HARRAH — The microwave and toaster sitting on the crushed Chevrolet’s hood came from a kitchen that is nowhere to be found. The lawn mower wrapped around the tree was in a shop that’s now a scrap metal heap. The mangled fishing boat in the field? Hurled there from a storage spot hundreds of yards up the dirt road. "These are all the pieces of our life,” Steve Johnson said, gazing across his eight-acre family homestead that was ripped apart May 10 by a tornado. The family has spent the past two weeks looking for anything salvageable. It’s clear they’ll have to drag most of their things down the dirt road for Oklahoma County tornado debris collection crews to haul away. "It’s just a reverse of the old saying — what was one man’s treasure is now one man’s trash,” said Myles Davidson, special projects coordinator for Oklahoma County District 2, one of many agencies involved in the weeks-long tornado debris removal process. Some household items turned to trash by tornadoes can cause environmental hazards if not disposed of correctly, so county officials are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Quality to run an environmentally conscious tornado debris burn pit outside Harrah. Most pieces of the Johnson family’s life soon will be there.
Sorting it outBurning debris is one of the easier parts of the pickup process. Sorting out what can’t be burned is more complex. It’s a lot like sorting laundry, only with heavy machinery and hazardous materials. Among the items in the debris pile Wednesday were a Santa suit, tripod, power tools, tin roof, DVD players, fence posts, gas grill, couch cushions, a plastic newspaper delivery box, a fuse box and hundreds of tree limbs, trunks and roots. County highway workers were using bulldozers and excavators to comb through the debris and place it in piles for proper disposal. The trees and other vegetation are about all that’s burned in the pit. Burning debris such as pipes, certain metals, oils, fertilizers and tires can be hazardous, so it must be disposed of in other ways. "We’re getting those kinds of things and bringing them out here and dividing up what we can burn, mainly vegetation, and the rest of it we’re recycling or properly disposing of,” Oklahoma County District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said. For example, the sheets of tin metal that once were the Johnson family’s car restoration shop will go to the sheet metal pile at the burn pit after they are unwrapped from the trees where the tornado threw them. From there, the metal will be hauled to a sheet metal recycler. Other items needing special disposal include piles of roof shingles, home appliances, propane gas tanks, compressors, batteries, hazardous liquids and electric transformers. The piles have been growing in recent days, giving the burn pit an apocalyptic feel. "It’s not pretty out here,” Maughan said. Johnson’s property isn’t, either. He stares at the rubble where the car restoration shop once stood and remembers his father-in-law, who built the shop so he could restore vintage Ford Thunderbirds. "We lost the shop this year the same week he died last year,” Johnson said. Some of his father-in-law’s rusted, busted Thunderbirds now rest under a debris-laden tree. Others are buried in rubble a couple yards away, where the shop once stood. "Three of the old ’Birds are still in it (the former shop),” Johnson said. "Haven’t got enough debris off the top of them yet to really tell what shape they’re in. You can see the hood on one of them curled up. The other car, the windshield’s busted out of it.” Johnson doesn’t call it debris. Or trash. Or rubble. "It’s just our stuff,” he said.