Oklahoma City — One photo shows a red-cheeked tot sitting in a high chair, smiling at the camera. Another one, a Polaroid, shows two people unwrapping gifts at Christmas, a tree decorated with lights behind them and wrapping paper covering the floor.
They are among countless photos found after a series of tornadoes swept through central Oklahoma six months ago, including the EF5 twister that struck Moore on May 20, devastating parts of the town and killing 24 people. Some of the photos were recovered more than 100 miles away, picked up by the forceful winds and deposited on farms, streets and in front of strangers’ homes.
Now, Kristi Brummal and a team of about 50 volunteers are trying to clean, restore and reunite the photos with their owners as part of the Oklahoma Photo Rescue project. The photos show everyday moments as well as momentous occasions such as holidays and births. Some date back to the early 1900s.
The project hasn’t counted how many pictures have been recovered since the storms, Brummal said, but earlier this month, seven families reclaimed 104 photos at an event held in Moore. The group is still cleaning and documenting the photos. The next event will be in the spring.
“This could be the only picture that somebody has. It’s just vitally important that people understand your entire life was destroyed in a matter of moments, and to even be able to get one photo back of your dad or your daughter, it’s immeasurably meaningful,” said Brummal, school manager at the Oklahoma School of Photography.
The group, made up of photography professionals and enthusiasts, initially started out as a way to offer photo restoration services to the tornado victims, but it quickly became a rescue and recovery group, too, Brummal said.
“Having been through tornadoes before ... it’s very frustrating because all of your belongings are scattered to the seven winds, and most of the time so is your documentation. And you’re without transportation, without housing, and then you’re asked to go seven places to get your driver license, your birth certificate,” said Brummal. The Oklahoma School of Photography was hit by the May 1999 tornado in Moore, and Brummal lived just a block from where homes were devastated.
Brummal said the group expects to continue to receive photos for up to two years after the storm. In one instance, a farmer in Catoosa, northeast of Tulsa, found a photo of a little boy while walking his fields in June and contacted the group, she said.
“There were a lot of tears. We went through a lot of tissue,” Brummal said of the event where the photos were reunited with their owners.
A similar effort came together after the Joplin tornado in 2011. During the past 2 1/2 years, the National Disaster Photo Rescue collected more than 35,000 photos, with 700 families claiming 17,000 of them. The remaining photos will be donated to the City of Joplin later this week, said Thad Beeler, director of the organization.
The National Disaster Photo Rescue also announced efforts this week to help recover photos from the tornado that devastated Washington, Ill., on Sunday and is looking for volunteers to help.
Oklahoma Photo Rescue: https://www.facebook.com/OklahomaPhotoRescue
National Disaster Photo Rescue: www.nationaldisasterphotorescue.net
Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton