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Jeremy Hefner gets up-close look of devastation in hometown of Moore, Okla.

Devastation around the Briarwood Elementary School after the

Devastation around the Briarwood Elementary School after the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma. Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner, who returned to Oklahoma during the All-Star break to help the communities recover, attended this school. Credit: Handout

In his mind, from the shards collected through video, photographs and written accounts, Jeremy Hefner pieced together an image of the destruction. He filled in the blanks with his own memories of tornadoes from the past, an ability shared among those who have spent their lives in Oklahoma.

Yet, no matter how rich the picture he created, the Mets righthander knew that full understanding could come only through firsthand observation.

For Hefner, that much-needed context did not come until Tuesday. For the first time since a massive tornado leveled swaths of Moore, Okla., in May, Hefner visited the place he called home for much of his childhood.

"I've seen the pictures and the stuff online, what was written about it," Hefner told Newsday this week. "But you can't really get a sense of the magnitude of it unless you actually go down there."

Officially, 23 deaths were blamed on the twister, which touched down on the afternoon of May 20 and cut a 17-mile- long path through parts of the heavily populated town. At its most ferocious stage, it stretched to a width of 1.3 miles and packed winds upward of 200 mph.

In 39 excruciating minutes, the disaster caused damages estimated in excess of $2 billion.

And so, as baseball's brightest stars gathered at Citi Field for the 84th All-Star Game, Hefner visited family in Moore.

"I've seen tornado damage before," said Hefner, who saw volunteer crews sifting through what was left of homes, nearly two months after the tornado touched down. "But this was like whole neighborhoods completely leveled."

Though none of Hefner's family members perished, one of his cousins is still reeling from the repairs needed when a tree crashed through his kitchen. His home stands only a quarter-mile from the tornado's direct path.

Briarwood Elementary School, where Hefner had once been a student, was reduced to an empty field surrounded by temporary fencing.

Since the tornado tore through town, residents have steadily brought small hints of order to the chaos. The streets have been cleared of debris, and what's left is stacked in piles. Still, the skeletal remains of some homes linger, and Hefner noticed rows and rows of concrete slabs where houses once stood.

"It's frustrating because you do the right thing, you pay your bills on time, you raise your family the right way and bad things happen, unforeseen things happen," Hefner said. "And it's frustrating because these are good people and they don't deserve it. It's not just my cousin, but all the people there."

Yet, with that frustration has come a familiar sense of resolve.

Near the site of where Briarwood Elementary School once stood is where a new school will be rebuilt. It is marked by flowers left at a fence and arranged to spell out the word "HOPE."

It was yet another element of the tornado's aftermath that Hefner couldn't have reconstructed without coming home.

"I get a little bit of a sense of frustration," Hefner said. "But also there's something to be said about rebuilding and a rebirth . . . and I kind of get a sense of that, too. Yeah, we had this bad thing happen to us, but we can start brand new, too."

Hefner intends to do his part in spurring on that revival.

For the last month, Foley's Pub and Restaurant on West 33rd Street in Manhattan has sold the "405 Burger," so named for the area code in Moore. Proprietor Shaun Clancy has directed proceeds from the sale of the burgers toward tornado relief efforts.

From 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Hefner will be on hand to thank fans, some of whom aided in relief efforts by ordering the 405 Burger in the last month. Hefner will also sign autographs -- possibly with a few other members of the Mets -- in hopes of drumming up one final flurry of sales to benefit those in need.

The appearance coincides with the final night that the 405 Burger will be available on the menu.

Said Hefner: "This is just kind of a last-ditch effort to get as much money as possible for the people [of Moore]."

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