Volunteers rescue photos from Oklahoma tornado debris

Jason Sickles
The Lookout

MOORE, Okla. — Some of the photos are crumpled. Others coated in crud. But what the monster tornado couldn’t obliterate are the memories captured in the images.

A girl playing kitchen with her pink toy stove.

Colleagues clowning around the office.

A father posing with his young girls at a daddy-daughter dance.

“These are things insurance can’t replace,” says Amy Habegger-Pierce.

Habegger-Pierce, her mother-in-law and a friend were scavenging downtown Moore for photos on Wednesday.

Like crime scene detectives, they wore rubber gloves and gently rummaged through debris left by Monday’s 200-mph twister, which damaged or destroyed 13,000 homes.

“It’s hard to tell if it is trash or a picture until you flip it over,” Habegger-Pierce said.

A few blocks away, Angela Madory had the same idea and was hunting as well.

“Damaged or not, they are still valuable,” says Madory, a mother of three. “I know I would want someone to find my pictures and contact me.”

Their mission might seem unimaginable, but it isn’t impossible. Both women are teaming up with National Disaster Photo Rescue, a nonprofit started by Thad Beeler after the deadly Joplin, Mo., tornado two years ago.

[Related: How to help victims of the Oklahoma tornado]

Beeler, a church music minister in Colombia, Mo., had heard stories of people finding photos in the aftermath of storms and posting them on Facebook and other social networks for a fee.

“My gosh, who does that?” Beeler said about the fee. “These are precious memories,” he told Yahoo News by phone.

After the Joplin twister, Beeler and a team of volunteers collected, cleaned and digitally archived nearly 35,000 images. Some of the photos were recovered 80 miles from Joplin. To date, more than 16,000 have been returned to their owners.

Beeler said a Joplin resident recently told him, “It’s my only link to life before the tornado.”

His organization also trains volunteers on how to address grieving families when they claim the pictures.

“Sometimes the three or four photos we find are the only things left from their homes,” Beeler said. “This is an emotional experience.”

With rain expected through Saturday, Beeler encouraged volunteers to register at www.nationaldisasterphotorescue.net or a Facebook page set up for the Oklahoma effort.

“It is so important to get these things up off the ground as soon as possible,” he said.

As of Thursday morning, the good Samaritan photo patrol in Moore had retrieved more than a thousand images. Anyone finding photos were encouraged to drop them off at Studio Innovations, Suburban Baptist Church or the Moore Community Center.

On Wednesday, Susan Pierce, Habegger-Pierce's mother-in-law, frowned as she peered into the sack of photos she had found.

“What if someone in here had died?” she asked. “This might be the only photo they have of them.”