BETHEL ACRES — With his house just eight miles down the road, Stick Keiner could easily go home.
If he was tired of sleeping in a tent, working out in the hot sun or dealing with the never-ending laundry list of tasks created in the aftermath of the May 19 tornado, all he would have to do was get on his motorcycle and he'd be home in minutes.
But Keiner said he isn't going anywhere. He'll be in the Bethel Acres area and the surrounding communities for the long haul.
“I gave my word,” he said while surveying the remaining residents still living in tents at the Steelman Estates trailer park near Bethel Acres. “I won't go home until everything is done here. We want to see this community back on its feet.”
Keiner, a commander with the US Defenders motorcycle organization, has been out at Steelman Estates since the day after an EF4 twister bore down on the mobile home park, destroying 80 homes and killing two people.
While the immediate help was great for Bethel Acres, Shawnee, Carney and other towns hit by the storms, residents said most were left with very little help the day after the EF5 tornado tore through Moore.
“There wasn't a lot of help here so we came here to make a difference,” Keiner said. “Other organizations had just dropped off supplies and left for Moore because they needed a lot of help, but these people in these smaller communities still needed a lot of help, so we stayed.”
Aaron Ward rubbed the head of his dog, Saber, between work breaks this week at Steelman Estates as the yellow Labrador sat in the front seat of his pickup. Saber rode the storm out in Ward's destroyed trailer and was found in a nearby tree after. Miraculously, Saber survived with only a nail in his paw and minor eye damage.
Ward said it was a relief finding his dog in the destruction that used to be his neighborhood, but he was scared it might be the end of his community.
“We did get overlooked for a little while,” he said. “But when we had all those bikers ride into town to help us, that was a great feeling. If it wasn't for them then we would've been forgotten totally.”
Keiner and the US Defenders act as boots on the ground in the immediate days of a disaster. Normally they take on the task of helping clear debris or helping set up temporary shelters.
But the work being done at Steelman Estates has gone beyond immediate relief. By partnering with other charities and organizations, Keiner and his group have been able to have new trailers donated to the residents who were without insurance and without any place to stay.
“We work the grunt work to help people to get back to the new normal, because they won't ever get back to the old way,” he said. “We are structured to where we can partner with other organizations to work together. The Oklahoma Baptist association provides these trailers which they purchased from oil companies. We have help from private contractors too; carpenters, electricians, plumbers have all volunteered their time to help out here, but we still need more.”
Even with the US Defenders sticking around to help oversee operations, Keiner said this is more about the community's effort to stay alive than it is about the work his group is doing.
“The community is the one doing the work,” he said. “We just provide the support and guidance and supervise. They are in charge of their own recovery. We are not here to help rebuild the entire community, but the deal is that the people that need our help here are our priority. We can't save the world. We just want to help the people that need it most.”
In the four months since the tornado, more than two dozen homes in Steelman Estates have been restored. Keiner said a large chunk were renters and probably won't be moving back.
Still, Ward said the push to get everyone back in a permanent home is on because of the change of seasons and impending cold weather.
The community has prioritized. Families with children get homes first, elderly and handicapped next, couples and then single homes last.
“You've got the people that don't know what's going on and want to know why they still aren't in a house,” Ward said. “But all we can do is get people in a home before the cold weather hits.”
Keiner said he thinks this community proves that you can never have too much help when a disaster hits.
“Once school started, a lot of the volunteers slowed down,” he said. “There is the wildfire disaster going on in Colorado, so lots of groups are going there. I'm just afraid what's going to happen in Oklahoma is that things will be left unfinished. They say there is a disaster relief team on every corner, but is there ever truly enough?
“A lot of those volunteers that were here packed up and left. But we aren't done here, not by a long shot.”
I won't go home until everything is done here. We want to see this community back on its feet.”
Commander with the US Defenders motorcycle organization