POSTED: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 - 8:30pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 - 8:56pm
Baton Rouge, LA (NBC33) — After two weeks, local American Red Cross volunteers are returning home from Oklahoma.
They witnessed the destruction caused by a pair of tornadoes, and the spirit of people determined to pick themselves back up.
Don Baxter said it is hard to appreciate the severity of the storm from a distance.
"(Journalists) are great taking pictures, but it's nothing like being there," he claimed. "It's really a disaster up there. A lot of the areas around the schools that were hit is like a war zone, really."
Baxter was one of 15 volunteers from south Louisiana area to leave on May 21, one day after a powerful tornado hit Moore, OK. Baxter was assigned to a stationary feeding location, where people knew they could find a warm meal. But food ended up being his least important service.
"I honestly gave out more hugs," he said, "than I did water or anything, because the people needed that."
Volunteers arrived from around the country, from the Red Cross, church groups, and on their own. Baxter was impressed by the resolve of people whose lives were thrown into disarray.
"And those people were out there just working their tails off in their yards," he noted, "trying to clean up by [themselves], and [weren't] waiting for people to come in and help them."
Baxter recalled several emotional moments, but one that hit him hardest was going to Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died and which was flattened by the storm. There, he saw a mother and daughter returning for the first time since the tornado hit. The mother recounted how her daughter took cover in a bathtub until the tornado passed.
"And I asked the lady if [the girl] was doing all right, and she said, 'well, yes and no,'" Baxter recounted. "At times she was, and then she'll react, so she'll carry that a long time.
"You just hear stories after stories like this, and it's very sad, but it's very, you really feel like you're doing some good. And we are."
When the second tornado hit nearby El Reno, the volunteers took shelter, experiencing first-hand the fear a tornado can cause. The next morning, they reactivated, bringing supplies, shelter, and food to residents.
As much as they wanted to help themselves, Baxter saw how much everyone appreciated the assist from people like himself.
"And a woman said, 'get out the truck, get out of the truck!' So, okay, okay. She says, 'I want to give you a hug. That's the only way I can give back to you.'"
Baxter had never gone on an out-of-state mission with the American Red Cross before this. He started volunteering with the organization shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when his church housed several of their workers.
"I was feeding them meals," he said. So this was a turnaround, but I found out how much great help they did, and I joined them immediately after that."
While in Oklahoma, he met many people who had volunteered during disasters in Louisiana, so he was glad to repay the favor.
"Oh, yes, of course, with the Red Cross workers," he said. "We did see a lot of them had been down here several times, I'm afraid to say."
Another highlight of his time there was a visit from Oklahoma's governor, Mary Fallin. She thanked all of the volunteers for their time and compassion.
"'Well, really, this is a recruiting mission for me,'" he told her. "I said, 'we expect your help. I'm from Baton Rouge; we expect your help in the time of need. Hopefully it won't be this year.'"
Of the 15 volunteers from Baton Rouge who went to Moore, five remain there, providing supplies and counseling.