When a mile-wide tornado touched down May 20 in Moore, OK, it left unimaginable destruction and heartache in its wake, including 24 deaths, hundreds of injuries and staggering swaths of property damage.
For self-storage owners and managers in the area, it also left behind dozens of people who suddenly needed storage space in ways they never imagined.
“It’s a strange feeling because we always strive to get as many people into our store as possible. But to have it happen as a result of a natural disaster makes for some heartbreaking work,” said Cade Gunter, regional manager for Switzer’s Locker Room, a self-storage facility about four miles north of where the tornado hit in Moore.
Stories that ‘Break Your Heart’
According to Gunter, Switzer’s has rented out nearly 100 units since the tornado touched down, providing storage mostly for folks whose homes were damaged or destroyed.
“People are grabbing whatever they can and they need some place to keep it until their lives are restored,” Gunter said. “It’s been a very traumatic experience for everyone, and you hear stories every day that break your heart.”
For instance, a man walked into Gunter’s store a few days after the tornado and explained that he and his wife had not only lost their home but their young daughter as well. She was one of seven children who were killed when the tornado ripped through Plaza Towers Elementary School.
“He said, ‘I just need some place to store a few of my daughter’s things. It may not mean much to anybody else, but it means a hell of a lot to me,’” Gunter recalled. “I will never forget the heartache in that man’s story.”
Gunter certainly isn’t the only one. Teresa Stanfield, manager of Extra Space Place in Oklahoma City, said that although her facility was not directly affected by the tornado, her life most certainly was.
“I had a customer call me up a few days after the storm. He was supposed to move out that day but called to tell me that his 9-month-old baby had died in the tornado,” Stanfield said. “That was simply devastating.”
‘I’m Praying for You’
Self-storage management is, by nature, a business that requires a great deal of human interaction. But this experience was unlike anything Stanfield had encountered before.
“You really need to just listen to the people who come in. If they are struggling or praying, I say, ‘I’m praying for you. And don’t worry, I’ll hold the unit. Just get in when you can,’” Stanfield said. “You just need to be as encouraging and supportive as possible.”
To help ease the burden of local victims, several facilities have offered significant discounts and rent-free storage options in the weeks following the disaster. (Our partner SpareFoot is offering one month’s worth of free storage—up to $100—to tornado victims within a 50-mile radius of Oklahoma City.)
The Vault Mini Storage, which sits about four miles north of where the tornado touched down, has been offering new tenants a free month of storage if their homes sustained damage. As a result, The Vault has rented out about 15 units since the tornado.
According to Bailey Haile, office manager for The Vault, outside donations also have played a significant role in people’s need for more storage space.
“A lot of people are getting truckloads of donations from other states and just wondering if they can store things like donated furniture and clothing,” Haile said. “I think a lot of people are grateful but overwhelmed by the offers to help. It’s very humbling to accept so much help from others.”
Lending a Helping Hand
Sitting 20 miles north of where the tornado struck, Western Avenue Self Storage didn’t sustain any direct damage. It’s a blessing that manager Teri Foshee said has allowed her to help in an interesting way. Foshee has teamed up with Infant Crisis Services in Edmond to offer free climate-controlled storage units to house things like baby formula and food.
“Everyone is still kind of in shock,” Foshee said. “We’re all just trying to pray and donate and do whatever we can.”
Foshee’s daughter, Brittany Lowman, manages Amazing Space, a self-storage facility seven miles from where the tornado hit. Since the tornado touched down, Lowman has rented five units to victims seeking a place to store everything from photo albums to jewelry to furniture. Her facility now is filled to capacity, but her work in the tornado’s aftermath is far from over.
“I get calls every single day, and the most important thing now is to be an ear for people and just let them talk,” Lowman said. “These people really just need someone to talk to, and it’s sometimes hard keeping your composure and not allowing yourself to become too emotional. Because they are already overflowing with so much emotion.”
For Piper Cookerly, manager of Storage Oklahoma’s facility in Moore, the hardest part of this tragedy has been turning people away because her facility has been booked solid for several months.
“People are coming in droves asking if we have any room. People will tell me, ‘I’ll go into anything you have. I don’t care what it’s like. This is all I have left of my life,’” Cookerly said. “It’s like a war zone out here. And it’s simply devastating. But I do my best to refer them to other facilities when I can. Competition doesn’t matter to me in times like this.”
As the weeks and months roll on and the tornado’s victims reassemble their lives, Gunter expects self-storage facilities throughout the area to continue to fill up with the remnants of worlds torn apart, and she expects to keep hearing victims’ heart-wrenching stories.
“In the meantime, we all have to fully engage with the people who come to us for help,” Gunter said. “If you want to cry with them, cry with them. If they’re laughing, you can laugh along side them. We may only be selling storage units, but we can also help in so many other ways.”
Images courtesy of FEMA