An EF5 magnitude tornado hit central Oklahoma on Monday, May 20, taking the lives of nearly two dozen people and destroying countless buildings, including at least two elementary schools. Less than 24 hours later four friends, including one current Sandy Hook resident and two former residents, were planning a trip to Moore, Okla., to deliver much-needed supplies.
Peter Baressi, John DiCostanzo, Bill Faucett, and Howard Wood left from Danbury on Friday, May 24. Driving straight through, the men arrived in the Sooner State 24 hours later than they had wanted to, but nevertheless they arrived at ground zero and with plenty of supplies for residents.
“We went out there representing Newtown,” Mr Baressi said on May 29. He and Mr Faucett had been home since the prior morning; the other two returned the following day. All were still trying to catch up on sleep and process what they had done but one of the four is ready to go back
The tornado touched down in Moore, Okla. — the heart of Tornado Alley — at 2:56 pm CST on May 20. It reportedly spent 40 minutes on the ground. While initial reports had as many as 37 people killed, the number was later lowered to 23. The news of the storm and the footage that followed touched something in the four men.
“I don’t normally do things like this,” admitted Mr Wood. “I’m a big supporter of anyone who needs help. Newtown’s shooting being so close, you watch video of kids running out of school and you think Jesus, it’s too reminiscent of Columbine.
“We all have kids, and they had the little kids,” he continued, speaking of Moore, “and there was a lot of interviews on TV with kids that would just rip your hearts out. These buildings were destroyed around the kids. They stood in that building while the wind ripped it to pieces, right around them, nobody was sheltered at all. That was disturbing to us.”
“I grew up in Sandy Hook, I lived there for 20 years,” said Mr DiCostanzo, who now lives with his wife Emily (NHS Class of 1993) in Harwinton. “I knew about all the people who were willing to help my friends and family who were still there [after 12/14], and felt like [going to Oklahoma] was the thing to do.”
According to Mr Baressi, he noticed a post on Mr DiCostanzo’s Facebook page after midnight May 21 that said something needed to be done to help those affected by the twister.
“I responded, ‘Why don’t we drive out there,’” said Mr Baressi, “and by the next morning there was already a huge outpour of support.”
Mr Baressi and Mr Wood, also 1993 NHS graduates, met Mr DiCostanzo years ago through their former classmate. Mr Faucett met the others through Mr Baressi. Two of the men have children of the same age. Mr Faucett is the godfather of Mr Baressi’s 7-year-old son, Wyatt, in fact.
“We all — the four of us, and our families — do a lot of things together,” Mr Baressi said. “There was never any question over who was going to go once we decided to do this.”
“We did the Facebook posts, and e-mails to about 50 people, but really the response was through Facebook,” Mr Wood said. “It ballooned, and we collected enough stuff to fill two 20-foot trailers with supplies.”
The Facebook posts were followed by a phone call to Harwinton’s State Representative, John Piscopo, who in turn sent an e-mail blast out to his contacts, said Mr DiCostanzo. Another person, Connecticut General Assembly Press Secretary/Outreach Coordinator AmyLynn Thompson, contacted Mr DiCostanzo to see if she could help. The next morning, thanks to her outreach, he did interviews with two television stations, a newspaper, and a radio station.
“It was just a couple of strategically placed e-mails and social media, and it took off,” said Mr DiCostanzo. “It was big.”
“We were way overwhelmed,” said Mr Baressi. “Flashlights, batteries, personal care and hygiene items. Nonperishable food, tools, baby formula, clothing … A master case of work gloves and another master case of reflective vests. People dropped off anything we asked for and anything they could think of. Not only that, but John and Howie also made runs to pick up donations from people who had things they wanted us to take, but who couldn’t get to us.”
“We got a lot of baby supplies, and things we would never have thought of,” said Mr Wood. “One woman donated a case of tampons and maxi pads. We never would have thought of that. We all have wives, but we never thought of that.”
Like the items that filled them, the use of both trailers was donated. One was from the owner of Universal Trailer in Watertown, who loaned the group his personal trailer. The other was from a company in Torrington, who heard an interview Mr DiCostanzo did on Country 92.5 FM Wednesday morning.
“We got ten responses within ten minutes of that interview,” Mr Wood said, “of people who would give us trailers.”
Vehicle issues — including last-minute work that needed to be done on the brakes of one vehicle before the group could depart (causing a 48-hour delay) — and a blown tire on one of the trailers carrying supplies that caused a complete stop in Dayton, Ohio, created delays. The weight of the trailers also added to the driving time.
“The trailers, when they were loaded, were incredibly heavy,” said Mr Baressi. “It took longer, a lot longer than we expected, to get out there.”
Mr Wood estimates he and his friends brought 1,500 pounds of water alone last month. The trip out took 36 hours, while his trip home took 33, said Mr Baressi.
Arriving In Oklahoma
The men departed on Friday, May 24, and arrived in Oklahoma late Saturday. They arrived north of the storm’s damage, and headed to Kansas City for the overnight.
“We have a buddy from school, Mark Rixon — we all went to Sandy Hook School together — who had told us to come see him if we needed anything,” said Mr Baressi. “Kansas City isn’t really on the way to Moore,” he continued with a laugh, “but we were getting into the area pretty late, the donation centers had already closed for the night. It isn’t a good idea to be out after midnight, plus they were under a curfew.”
Sunday morning the men headed south, finally arriving in Moore. Having worked with the charitable organization Mercury One to coordinate their arrival and donations, the group headed toward Moore. They knew that their supplies were going to be needed by more than those affected in the city of approximately 56,300 people.
“You have to understand, this thing hit more than just Moore,” said Mr Baressi. “It’s about five towns that were destroyed. Moore just happened to be the one with the school, which grabbed everyone’s attention.”
Nevertheless, most of the donations pouring in to the tornado ravaged area were being directed to First Baptist Church in Moore.
“It’s the largest church in town, where most of the relief efforts were being coordinated from,” said Mr Baressi.
Unfortunately when the Connecticut group arrived in Moore, residents — more than 3,000 of them — were preparing for a memorial service at First Baptist Church. President Obama and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin were both arriving at the church, which created a logistics issue for anyone not associated with the service. The foursome, and their trucks, trailers and supplies, were not going to get anywhere near that church for a few hours.
Mercury One was able to give the men a new destination. This time they were heading to Journey Church in Norman, Okla., one town to the south of Moore.
Originally classified an EF4 storm, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Norman announced on May 21 that its damage survey teams found an area of EF5 damage near Briarwood Elementary School, with winds of 200–210 mph indicated.
The maximum width of the tornado’s damage swath was 1.3 miles, reported NWS. EF4 damage occurred along approximately four miles of the tornado’s 17-mile-long path, also according to the Moore NWS office.
“I had no idea it would be as bad as it was,” said Mr Wood. “Looking at it on television does not do justice to driving on I-40, going through Moore, and seeing where it went across the highway. On one side it ate the highway. There were pickup trucks sticking out of the side of one building, the rest of the building just shaved off. On the other side, you just drive for a mile and there’s just nothing. The homes are just flat.”
“I thought I was prepared for seeing the damage, but seeing it on TV versus seeing it in person is definitely two different things,” said Mr DiCostanzo. “It was just shocking.”
While all four were stunned at the destruction, they were also heartened at the amount of support coming from all parts of the country.
“So many people were willing to help,” said Mr DiCostanzo, “just like we were.
“We met people from churches, and local news reporters, and they were all so appreciative that we just cobbled this together and were willing to drive all of this out there,” he continued. “One woman told us that her school, when Sandy Hook happened, they had put together a collection of teddy bears to send to us.
“We were all bawling at that point,” he said. “It was great to be able to reciprocate. It was a very positive response.”
Seeing the level of damage was surprising to the men, but not as surprising as how far some of the damaged materials flew during the tornado.
“We stopped at a gas station — and it’s very clean out there, no litter anywhere — but we saw Q-tips, and a baby doll on the ground. We couldn’t figure it out,” said Mr Wood. “But then we realized 20 miles outside of the city there was shingles, baby dolls, debris on the ground… stuff that got thrown that far.
“And what’s on people’s property,” he continued, “when you see people standing in their driveway, most of the stuff that’s there is not theirs. A lot of it is from other homes, far away.”
The men were careful to not interfere with recovery efforts while making their delivery.
“We weren’t on the ground for more than five hours before we were heading north again,” said Mr Baressi. “We understand tragedy. We couldn’t help anyone, and we didn’t want to be in the way.”
“We tried not to mess with their day-to-day lives, or really meet anyone,” said Mr Wood. “Our purpose was to get down there, get the supplies to the appropriate people, and then get out of there.”
“The support, it was very nice to see, not just us, but lines of trailers, people coming in doing the same thing we were, from all over the country,” said Mr DiCostanzo. “That was uplifting.”
Having returned to their homes, all four are happy with their efforts.
“It was quite an undertaking,” said Mr Baressi. “I’m thankful we did it, though. It felt really good to do.”
Still Collecting, Heading West Again
Another fatal tornado hit Oklahoma late last week (another rare EF5), but a second collection was already well underway.
Mr DiCostanzo is planning another drive to Oklahoma, he said this week. He will be leaving on June 21, and will take everything that is donated for his second run. He is not sure who will be going with him this time, “but I’m definitely going again,” he said this week.
“We’re looking for a lot of gift cards this time,” he continued. “They have Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, and Walmart out there. People are going to want to start rebuilding, and that’s the easiest way to let them start.”
Hand tools and work gloves are also near the top of the request list.
“They have to move everything from their property to the curbs themselves,” he said. “The city is moving everything from there, but these folks have to get everything to the curb on their own.”
Toiletries, personal hygiene materials, dish soap, and other cleaning supplies are also welcome.
“We’re just trying to help them continue their lives as best as possible while continuing to pick up the debris,” said Mr DiCostanzo. “We’ll take anything that people want us to bring.”
In addition to the necessities, the men are hoping to see something else fill their truck in a few weeks.
“We’ve been trying to think of something that every house could use,” said Mr Wood, “and we thought American flags would be great.”
Mr Wood encourages people to add notes to the American flags, or attach a note to a gift card.
“Adding personal thoughts to the people who will be receiving them will make a difference,” he said. “Something personal really would be nice.”
Mr DiCostanzo and Mr Wood are co-owners of Nexus Consulting in Harwinton. Donations can be dropped off at their office, 200 Birge Park Road (Suite 4). Additional information is available from either men, who can be reached at 860-605-9111.
The Newtown Bee’s office at 5 Church Hill Road will also be a collection point for Mr DiCostanzo’s next trip. Gift cards, flag kits, and other items can be dropped off at 5 Church Hill Road, Monday through Friday between 8 am and 5 pm.