The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, left behind more than a hundred thousand tons of debris and rubble. All the buildings and houses that were destroyed, cars that were wrecked and trees downed, all the tons of possessions (couches to goldfish bowls to video cassettes of home videos and favorite t-shirts), were transformed into garbage.
With garbage on my mind, I decided to have a closer look at Moore. I parked in the lot in front of the Moore Warren Movie Theater. Some of the facing on the blue storefront letters had been blown away, but otherwise it seemed to have sustained little damage.
Next door, the Moore Medical Center was in much worse shape. Parts of the building looked like they had been ripped open, exposing the rib-like framing. Windows were shattered and large sections of the roofing had blown away.
Gigantic dump trucks and semi-trailers were being filled with the rubble that scattered the parking lot. Most of the nearby buildings had been so completely smashed that only the heaps and mounds of debris remained.
There were still many cars in the parking lot, although these vehicles had been twisted and crumpled like empty candy wrappers. Axles stuck out at odd angles, windshields were smooshed in, and one was even missing its steering wheel.
Across the street was a residential neighborhood where they were also in the process of cleaning up. The streets were lined with long mounds of debris some ten or fifteen feet high, turning the street into a canyon with walls of garbage. Intermixed with the rubble of demolished houses were the little possessions that fill everyday lives.
The City of Moore has published debris removal guidelines for people affected by the tornado. Residents are responsible for moving debris to the curb where the City of Moore is collecting it seven days a week. The City takes the rubble to the landfill. I’ve heard that the materials are being sorted at the landfill so that some can be recycled.
All the debris from the more than 4,000 homes and buildings that were destroyed has to be put somewhere.
Since the tornado, the local landfill has seen a doubling in the amount of material it receives, from 2,500 to 5,500 tons per day. They estimate that all the debris from the storm will take a full year off the expected life of the landfill. Landfills may be designed to only accept certain materials in a certain way, but in emergencies, they get called on to do extra duties, sometimes even receiving debris that was never meant to be buried there.
Wandering through this wasteland, I was startled by two points: first, it is amazing how many little things we gather around ourselves – when you are in a home surrounded by these things, they don’t seem all that numerous, packed away as they are on shelves, counters, and in closets. But when they are all shaken out of their order and unceremoniously dumped together, they become massive. It is in our nature, I think, to gather stuff around us, and wherever stuff is, there also is garbage. The things we have turn to garbage whether we like it or not.
Which brings me to the second aspect of the debris: what was at one moment useful, valuable, desirous, and loved, can become garbage in a moment of displacement. Things are delicate and what once was useful is no longer when it’s smashed; things are clean but lose their allure when they are thrown in the dirt; things are lovely but become dangerous when we don’t know what has touched them. There is a perilous line between possessions and garbage. All our possessions are balancing on this line more delicately than we like to admit.