A home in Little Axe, Oklahoma destroyed by the May 19th, 2013 tornado.

OpOk Relief serves forgotten Tornado Victims

They’ve come from all over the country, Iowa, Texas, California, Michigan, even as far away as Staten Island and New York City, eager to help, often bringing with them semi trucks loaded down with much needed supplies. Many made their way to OpOk Relief, a non-political group formed by activists to help tornado victims in poor, outlying ravaged communities underserved by the Red Cross, FEMA, and other government organizations.

While the Red Cross literally turned away volunteers and supplies after the May 19th and 20th tornadoes that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma, OpOk Relief has discovered that hard hit outlying areas such as Little Axe, Oklahoma are still in desperate need of help. They have even set up an Amazon “Wedding Registry” so that people from anywhere in the world can purchase specifically chosen items such as chainsaws, wheelbarrows, and personal items to be distributed to victims and workers.

In just over a week, they have already facilitated the delivery of ten semi-trucks full of supplies from across the country, delivered thousands of dollars of goods from their Amazon registry, raised thousands more in cash for cleanup and victims, and facilitated the delivery of $40,000 in goods from corporate sponsors. Their volunteers have spent countless hours working with victims to clean up property and help sift through destroyed homes and trailers to salvage valuable belongings and keepsakes.

Five women from Dubuque, Iowa, filled two semi-trucks with donations and then drove to Little Axe, Oklahoma to work with OpOk Relief volunteers throughout the weekend. Exhausted and happy to have been able to help, they returned home to find this quote in a front-page article of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, entitled “Money, not food, aids disaster relief”:

“Though it might run counter to instinct, (Tri-State Red Cross Director) Sue Olsen also recommends that unsolicited volunteers stay home. Untrained volunteers, while well-meaning, don’t fit in with a coordinated relief effort, she said.”

In fact, while the Red Cross raised over $15 million in donations in the first three days following the Oklahoma tornadoes, they largely ignored the outlying areas for several days. When the Red Cross and FEMA did arrive, they displaced local volunteers and in one case, reportedly kicked a pastor and his church group, who had been running the only disaster relief site in Shawnee, out of the Expo Center, relegating them to the Shawnee Mall parking lot.

In stark contrast to the assertions of the Red Cross, OpOk Relief “untrained volunteers” aren’t lacking in specialized skills. Some are heavy equipment operators, others are construction contractors, organizers, cooks, or techies, and most of them have hands on experience in disaster relief operations. Each person plugs in where they are most needed and most qualified. The process seems a little chaotic, but is continually streamlined through regular evening conference calls where volunteers from all across the country update relief efforts and address both immediate needs and long term concerns.

OpOk Relief was created in less than one day by activists from Occupy OKC, Occupy Norman, Occupy Tulsa, and Occupy Shawnee, but was soon bolstered by volunteers who were instrumental in the Occupy Sandy relief efforts, and even members of Anonymous. Now, they work hand in hand with the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, volunteer organizations, and church groups to help victims, who say they are still in shock and desperately need all the help they can get.

While those volunteers who are able to spend their days helping forgotten tornado victims in Little Axe rummage through the wreckage of their homes or trailers, others sort through and deliver donations, manage the OpOkRelief.net website, or monitor the OpOk Relief Facebook page as pleas for help come in on an almost hourly basis. Still others coordinate crews and drive from one tornado site to the next accessing the needs of each area, Bethel Acres, Carney, Dale, Shawnee, and Little Axe.

The task is overwhelming, but the volunteers of OpOk Relief are committed to serving the victims of Little Axe and others areas that FEMA and the Red Cross have largely abandoned.

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