Last updated: August 23. 2013 3:32PM - 294 Views

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Like many people, I was glued to the coverage of Monday’s catastrophe in Oklahoma. The images seemed too disturbing to look at, but too intriguing to look away from. The sight of small children emerging from heaps of rubble made me release a heavy sigh of relief, while the stories of death made my stomach flip.

As tales of both triumph and heartache began to emerge from the wreckage, I couldn’t help but think of the long road that has been set for the people affected. Much like the images being flashed on television, the thoughts of trapped people and young children who soon will be buried sometimes are too much to bear – but impossible to escape. There is no doubt as days go by more stories like these will begin to unfold.

Though I have been fortunate and avoided living through a natural disaster, I have experienced firsthand just how destructive a disaster such as Monday’s can be. Twice, actually.

And to be honest, the stories told on television and in newspapers don’t even begin to translate the emotions behind witnessing the aftermath of a storm in person.

In spring 2006, I traveled to Mississippi to help clean up the mess left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Although seven months had passed before I arrived with a team of fellow college students, the devastation of the storm was everywhere.

Areas of leveled houses went on for blocks, while other areas had plywood boards covering empty areas on buildings that once were filled by windows.

Spray painted X's signified buildings were unsafe for occupation, while entire areas of land remained unsafe to even drive through. Almost any sign of life that existed in these areas was gone and may still be gone seven years later.

Two years ago, I went to Joplin, Mo., and witnessed a similar scene. Only this time the culprit was a tornado.

Like Mississippi, the small city of Joplin had blocks of flattened homes, businesses and schools. But unlike the effects of Katrina, which seemed to have no consistency with where it decided to do its damage, the Midwestern tornado had a definite zone of destruction, destroying only the structures directly in its path.

I must admit, it was quite strange picking up the splinters of what remained of a home while looking across the street to see a house untouched.

The people of Joplin suffered the same pain of losing a home as the people in Mississippi did, but they also had another emotion I didn’t notice on my journey to Gulf Coast: envy of the neighbor who lost nothing.

In the end, both trips provided a silver lining – for both the volunteers and the people affected by the storm.

Watching a grown man hold back tears in Mississippi as he looked at his home I helped rebuild was fulfilling for both of us. Watching a woman in Joplin marvel at an unbroken plate her grandmother had given her on her wedding day gave everyone in our group goosebumps.

Yes, tragedies like the one that took place Monday are horrible, and I hope no one I know ever has to experience one firsthand. But there also is no doubt in my mind those who do experience the trauma — including the people in Oklahoma – will prosper like so many others before them.

Ryan Hehr
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