National Wildlife Refuge System

Refuge Law Officer Joins Tornado Response

Federal wildlife officer Matt Belew in Moore, OK, where he served as a first responder. Officer Belew usually works at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, an hour and a half away.
Devastation by the massive tornado that struck Moore, OK, was widespread.
Credit: Matt Belew/USFWS

Federal wildlife officer Matt Belew had just finished work Monday afternoon at Wichita Mountains Refuge when he learned a massive tornado had ravaged Moore, OK, an hour and a half away. He quickly sought and received permission to help.

Soon, the 37-year-old emergency medical responder was sifting rubble at flattened house lot after house lot just south of the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School. With fellow members of Strike Team Delta, he searched for survivors and bodies (his team found neither) and hazards such as leaking gas pipes.

In a night and a day of almost nonstop work with his team, Belew estimates he searched 50 house sites, leaving a spraypaint trail. “Each time, we’d mark a house with an X to show it was searched. [Response commanders] wanted to search these houses at least three times to make sure nobody was there.”

“You’re picking through things with your hands, throwing debris out of the way, trying to identify where the bathroom was.” If they don’t have a “safe room,” he says, “people [trying to survive a storm] are gonna get in a bathroom or closet. We tried to go to that first. We were climbing in there, moving large boards and pieces of sheetrock, pieces of roof that had come down.”

News photos can’t convey the scale of destruction − reaching 30 square miles, he says.

“When you get to the epicenter, you’re thinking more like it was an A-bomb or a nuclear weapon. You’re thinking: A tornado couldn’t do this. Sometimes, where a house was, there was only a concrete slab left. …There are no words to describe it. I’ve been on military combat tours while in the Army, but I’ve never seen that type of destruction anywhere.”

He came back moved by the town’s spirit, impressed by the efficiency of the Incident Command and saddened by the tragedy. “It was a short stint, but it was productive,” he said. “My heart goes out to all the families that suffered, that lost a loved one or everything they had….”

Last updated: May 24, 2013