Local Salvation Army captain recounts Oklahoma relief trip

Salvation Army Captain David Robinson of Pine Bluff provided aid to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and has been on scene at any number of other natural disasters, but the aftermath of the tornado that hit Moore, Okla., on May 20 was unlike anything he has seen before.

“It’s one of the worst ones I’ve ever been on,” Robinson said. “I got the call that Monday night between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and we headed out first thing Tuesday morning.”

Robinson said he and shelter manager Marcus Smith loaded up the Pine Bluff SA Chapter’s mobile canteen with food before departure.

“We didn’t know what we would be asked to do once we got to Moore,” Robinson said. “I didn’t know if we would be cooking but we left prepared to have one meal to feed up to 750 people and the beginnings of another meal. We had three cases of ravioli and the fixings for cheeseburger macaroni.”

Robinson said it turned out none of the food that they brought was needed.

“There was a group of volunteer firefighters from Tulsa who had brought a grill and were cooking hamburgers,” Robinson said. “So we took those burgers as well as lettuce, tomato and all of the fixings and went into the neighborhoods to distribute the food.”

Robinson said he and Smith were awed both by the devastation that they witnessed but also by the spirit of cooperation and good will that they encountered.

“We were in one of the worst devastated areas,” Robinson said. “We went down by the schools those kids were in. I couldn’t imagine any of them getting out of what I saw. I talked to several people who rode the storm out in their houses but when it was over they had no house left. They said they woke up digging out of the debris that had buried them. I spoke to a woman who told me she rode out the storm in her bathtub with her three chihuahuas. She took me over to see the tub. The house was destroyed around it but she didn’t have any marks on her from the storm at all.

“We were serving between 500 and 700 meals a day,” Robinson said. “We would serve 150 burgers for lunch and come back and serve another 300 or 400 at night. Altogether as of May 28 the Salvation Army served 33,900 meals and 45,800 drinks as part of the Moore relief operation.”

Robinson said that as they went through a neighborhood, Smith would walk ahead of the van as Robinson drove.

“He would go off to a house on the left and I would stop and go to one on the right,” Robinson said. “I would give them food and a drink if they wanted it but I also spoke with and prayed with those who wanted it. We were there to let them know that somebody cares; that they are not just a number. There is a little more behind it than just a plate of food. I was able to pray with a lot of people.”

Robinson spoke of the large numbers of volunteers who descended upon the disaster zone from seemingly all directions.

“We saw probably 300 teenagers from various church groups crossing a freeway overpass with rakes, wheelbarrows and shovels,” Robinson said. “I couldn’t believe the urgency people had. There were people who wanted to follow our van into the disaster zone to help and I had to tell them that unless they were in the vehicle with me they would not be able to get past the checkpoints.”

Robinson said some volunteers walked for miles to get to the disaster zone in order to offer their assistance.

“It was just a neat experience to be a part of this relief effort,” Robinson said. “The first neighborhoods we were sent to were little more than piles of lumber and trash. After three or four days we were sent to a different area where there was damage but not total damage. We got to know a whole different group of people.”

Robinson said that several well-known Oklahomans were on the scene not for their own notoriety but simply to help.

“I met the University of Oklahoma’s football coach, Bob Stoops, going door to door in a neighborhood just checking to see if the residents were all right,” Robinson said. “He wasn’t there with a photographer or doing anything to give himself visibility. He was there to do what he could. The Oklahoma State basketball coach, Travis Ford, cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for three days just to help out.”

Robinson is a native Oklahoman who grew up in the town of Davenport, between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

“Oklahoma Strong, that was kind of the theme,” Robinson said. “We were there from May 21 until this past Monday night. I was glad to get home but almost felt guilty for not being there anymore for those people I had met.”

Robinson said the Arkansas-Oklahoma Division of the Salvation Army made a significant contribution to the Moore relief effort in the form of Arkansas teams from Hot Springs and Jonesboro in addition to Pine Bluff as well as Oklahoma teams from McAllister, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Muskogee.