In Oklahoma, long after the cameras have left, Teamsters are still helping families pull their lives together after the devastating tornados that leveled miles of homes within two weeks of each other.
Under the direction of President Ron Cobb, Local 886 has been instrumental in Oklahoma disaster recovery efforts.
“The Teamsters have always just helped,” said Bobby Alstatt, Oklahoma City Police Chaplain and Local 886 member. “Under the direction of General President Jim Hoffa and President Ron Cobb, I've never been more proud to be a Teamster.”
Members and retirees took time from work and personal recovery efforts to help haul supplies for more than a combined 400 hours within the first few weeks.
Ed Hall, a YRC retiree with Local 886 in Oklahoma, volunteered to haul Red Cross supplies to families for 36 hours despite losing half his roof in the disaster.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Hall said. “I wanted to give back any way I could.”
Boots on the Ground
More than 12,000 homes were damaged in the tornados, and 900,000 cubic yards of rubbish was left scattered in the aftermath, the size of over 140 football fields. FEMA has already distributed $25 million in aid to families.
“To see the devastation, what the storms can do, never ceases to amaze me,” said Terry Raulston, a Teamster retiree and former President of Local 886. “When the storms get stronger and stronger, it literally pulls the grass out of the ground.”
“These tornados are freaks of nature—there's no answer for it. It just destroys your home,” said Alstatt. “Most of the time you can't even find the streets. I grew up on the south side of town and I still had no idea where I was.”
“They had to use GPS to find out where the houses were,” Cobb said. Within a few days of the first storm, Teamsters with GPS units in hand were on the scene inspecting houses for damage, taking pictures and taking note of what people needed.
The Red Cross then called Local 886 looking for certified drivers to truck supplies out to the devastated areas.
More than 30 Teamsters loaded and hauled trucks with peanut butter crackers, rakes, baby powder, ice chests, bleach and anything else that a family might need to local high schools and fire stations.
When people had difficulty reaching distribution centers, Teamster volunteers drove to them.
“We went house to house and you could see that people had barely anything left,” Raulston said. “It's like if you have a fire in your house. It takes years and years to recover.”
“When you stopped in a neighborhood you'd have to listen to their stories,” said Bill Underwood, a retired Teamster from Jack Cooper Transport. “I don't know how to describe something like that.”
In one 10-block area, only three houses had managed to remain on the ground. One, a shell of its former self, was reduced to a shack with three walls.
After the roads were cleared and upturned cars were removed from crop fields, local Teamsters are still rebuilding their community.
“They think it's over when the media rolls out,” Underwood said. “It's not over.”
Fourteen members and retirees from Local 886 lost their homes in the disaster and another 30 were severely affected. When the local found out, they immediately passed out $100 gift cards to Teamster families for gas and groceries.
Later, Local 886 provided an additional $22,000 to Teamster families affected by the tornados. A committee was set up by Local 886 to distribute the money fairly. The Teamsters Disaster Relief Fund is in the middle of processing applications and at press time was preparing to distribute funds.
“We must have gone through three boxes of Kleenex, we were crying so much,” said Underwood, a member of the committee. “It's not enough, it's never enough, but we try to do what we can for these people.”
Local 886 also helps families make phone calls and fill out insurance claims and FEMA forms. After a request from Local 886, Yellow Freight donated a 50-foot trailer to Sherry Cole and her family so they could store their belongings without fear of looting. After their house is rebuilt, the family plans to donate the trailer to the city of Little Axe, Okla., where they live.
Waiting to Rebuild
Even now, months after the tornadoes hit, people are sifting through the remains where their homes once stood. Bit by bit, the concrete slabs that were left by the storm are cleared off, and families are left waiting to rebuild. But only so many homes can be rebuilt at once.
“There is a waiting list for construction,” Cobb said. “I called the glass company—they wouldn't even take my name because they were so busy.”
Ed Hall, the YRC retiree who lost part of his roof, is hoping for a fence by the beginning of August. Roofers aren’t scheduled to start work on his house for another three weeks after that.
“It’s summertime; it’s dry here,” Hall said. “My damage is just superficial.”
In the meantime, people wait, living in tents, motels and in their mother-in-law’s house. But despite their struggles, Teamsters are still planning on staying put.
“A lot of our people are from the community,” Cobb said. “They want to rebuild in the same community.”