For the thousands of residents in Moore, Okla., left without homes by the May 20th tornado, it took less than a minute to lose everything.
To replace everything will take much longer.
Each recovery will be different, depending on how much someone had in the first place, in terms of financial resources, insurance coverage, and social support networks.
Since the tornado struck, we’ve been following two women who each lost their homes, as they figure out how to pick up the pieces of their lives. They lived in the same neighborhood, but in different places along the economic spectrum.
Cyndi Beam, a single woman in her early 40s, owned her home, which was fully insured. A few weeks before the tornado, she had left a good paying job at the local utility company, where she earned about $20 an hour and was living off savings while she looked for a new job.
Michelle, who asked not to use her last name because of an unresolved domestic violence incident, is a single mother in her early 40s, with a job at the Census that pays about $11 an hour. She and her toddler lived in a home they rented, with no renters insurance.
Here are some of the things that Cyndi and Michelle have each acquired since losing everything, and the stories behind them.
Cyndi Beam: Thank you notes
One of the first things Cyndi bought after the tornado hit was a stack of thank you cards. She carries them around with her, and fills them out when she has a free moment, like this break she took (above) last Sunday in her church cafeteria.
The thank you notes are for people who have helped her during the tornado recovery, and the list of names, from church friends and family to old buddies from her high school softball team, is a long one.
The perfect car
Thanks to good insurance and good credit, just two days after the tornado Cyndi was able to buy a new car to replace the one the tornado crushed.
She smiled when the salesman showed her a brand new car on the lot, discounted because of a little hail damage, which happened to be painted burnt orange, the color of the Texas Longhorns.
Originally from Dallas, Cyndi is a lifelong Longhorns fan who receives frequent ribbing in her adopted home of Cleveland County, Okla., where the rival University of Oklahoma Sooners reign supreme.
"It's like I got to the dealership and God said, ‘Here. I reserved this one just for you. No one else in Cleveland County will want this color,'" she said.
A new bed -- but no full night’s sleep
Cyndi’s old bedroom is somewhere under that rubble on the right. Cyndi has found a new bedroom, in a house a friend just put on the market. Cyndi is welcome to stay there until it’s sold, and then she’ll have to find a new temporary home. Cyndi’s long term plan is to use her insurance money either to rebuild or buy a new house.
Cyndi bought a new bed with a cash advance from her insurance company, and found 1970s style sheets and a comfortable but stained comforter at a relief supply station.
But as comfortable as it is, Cyndi’s still waiting for a full night’s sleep. She has too many to-do lists dancing through her head when she hits the pillow.
Plus, the tornado obliterated the expensive CPAP machine she used to manage her sleep apnea. She’s replaced it with a new, less expensive machine that hasn’t been as effective.
Remaking a kitchen
Miraculously, Cyndi didn’t need to replace all her dishes. The ones inside the dishwasher(below, left) were clean and untouched by the tornado.
There was still a lot of kitchenware to replace, though. Donations from friends and strangers have begun to fill in the gaps.
Michelle: Two pairs of shoes
Just before the tornado struck, Michelle was doing laundry in her house, barefoot. When she heard the tornado sirens, she ran in to a storage closet. A few minutes later, she emerged to find that the walls to the closet were the only part of her house still standing. As she took in the devastation, she had a very practical problem: all around her was debris and broken glass and Michelle had no shoes.
That’s when a stranger drove up, took off his shoes, and gave them to her. (He had another pair he could wear in his trunk).
For more than three weeks, Michelle wore those shoes: men’s sandals, several sizes too big.
They rubbed and gave her blisters. But in the midst of dealing with an entire home’s worth of things to replace and no insurance while juggling a job and caring for her young daughter, finding a better pair was way down at the bottom of her list.
Then, a few days ago, in a sign that a bit of normalcy is returning to her life, she stopped at a relief center after work, on her way to the Red Cross shelter where she has been staying, and found a new pair.
She’d planned on getting rid of those men’s sandals as soon as she could, but as soon as she took them off to change in to the new pair, she realized she couldn’t let the old ones go.
“The only time they were ever off my feet was when I was laying on a cot. Except for about 4 or 5 hours a night those shoes have been on my non-stop," Michelle said. "And they kept me safe. Those shoes helped me to function. And if anything happens to these shoes, I still have those sandals.”
They’re in the bottom of the suitcase where she keeps all of her newly acquired clothes.
For a week, Michelle wore the same t-shirt she was wearing when the tornado struck. Then, a volunteer with a bag of donated shirts came in to the shelter where she was staying.
She immediately gravitated to this one (on the right), she said with a smile.
A cot with all her worldly possessions
Michelle stayed at Red Cross shelters for nearly four weeks while she looked for a new apartment. A few friends invited her to stay on their couches until she landed, but their places were already crowded with their own families, and no bedrooms to spare.
So she opted for the shelter’s cots. She used a donated roller bag to transport her few belongings from the shelter to her car each day.
Calligraphy and gratitude
After the tornado, Michelle received several gift cards from relief groups. One of the first purchases she made was this calligraphy set (below), which she has been using to write thank you notes late at night at the shelter.
Dreaming of home
Michelle finally moved in to her new apartment this past weekend. It’s small and mostly empty, but she’s grateful to be out of the shelter. She is now in her own space, with her daughter and her cat.
Right now, she still needs to buy the basics. Those include a bed for herself and a can opener. But she’s got her eye on one non-essential item she noticed the other day in a shop, and snapped a picture of it as a reminder.
She knows exactly where on her empty walls she’d put it.