This week marks the two-month anniversary of the devastating tornado that hit Moore, Okla., in May. In its aftermath, I’ve been following the lives of two women. They were strangers to each other, but had lived blocks away. When the tornado ripped through their neighborhood, they both lost their homes and everything inside.
But there are also important differences between the two women, including the fact that before the tornado, they had very different financial situations. And though it’s often said that natural disasters are great “equalizers,” those financial differences have led to very different recoveries.
From new addresses to new shoes to new underwear to new friends, it's hard to fathom how much the tornado has changed both their lives. So in this story, I’ll focus on one part: their livelihoods.
Let's start with Cyndi Beam. For the last several years, Cyndi had a good-paying job -- $20 an hour -- at the local gas company. She was one of those people you get to by pressing "zero."
After dealing with one too many disgruntled customers, Cyndi was burnt out. She saved up money, and this spring, just before the tornado, she quit.
“God stirred my soul and gave me the means financially -- even though part of it was coming from dad -- to take some time off, and to take my time before looking for another job,” Cyndi told me.
She calculated her finances and figured she could wait until June to start looking for a new full-time job. But those plans changed on May 20th, when the tornado came through her town and obliterated her house.
When I met her in the first few days after the storm, Cyndi told me that-- faced suddenly with figuring out where to live, how to file insurance claims, how to get donations, and how to replace all her worldly possessions-- she saw her temporary unemployment as “a blessing.”
“If had a job at the moment that I had to report to everyday, I wouldn't have time to do all this,” she said. “There are going to be some people who are going to be taking care of these details that I'm going to get done with within a few weeks, that they have to spread out over months.”
Blessings sometimes have a way of multiplying. Not needing a job right away allowed Cyndi to focus efforts on finding help for herself. And those efforts quickly lead to a new job.
A couple weeks after the tornado, she was asked to be the disaster relief coordinator at her church. “Just trying to fill in the gaps for some people that are sort of going to fall through the cracks if no one stands up to help them,” she explained.
The job is temporary, and part time -- about 25 hours a week, at $10 an hour. Cyndi says it’s perfect for the moment. Along with the insurance money she's getting for her house, and all the donations she's received, it helps cover her expenses. And, she is getting paid to do for others what she had already been doing for herself.
Now here is where this story takes a weird twist: One of the people Cyndi has helped recently was Michelle -- the other tornado survivor I’ve been following.
Cyndi learned of Michelle in the first story I did right after the tornado, which featured both of them.
In that story, Michelle talked about the difficulties of recovering from a tornado being a single mom, with a low-paying job and no renters insurance. On top of that, she had recently been in a serious domestic violence incident (which is why she has asked not to use her last name).
When Cyndi heard all this about Michelle on the radio, she wanted to reach out. She asked me to put her in touch with Michelle, which I got permission from Michelle to do, and in late June Cyndi invited Michelle to her church to offer her some money raised by the congregation.
The meeting happened one Sunday right before the church service. It was awkward but sweet. Michelle thanked Cyndi for the check. Then she looked at it and said, “to actually accept help is hard.”
“Yeah,” said Cyndi. “I know that feeling too.”
In the lobby of the church, the two women chit-chatted about what they had in common -- like the weird feeling of suddenly needing charity. They talked about some of the surprising post-tornado inconveniences they had encountered -- like all the tiny but sharp debris still left in the roads that was causing a steady outbreak of flat tires for many locals.
“I drive through what used to be home and within 12 hours I have two flat tires,” Michelle marveled. She told Cyndi she’d needed to pump her tires so often since the tornado, “I’m starting to learn where all the free air places are.”
Cyndi nodded. “Any of the 7-11’s have them,” she said. Then she paused. “If they’re still standing.”
And then the service was about to start. Cyndi asked Michelle if she wanted to stay. Michelle said she did, but had to rush off to an appointment for work right after.
And that bring us to Michelle’s livelihood.
For the last four years, Michelle has been working for the U.S. Census, doing door-to-door surveys for about $10 an hour. In the weeks after the storm, she was frantically juggling work with repairing all those flat tires, looking for a new place to live, making endless trips to donation centers. She missed a few deadlines for her job.
“My supervisor had said, ‘Don't worry about it. Get it done,” Michelle told me of some of the conversations she had with her boss in the early days after the storm. “And that right after the tornado, quite a few weren't working at all.”
But then, Michelle got sick and ended up in the hospital a few times, after fainting. She says it was likely a combination of stress, not eating well, and because some stitches she needed after the tornado got infected.
“Everything was getting more and more crazy and I just wasn't getting the work done,” she said.
Then, Michelle's cell phone got cut off -- with the fewer hours she was working, and the extra money she was spending on flat tire repairs, and on gas to find a new apartment and go to disaster relief stations -- she didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.
Eventually, a friend offered to pay. When the phone was reactivated, Michelle received a voicemail that her supervisor, based at a regional Census office in Colorado, had left while the phone was off.
“I know you've been having some difficulties,” the message said.
“I'm calling because you have not responded in a week and there's no transmission. So I'm going to need you to call me, so that we can pick up your computer since you're not using it.” The message went on to say that if the supervisor did not hear from Michelle about the computer soon, the office “may have the law enforcement come get it from you.”
Michelle took this to mean that she no longer had a job. She told me she called her supervisor to talk about the situation, but never got a call back. She had a friend send her equipment back while she was in the hospital.
I called the Census Bureau to ask about what had happened, but was told that due to privacy regulations they could not comment on personnel matters. A Census spokesman, Brian Lavin, sent me a statement on Thursday saying Michelle was still an employee as of the time of the statement.
I asked Lavin why Michelle would have been asked to return her work computer if she was still an employee, and he sent me an email saying that field representatives are “provided with a laptop computer (approximately $2,000 in value) to use for their data collection efforts," and that the laptops are “specifically modified to meet the Census Bureau’s commitment and legal mandate to protect the privacy and confidentiality of respondents to our surveys.”
The email went on to say that it is "standard practice to retrieve laptops back to the regional office" if an employee is out because of an “extended vacation, illness or other extenuating circumstances. The Census Bureau will keep the laptop software up to date, and then re-issue a device to the employee when they return to work.”
When I passed on what I had been told to Michelle this week, I thought she might take it as good news.
But she still sounded defeated.
Even if she did technically still have a job, she said she felt like everyone, including her employers, were treating her with the expectation that two months after the tornado, she should be on more stable footing than she actually was.
“Everything's supposed to be all better,” she said. “Everything's supposed to be normal now.”
I asked her when she thought her life would be back to normal. She took a deep breath and told me: “I don't know what normal is anymore.”