Photo recovery effort turns nameless pictures into memories

DEL CITY, Okla. - Like refugees, they drifted across the wind-blown Plains - photographs that floated free from houses turned inside-out by tornadoes in central Oklahoma last May.

Almost a year later, about 15,000 lost, mud-frosted photos have found their way to a computer lab at a school where graphic design students gingerly pick through them, tossing away the unsalvageable ones.

To the identifiable pictures, though, the students assign numbers and place into sealed plastic bags, to be organized into binders later - and, maybe, to be reunited with the people whose memories they represent.

The photographs are as random and cryptic as the people in them: a '60s era beach party shot from too far away; a frowning woman wearing a T-shirt and two black eyes, the word ''beating'' written on the back.

''If you look through them, probably 90 percent of them are things people love: their first child, their grandparents, their family members, maybe even some that were lost (in the tornadoes),'' said Kenn Bird, an Oklahoma City-based photographer.

Bird was one of thousands who pitched in to help tornado victims rebuild their lives after the May 3 tornadoes, which killed 44 people and injured 700 more when they swept through Oklahoma, leveling entire neighborhoods and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

As Bird worked loading food for the recovery effort, he noticed something: photographs, thousands of them, scattering in the Oklahoma breeze.

''They were blowing all over the fields, so I ran out there and started gathering them up.''

Within weeks, Bird was overseeing a network of collectors.

Then one day he was a guest speaker at a computer graphic design class at Del City Metro Tech, a public vocational education school, and mentioned the picture recovery effort. Soon, the students were sorting and cataloguing the snapshots.

The computer lab where the class meets has become the unofficial headquarters of the Photo OK Project.

Stacy Standridge and her sister-in-law, Gina Standridge, spent a recent Saturday scouring the electronic catalogue.

''I have a bunch of pictures of my mother that are about all I have left of her,'' said Gina Standridge. ''The tornado just sucked them out. I don't know why everyone who lost something wouldn't come to look.''

Across the room, Shawna Wilson gazes at a computer screen looking for baby pictures of her and her husband, John.

''We lost most of the stuff in our attic, but we kept a good deal of our photos in books that were trapped in a cabinet,'' she said.

Phil Bohlander, a classroom assistant at Metro Tech, said about 90 percent of the people find at least one photo. He said a couple recently came in and got 70 photos that belonged to them.

''There was a woman who found a photo of her husband holding up a string of fish and it was the only photo she had of him after the tornado. When she found it, she just burst out in tears,'' Bohlander said.

But the Metro Tech semester is coming to an end, so Bird will have to look elsewhere to keep the effort going.

''I haven't found anybody to take the process on, but I'm sure someone will step up to the plate,'' Bird said. ''If not, then they'll remain here at my place and I'll take care of it.''

Meanwhile, the photographs keep coming in - from farmers in eastern Oklahoma who pick them from fields, from Boy Scout troops and other people who find them huddled against fences or skittering down sidewalks.

''The insurance company will pay for a new house or car,'' Bird said. ''A lot of people have had these photos for generations. Those are the things that are really treasured.''


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