snowflakes floating to the ground.

We had been coached that we should not ask too many questions.  Each person would be at a different place in the grieving process.  It was best to let them talk as little or as much as they wanted and we should simply say “I am sorry for what you are going through.”

It wasn’t until we started delivering water to those families that reality set in.  I think it is safe to say that our demeanors changed from that of an outsider looking in, to one who was now able to truly empathize with those affected.

Our first stop was at a trailer home.  We were greeted by a 60-something year old gentleman, “Mark,” seated in a lawn chair in the middle of his yard.  He was having lunch which consisted of a hamburger, bagged chips, and a bottle of water; all of which were provided by the local church that had set up grills to help feed their neighbors. Mark’s 86-year old mother, sister, and a young child were all home when the storm hit. They huddled together in an interior room.  When it was over, the entire mobile home had been lifted eight inches and moved one foot from its original foundation.  The branch of a large tree fell directly into the middle of the home, most likely preventing it from being completely blown away.  Needless to say, their home is uninhabitable.  The irony is that most of their personal possessions like photographs and keepsakes were all intact.

As I snapped these photographs, I again thought about the juxtaposition of the scene…the tattered American and Texas flags proudly displayed and waving against a backdrop of ruins.

Blue tarp covers the hole left from the tree branch.

To compound the tragedy, Mark’s brother was visiting in a travel camper and was inside of it with his dog. The tornado picked it up, slammed it on its side, and peeled the roof off extracting all of the contents.  Thankfully the two walked away with minor cuts and bruises.  The door of the travel camper was located wrapped around a tree.

Disaster First-hand look 2
Upper and lower left: View of camper on its side
Upper right: Inside view of camper with roof peeled off
Lower right: Door of travel camper wrapped around tree

As we were visiting, a retired veteran and neighbor, “Bob,” came to talk to us.  At first glance, his house directly across the street appeared to be unscathed, however that was not the case.  He shared that the entire roof pulsated up and down during the storm loosening ceiling joists and cracking walls.  As a trained storm spotter, he knew exactly what to do in the case of a storm and was prepared with a back-up generator, thus allowing him to continue living in his home.  Being trained doesn’t necessarily mean that you are exempt.

Bob has a cell phone tower on his land.  When the company came out to inspect it, the technician climbed about ten to fifteen stories to the top.  He reported that he could actually see the trench of destruction in the ground and where the tornado made a 90 degree turn to his neighbor’s mobile home.

I mentioned that our Red Cross guide said people would be at different stages of grieving. For both Mark and Bob, they were grateful.  Grateful not only that they were alive, but they still had some place to call home.  I have to say how “impressed” (if that is even the appropriate word) I was with Mark.  He was completely open and seemed almost anxious to share his story.  We were told that people find it therapeutic to talk about the event.  He invited us to walk around his property and take pictures.  I almost felt like it was a badge of honor for him…perhaps if only because his family was safe.  As for Bob, and I suspect because of his storm training, he had a different perspective.  He actually said he was “happy” it happened.  He explained that this storm actually brought his community together; neighbor helping neighbor.

In part, this visit was organized by the American Red Cross to demonstrate their quick response and the programs and services provided in a time of crisis.  In reality, it demonstrated so much more.  It demonstrated the force of nature.  It demonstrated the gratitude and compassion of individuals.  It demonstrated the resiliency of a community.  For me, it validated our decision to become a National Disaster Partner with the American Red Cross. I mentioned earlier that I act as a steward of our associate’s donations to the Neiman Marcus Disaster Relief fund.  This support allows the Red Cross to be ready within hours to activate the volunteer network and provide food, water, shelter, products, and other services that would help those affected start to recover from this life-changing event.

One final juxtaposition and photo.  Amid the piles of debris at Mark’s home, I saw this Amaryllis flower.  It was seemingly untouched by the winds and flying materials.
disaster first-hand look 4
The genus name Amaryllis comes from the Greek word “amarysso,” which means “to sparkle.” In Greek mythology, it was the name of a shepherdess who shed her own blood to prove her true love, and in so doing inspired the naming of this flower.

Similar to the flying insulation particles that glistened in the sunlight, this Amaryllis equally sparkled.  We can only hope that much like Greek mythology, this lone flower will act as a shepherd of hope for the community and shed pollen to spawn new life.

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