Millbury, Ohio – The cardboard boxes resting on stairs of red carpeting at the entrance of St. Peter United Church of Christ on Monday morning told the second-saddest story of this grief-stricken village.
Five lives were lost after a tornado’s 175 mph winds whipped through this tiny patch of northwest Ohio on Saturday evening with the randomness of Fate gone mad. At least 50 buildings were leveled; dozens more were damaged. The high school is rubble. Damage estimates have reached $100 million but may climb.
The boxes tell the story of what happened next: Family photos, personal letters and thousands of other private mementos flew through the sky like footnotes annotating lives that found little mercy in the wake of high winds.
Each box was marked with a name:
And so on.
Inside the boxes was growing evidence of a community’s resolve to patch together friends’ and neighbors’ torn-asunder lives: tattered photos of babies, proms and 50th wedding anniversaries. Handwritten letters postmarked 1962, 1987, 2009. A teenager’s diary, still locked.
Nearby tables were piling up from the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who were searching fields, trees and roadsides for the detritus of other people’s lives.
“It All Adds Up,” read the cover of a high-school yearbook resting on a stack of muddy photos and a woman’s W-2 form.
A school report lay nearby. Someone had cut out a magazine photo of a child and with precise printing listed the possibilities:
1. The little girl just took a bath.
2. The little girl is happy…
Baby shoes stood inches away from a crumpled letter that read like notes penned by adolescents across the country: “Kara! What’s up? Not a lot here, just decided to drop you a couple lines.”
A mother and her three children showed up and quietly sorted through a mountain of photos. She was searching for something, anything, that might belong to her brother’s family. Suddenly, she began to sob. She started to talk to me, but one of her sons interrupted.
“No, Mom,” he said, his face twisted in anguish as he turned his back on me and faced her. “No. No.”
She looked down at her son, looked up at me. “This is very hard,” she said. “For all of us.” She touched the face of her boy, who set his jaw and continued to glare with an unspoken plea to keep it in the family.
“Sorry,” she said, tears streaming down her face. And then she turned away.
Ruth Bordner, a 65-year-old volunteer with the Red Cross in nearby Hancock County, walked over to the mother, hugged her and whispered something in her ear. Then she turned toward me.
“I just got back from three weeks of work in Tennessee,” she said. “My first volunteer work with the Red Cross was Katrina. This is my ninth disaster relief effort. But this is different. This is in my backyard. It tears you up. It does.”
In the bustling church basement, interim Pastor Kathryn Helleman hovered with several others around a makeshift map that her son-in-law Tom Mahas had drawn and propped against a wall. Mahas had driven around town that morning with his wife, Evelyn, and targeted nine areas littered with debris.
Helleman wore the demeanor of someone in charge of triage. A blue iPod was clipped to the collar of her T-shirt. “Found it about an hour ago,” she said. “I’ll wear it until somebody claims it.”
“Got five minutes to talk?” I asked.
“I’ve got two,” she said, with a face that made clear that the clock was running.
“My background is in mission trips,” she said. “We have a lot of young people who’ve been on one of those, and they know how to help.”
When I asked her what the people of Millbury need most, she didn’t hesitate.
“Cash,” she said. “We’ve got lots of water and clothes. These people need money.”
She shook her head, waved her hand around the room.
“You know, something like this happens and you suddenly realize: You don’t have a plan,” she said. “We never said, ‘If a disaster hits us, who do we call first? Who is the point person? If that person isn’t available, who’s the next point person?'”
That’s a conversation every town in America should have, she said. Right now.
“Somebody said to me after the storm was over, ‘You always think this kind of thing happens to someone else, and now we are someone else.'”
Time was up. She started to walk away, paused.
“Everybody should be asking that question,” she said. “Everybody should be asking, ‘What will we do when we’re someone else?'”
She turned and walked toward the next group of people calling her name.
To donate to tornado victims in Millbury, Ohio:
American Red Cross
Wood County District Office
150 Gorrell Ave.
Bowling Green, Ohio 43402
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.
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