The Norman Transcript

June 16, 2013

Tweeting through the tornado

By Zachary Snowdon Smith
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Serve Moore isn’t like other relief organizations working to clear away the rubble in tornado-stricken Cleveland County. It isn’t a government-registered nonprofit group.

It has no billboards or TV commercials. In fact, before the May 20 tornado it didn’t even exist.

Despite this, it has raised thousands of volunteers and won the cooperation of the Moore city government, the Red Cross and FEMA. The secret? Serve Moore knows how to tweet.

“We wouldn’t be here without social media,” said Leah Dees, a volunteer from Moore Community Church. “It’s been essential in getting us what we need, be it goods or volunteers. At the community center, there was a lady who needed a car seat for her baby. I posted online, ‘Can anyone get me a car seat today?’ and, within three hours, this lady had a car seat.

Serve Moore began when area churches gathered in the aftermath of the tornado and asked themselves how they could contribute. The Moore Parks and Recreation Department contacted the congregation of churches and asked them to gather volunteers to clean up the town’s badly damaged cemetery.

They sent out a tweet: “Looking for 500 volunteers tomorrow in Moore.”

The following morning, around 3,000 people showed up, said volunteer coordinator Tyler Fisher, and the cemetery was cleaned.

Chris Fox, communications director for Moore Community Church, is one of the operators of Serve Moore’s Twitter account and website.

It’s his job to tell the public what goods need to be donated, to inform volunteers of hazards and to address the outside world on behalf of the beleaguered community.

Though Fox prefers Facebook for communicating with his church, Twitter is better-suited to the relief effort, he said.

“The natural function of Facebook is community and connectivity, but we don’t have the time or the resources to generate the level of content necessary to make a Facebook page work,” Fox said. “Twitter’s audience is expectant of bare-bones information. You say what you have to say in 140 characters and then you get out.”

Fox does all this from a plastic folding table in the back corner of Moore Covenant Life Assembly’s indoor basketball court. This is the nerve center of the organization — a hectic space lined with donated supplies and tools piled against the echoing concrete walls. There is no cork board; memos and schedules are stuck to the walls with duct tape. Like the organization itself, Serve Moore’s central offices were put together on the fly.

Organizers have divided the tornado-affected area into 10 zones, where relief activities are directed by 10 zone leaders who report back to Serve Moore’s basketball court headquarters. When a zone leader finds a broken gas main or meets a police officer who tells him that a thunderstorm is coming and they need to evacuate, the information is phoned back to the central offices and broadcast from there by phone or by Twitter.

“It’s a dangerous environment,” said Jonathan Hellmuth, one of several Serve Moore coordinators who have been officially deputized by the municipal government. “We’re literally sending people out into ground zero, into the direct path of the tornado.

There’s rubble where there used to be homes. There are boards laying around with nails sticking out of them. There are sharp pieces of metal. There are half-destroyed walls that are ready to collapse.”

Despite this, says Hellmuth, the worst injury a volunteer has suffered so far is stepping on a nail, for which the Red Cross was ready with a tetanus shot.

As well as the heavy work of cleaning streets and carting away debris, Serve Moore volunteers must obtain written permission for homeowners to begin repairing their property.

Volunteers are shuttled to and from the field in four school buses lent by the City of Moore.

Though the number of volunteers has declined from its initial high of 3,000, Hellmuth said the organization is preparing for the years-long task of rebuilding Moore.

“It takes a healthy dose of realism and a sober attitude to accept that this is going to be a very long-term project,” Hellmuth said.

Serve Moore would be capable of functioning with as few as 300 volunteers, Fisher said.

“What peeves me is when you hear the media saying, ‘We’ve got more volunteers than we need in Moore,’” Hellmuth said. “When you walk around and see the level of destruction, you realize there’s no way we could ever have too many volunteers. It would take the entire state of Oklahoma down here for us to be done with this project anytime soon.”