In May 1999, Joan Black lost a treasured, hand-tinted portrait of herself as a little girl with her late mother. She didn't misplace it. In fact she had it hanging on the wall right beside her bed. She lost it when one evening "my whole bedroom was just blown away," says Black, 61, a homemaker whose three-bedroom house in Moore, Okla., was leveled by a monster tornado. Black figured the cherished image was gone forever. But last May there it was in a school classroom stocked with hundreds of salvaged photos. "I just thought, 'Mama would love this, getting the picture back,'" she says. "I was just so thankful."

Chalk up another small miracle to Kenn Bird, the man behind an improbable mission of mercy. A professional photographer, Bird, 48, was living in Edmond, Okla., when a series of powerful twisters ravaged the area on May 3, 1999, killing 42 people, destroying 3,315 houses and causing an estimated billion dollars in damage. The next day, while pitching in at a relief site, he noticed hundreds of personal photos blowing across a field and resolved to gather as many as he could so that someday, somehow, he could reunite them with their owners.

Since then Bird and his band of volunteers have collected 30,000 photographs that had been tossed over hundreds of square miles. Returning some 16,000 of them, he has done more than replenish family albums; he has helped heal the emotional havoc wreaked by the twisters. "It actually became an obsession for me," says Bird, who normally shoots for fashion magazines and other commercial clients. "You look at any one of these photos and you see their importance real quick." In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, he has given thought to helping salvage photos that turn up at Ground Zero. "Doggone it, I'm the man to do it," says Bird, who has phoned contacts in New York City about such an effort.

Bird was so devoted to his current endeavor, dubbed Photo OK, that he sank $11,000 of his own money into it. "We've had many tornadoes, but this is the first time someone has undertaken this kind of project," says Linda Soos-Davis, a manager for the Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, which coordinated volunteer efforts after the disaster. "I'm not sure Kenn knew at the time how enormous it would be. But his heart spoke, and he responded." The full-time process of finding, cleaning and sorting so many prints—accomplished with no money in grants and donations only of goods and services—proved far more taxing than Bird had imagined. "Every time you'd think, 'Enough already,' someone would call [about the project]," says Jo Wise, 48, an executive with the American Heart Association and Bird's longtime girlfriend. "But Kenn never gets involved partway. He's passionate."

The Dallas native, born to Douglas Johnson, 69, a retired engineer, and Dorothy Worl, 67, a home-maker, stumbled into his career while studying fine arts at the University of Texas at Arlington. His idol, artist Peter Max, spotted him taking pictures at a 1972 party and "said I was the only one there shooting the right angles," recalls Bird. He ran his own camera store and later several Dallas photo galleries before suffering the first of his two heart attacks, in 1992. "The doctor said, 'You need to slow down,'" says Bird, who three years later swapped city living for a home in Edmond.

On May 3, 1999, he heard sirens warning residents of the approaching tornadoes, one of which was later classified as F-5—with winds up to 318 mph. The next morning, he was overwhelmed by the devastation he saw. "Where there was a neighborhood," he recalls, "now there were just dirt fields."

Helping load supplies at a television station in Oklahoma City, Bird noticed photos scattered by the wind and began scooping them up. After that he retrieved pictures clumped against fences, littering yards and even hanging from trees. Most were of weddings, birthdays and sporting events, but "then all of a sudden you'd see a photo of a guy standing next to Babe Ruth or Queen Elizabeth," says Bird, who arranged to have 150 donated boxes placed across the Oklahoma City area so people could drop off photos.

With the help of friends, he washed muddied prints and by that fall had cleaned and sorted 12,000 photos. Bird persuaded another pal to design a Web site, where he posted information about the pictures; and Kinko's Inc. produced catalogues that displayed the first 6,000 images. Then radio stations publicized the mass viewings Bird was holding in warehouses and churches. When the photos found their rightful owners, he says, "I would hear whole life stories."

Still, Bird saw more help would be needed to get through the thousands of images yet to be sorted. Luckily students at Metro Technology Center, an Oklahoma City technical school, volunteered to pitch in. Bird now spends several hours a week on the project, through which photos continue to be distributed from a Metro Tech auditorium. Students have returned more than 1,200 pictures in 21 months.

Bird, who set up a similar operation in Cordell, Okla., after tornadoes destroyed 170 homes there last month, was at Metro Tech in August, when Linda Shive, 52, was searching for photos. After thumbing through several catalogues, Shive, a real estate agent whose father died when a tornado hit his Del City home, found a snapshot of a cousin—not a particularly dramatic image, just a picture of a loved one that Shive, clearly moved, will return to her widowed mother. "This," said Bird, pointing to goose bumps on his arm, "is why I do this."

Alex Tresniowski
Michael Haederle in Oklahoma City

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  • Michael Haederle.