The Norman Transcript

News Features

May 30, 2013

Highland East teachers share their stories of the May 20 tornado

MOORE — Harrowing tales of heroism scraped the emotional wounds laid open May 20 by a tornado that plowed a deadly path of destruction through the city.

Five Highland East Junior High educators shared those stories Wednesday. Some did so with reluctance, but acknowledged it was part of a healing process that could last months if not years.

The junior high school is one of three schools within the district that either were destroyed or sustained heavy damage. When the storm struck that day, 600 children huddled in hallways and other areas with faculty, staff and parents stuck at the school before they could pick up their children and flee.

Principal Kathy Knowles said for the most part, May 20 began much like a normal school day. There was, however, some lingering concerns about storms that struck the night before and a moderate threat of more severe weather that day.

“I woke up that morning and put on my jeans and tennis shoes because I ... didn’t want to deal with storms in my high heels,” Knowles said. “I sent a letter (that morning) to faculty ... just explaining I would be very aware of the weather that day ... and to please let them (the students) know that they were going to be taken care of.”

Early that afternoon, Knowles and the staff she relied upon to maintain “a sense of calm” inside the school took notice of the developing storm system. They “paid close attention” to the storm, which was forecasted to hit Moore at 2:32 p.m. — the “exact time” students ordinarily would have headed home.

Knowles, proclaimed by Superintendent Susie Pierce as a “personal hero,” made a decision at 2:30 p.m. to shelter the students at school. The decision was made even as parents arrived to pick up their children — some students checked out and left with parents before the twister touched down.

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