The Norman Transcript

May 21, 2013

A walk through the field of wreckage

By Clifton Adcock
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Again, it was Moore.

For the third time in less than 15 years, residents of this city of about 60,000 must mourn their dead, help the living and pick up the pieces of shattered lives that now lay in a field of wreckage.

The devastation caused by the tornado that blew through Moore on Monday afternoon is painfully familiar. In 1999, and again in 2003, tornadoes laid waste to a sizeable swath of the city.

At last count, at least 24 lost their lives in the storm, including nine children. The reality of the tragedy hung heavy over all who wandered or marched through the devastation on Monday, and those who stood transfixed in front of it the next day, wondering why, looking for what and whom could be saved.

Day 1

In the moments after the EF5 tornado had left, there was stunned confusion.

People flooded from what once were intact neighborhoods onto S.W. 134th Street, refugees trying to make sense of what had just happened. Each person momentarily had to come to terms of what he or she had lived through and was seeing.

The storm had passed. The rain moved east. The sun was coming out. The massive tornado that had caused so death and destruction had evaporated, as if it never existed.

Communication was hampered by jammed phone lines. Texting was hit-and-miss. Being able to get a cell phone call through seemed a small miracle.

At S.W. 134th and Western, a young girl holding her mother's hand was crying, her face contorted in fear and hurt. Further east, a woman in tears spoke on a cell phone she had somehow gotten to work. Her mother was in one of the houses hit by the twister. She didn't know if she was alive.

One man who gave his name as Oliver walked along the street to check on his father near the hardest-hit area. His father lived in a mobile home. Oliver had not heard from him. He remained composed, but the look was belied by his brisk, determined stride.

Some nervously smoked cigarettes. Others huddled with family and friends on the roadside, as good a place as any for this type of reunion.

Police refused to let most non-emergency vehicles down the streets into the heart of the devastation. That caused some to set off on foot.

And walk they did, for miles.

People who lived nearby in areas untouched by the storm walked against the flow of refugees, wanting to help in any way they could. Several people offered bottles of water to passersby.

South of 134th Street and east of Santa Fe Avenue (signs were gone, so it was hard to identify streets), the wreckage began to appear.

It was subtle at first - grass and mud spattered on streets, houses and cars. Then, a downed power line or a fallen tree. And always the flow of people through the streets.

Soon it got worse.

Near Penn Lane, the full picture of the devastation came into sharp focus.

A neighborhood was now a debris field. Suburbia was now a replica of the old black-and-white photos of war-torn European cities during World War II. Once-cheerful houses and shiny cars were heaps of twisted scrap and matchsticks.

Trees were broken and stripped of bark. Their leaves were now scraps of iron and tin and insulation.

Power lines were strewn like garland over the twisted remains of homes. Broken timbers emitted the sweet smell of a lumberyard, mixed with a strong odor of natural gas.

No birds sang. There was only the ever-present howl of sirens and revving of bulldozer and backhoe engines.

Some people sat on mounds of tangled destruction that had been their homes, weeping.

And yet there was life among the chaos. First responders, National Guard troops and citizens busied themselves, picking up the pieces and searching for survivors.

One older man wearing blue coveralls stood atop a six-foot pile of wood and steel, once his home, looking for what he could salvage. He looked like a scarecrow guarding a field sowed with salt.

“Do you need any help?” one person asked.

The man looked up, not saying a word, then returned to sifting.

A bald, stocky man nearby told the newcomer that he had already asked if the man needed help and had gotten the same response.

The bald man said he had been helping search the rubble of the nearby Plaza Towers Elementary School. When rescuers started finding bodies, they told the civilians to leave.

Further down the street, Oliver, who had walked for more than two miles to check on his dad in the mobile home, found his sisters - alive and safe.

He proceeded to his father's mobile home, and found him safe, too. The father and other residents in the trailer park had fled to the nearby Walmart when heard the tornado coming. Oliver hugged his dad and they spoke in Spanish.

The mobile home itself was in relatively decent shape, suffering some minor exterior damage, although all windows were busted.

Someone picked up a faded picture from the ground near the trailer and asked Oliver's father if it was his. The old man shook his head and said no, and that he had found other people's pictures in his yard.

Walking to a trash can, the old man plucked out a photo and handed it to the bystander, grinning. It was a photograph of a pretty girl in a blue bikini standing on a sunny beach. No one knew who the girl or photo's owner was.

Night began to fall. Workers pressed on, searching the rubble. More than 100 would be found that night -- some alive, others not. It began to rain.

Day Two

In the morning light, crews were still digging, still searching.

The death toll, which had fluctuated wildly on the first day, had gone down to 24, according to the State Medical Examiner's Office.

Survivors were still there. The media presence had swelled.

Satellite trucks blanketed the area. Matt Lauer and Al Roker of NBC's Today show had found a perch amid the ruins, as had NBC's Chris Jansing. They were doing stand-ups. Media were mostly confined to an area just west of the Warren Theatre, which, despite taking a nearly direct hit from the tornado, was still standing.

Just to the north, the Moore Medical Center was not as lucky. It stood in complete ruins.

To the east, rescue teams with dogs scoured a destroyed business, looking for survivors.

Up the street, a church steeple sat impaled in the ground. Scores of cars sat crumpled, many tossed into buildings.

Maegan Jackson and Kaitlyn Newburger had tried to get to their house in the middle of the destruction, but were turned away by the authorities. No one was getting in without valid identification.

When asked what she expected to find, Jackson, standing near her neighborhood, said, “Not this.”

“We were going back to nothing,” Newburger said. “Isn't this crazy? Why are we here?”

As the two walked, they saw a dog wandering amid the debris and were able to form a makeshift leash using an Ethernet cable. The two were searching for the dog's owner, when Melody Hughes saw them.

Hughes, who works in a doctor's office, had spent the night in a makeshift triage center at the Warren Theatre. She had been watching her friend's dogs at her house, which was spared. One dog, Toby, had escaped.

It was Toby that Jackson and Newburger had found. And it was a tearful reunion.

“He was scared by the storms and bolted,” Hughes said.

Meanwhile, Jessica and Tyler Ellerd were digging through what was left of their house.

Her family had set up a tent just off Telephone Road and spent the night there. They were worried looters might strike.

Jessica's father was at home when the tornado hit and hid in the bathroom. It was the only room in the house where the roof wasn't entirely ripped off, and her father survived.

“It makes you feel blessed,” Ellerd said. She gestured toward the house. “This is just stuff.”

Still, she turned back to the broken pile of boards and began trying to find anything she could save.

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