A Relief Worker’s Take: On the Ground After the Oklahoma Tornado

Civil Rights

The Muslim Link interviewed Murat Kose, East Coast Program Director for Zakat Foundation of America, about the group’s efforts in Oklahoma after category EF5 tornadoes -- the most destructive category -- struck the town of Moore on May 20, 2013, killing 24 people and destroying thousands of homes.

TML:What was your first response to the tornados in Oklahoma?

ZF: I had a jam packed weekend planned. We were heading to ICNA convention as well as two other programs. As soon as I heard the news of the tornado I arranged for someone else to attend the ICNA convention on the zakat foundation’s behalf. And I headed directly to Oklahoma. I was in touch with the muslim community especially with the Islamic Society of greater Oklahoma City, which is the largest masjid in OK. I was also in touch with Br. Adam of CAIR.They had already started to announced relief work. Water diapers, hygiene items. When I had reached OK they were two big rooms with items donated by the community.

Once ZF reaches any disaster zone, we always do a survey. The tornado had hit an area about 2 miles in width and length, almost rectangular in shape. About 12,000 homes were affected and 2400 homes were totally destroyed.

The guy at the rental car counter directed me to a neighborhood that needed food and had no electricity. I visited many shelters including the Red Cross. learning from our experience in Hurricane Sandy and Alabama. We realized some places needed a lot of help or other none; logistics plays a big role.

Several residential and commercial buildings in south east Moore were gone. The masjid is located south west of the city. It took almost half an hour to get there. Several roads were blocked, so I got out of the van and walked around  to meet the people. People were under shock. there were lots of church reliefs donating relief items. I surveyed the area talking to people who had lost their home, to assess their needs. Several people broke down; one told me he had lost 30 years of work in 15 minutes. Many of them were looking for their valuables from the tornado, pictures etc. It was heartbreaking. Their neighbors items were mixed up with their own. These people were strong, not crying but you could see the depression in their faces.



Top, Zakat Foundation of America on the scene helping victims of the May 20, 2013 tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma. Photo courtesty of Zakat Foundation of America. Below, thousands of homes were destroyed leaving families to pick through their memories and the remains of their life's work. Internet photo.

TML: How did you introduce yourself?

ZF: For different people I would tell them different things. Some I tell them that I am from the Zakat foundation, and others I would tell them I was apart of a Muslim foundation.Some asked me about my accent I would tell them I was from Turkey, for others I would let them know I was from the East Coast. Some would ask me what does Zakat mean? Others asked me if there were Muslims in OK.

TML: What were your impressions after the disaster?

ZF: One of the great things I saw was that the people appreciated the help from the government. but they were not greedy. They said they were fine and told us to go to other neighborhoods who needed help. Another moment of interfaith cooperation occurred when I visited a Muslim brother, Saad Sulaiman, whose home was destroyed by the tornado that touched down on May 20. A Mormon group was cleaning up the wreckage of his house, and offered to collaborate with ZF volunteers whenever possible. The feeling of unity was strengthened when I shared my appreciation for help that Mormons had given with cleanup at an Atlantic City mosque after Hurricane Sandy.

One main characteristic I have seen was everyone was in a good mood and with a very positive attitude. It was nice to see people smiling after having such a disaster and losing everything.

TML: How does ZF work with other organizations?

ZF: Networking is  essential because organizations share their resources and excess inventory of relief items. We put ZF in the existing system and connect people to resources. We understand that usually there is no plan as every situation is different.

While at a shelter I was informed that they needed gloves, hair combs and other hygiene items. You have to realize that these people had lost everything. I went out to buy those items. Another area needed tea and coffee as they had plenty of water but hadn’t had a cup of tea for a few days.

More importantly because of shock people don't know what to do. When President Obama declared a state of emergency, many people don't realize that they have to apply to FEMA. I would ask several people if they had applied. Most asked how do we apply and I showed them. For example, I found a senior couple wandering around a parking lot, lost. I asked them can I help you they were about 70 years old and they were looking for their rental car. This kind of help is the kind of help we need to train volunteers for. This is the easiest and most effective kind of help. I located their car, help them load their relief items and took them to the FEMA station to help them apply.

In the evening, I had a meeting at the masjid, alongside ICNA Relief to give a small presentation. The next day we loaded the truck and took it to the relief center. At this point you mostly need labor, to load and unload the relief items and to help with cleanup. ZF volunteers worked alongside members of a veterans group, Team Rubicon, at a Red Cross distribution center, to unload the truckloads of donated water, canned food, diapers, personal care items and other necessities that had been collected at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City.

Brothers from St Louis helped us clean some homes, then we were directed to a horse farm where 100 horses were killed. It was not a regular farm; it was one of those farms that entertained kids with a maze and pumpkin patch. Since we were a small group we joined with other groups, we sorted plastic,wood,metal and other items. This is called short term help because we try to minimize spending by directing people to FEMA and insurance companies and try to help in their unmet needs.Then there is long term help, ie. Hurricane Sandy occurred in November, but even after six months we still get requests for help.

TML: What are you recommendations to Muslim volunteers and masajids?

Helping by donating a box of bottled water is not enough; you are not done with your duty. This is the first thing, we help because it is our duty, but this is not a time to be proselytizing.
Just say I am sorry for your loss, people need moral support.  Please don’t say this is a punishment from God. If they ask who you are you can tell them that you are Muslim.

This is interfaith in action. It is more powerful than interfaith meetings. Muslims should be visible in the public eye, especially sisters in hijab. Imagine if 100 people went it would have a ripple effect. Imagine if 10 imams went.

Flying in from other places during a disaster to gain experience is great, however I would like to have trainings at every masajid on emergencies. Every Muslim should be ready to help in case of disaster in their locality. Masajid administrations should practice emergency fire and earthquake drills with the congregation, at least once especially before Ramadan. Zakat Foundation can help train and make a emergency plan. The National Emergency Agency can help with this, they don’t have to spend any masjid money.