How do you begin a story about a day that will never go away?
Do you start with the boy who did everything right on May 20, 2013 – stayed away from windows, used his arms to protect his head and neck and remained calm – and still he died?
Has enough time passed to reveal the kind of macabre humor that people toss out because they need reminders that they can still laugh? (“Hey, I found your car. It’s in my bedroom.”)
What does it say about you that surrounded by miles of heartache, the image that won’t go away is when a cotton-candy pink puff drifted by on a breeze leftover from 200 mph winds that scalped Moore, Oklahoma.
“Look,” said the boy. “ A butterfly.”
“That’s just insulation,” an adult corrected.
“I’m calling it a butterfly,” the boy said and raced to catch it.
You don’t have to live in Moore to feel its pain. If you live in Oklahoma, you suffer the side effects because tornadoes are our scoliosis. Infused with backbones generations strong, we brace against the twisting curves because unless you move out of the state, you have to live with it.
Jessie and Julie Alarcon stood in what once was a bedroom doorway and stared at months of sweat equity sucked dry by Oklahoma’s ruthless vacuum cleaner. Last week, they enrolled their two children into the neighborhood school, Plaza Towers Elementary, for next year.
Before Monday, the school was just a few blocks away, but now pieces of it cling to the skeletal arms of leafless trees and dangle from the eaves of broken homes stretching for miles.
“Over there by what used to be the garage is a Plaza Towers classroom chair that landed in our yard, Jessie says. “It’s hard to look at because our kids will be a second grader and a third grader next year and those are the kids who died. That chair makes me so sad, but I can’t bring myself to move it. It just doesn’t feel right yet.”
Seven children died at Plaza Towers Elementary. On the days after the tornado, nearly everyone allowed back in the neighborhood stopped by the school to shudder. In the background, you heard a grinding symphony of chain saws and helicopters and sirens and people shouting “Anyone need water? Work gloves? Trash bags?” On the street where a school once stood, you heard silence and sobbing.
“Where did it all go, I wonder?” Julie said. “Where is the sign?”
Jessie and Julie painted their own sign on their roofless house. It reads: “We will be back Plaza Towers” in pink paint leftover from redecorating their daughter’s bedroom. Somewhere under pancaked layers of busted sheet rock, muddy board games and soggy doll clothes, a couple of gerbils thrown out of their cage found enough refuge to survive a F5 tornado. So did the couple’s two Boston Terriers.
“Our son’s room looks like a tornado hit it, but it always looks this way,” says Jessie pointing to the ironic irritability of Oklahoma storms. “And our kitchen was next on our renovation list, but as you can see by those drinking glasses on the plate rail, the storm didn’t touch the kitchen.”
“Here are our medical cards,” says Julie as she reaches atop the refrigerator. “Maybe I need to get the kids some DVDs, oh look, the tornado left us all our bills. How lucky.”
When the authorities let them into the neighborhood for a few hours, the couple took inventory of their lives, something reserved for when we move or when we die or when a tornado scoops up everything you own, gives it a good shake like a pair of unlucky dice and then flings it across an entire state.
Someone’s automobile headrest is impaled in the front door, which the couple can’t decide if they need to close or keep open. Looters might actually be a welcomed invasion if they would load up some of the debris along with the busted flat screen television lying in the open-air living room.
It’s going to take more than a F5 to move the Alarcon family away from Moore, or Tornado City as some locals call it. They want to celebrate Christmas right here in a new house with a bigger kitchen, a girly pink bedroom and boy’s bedroom that won’t take long to resemble something a tornado left behind.
“Go ahead and shut the door, Julie,” Jessie says as he kicks a path through his lawn filled with pieces of other people’s lives. “We’ll be back.”
Two days after the tornado struck Moore, a crowd of young softball and baseball players stood with helmets in hands at 20 intersections from 119th & Western to I35. Motorists leaned out the window to toss coins and dollars into the helmets, some of which had protected the children’s heads when the storms hit on Monday. You know things are about to get volatile when KWTV weatherman Gary England advises you to put a helmet on your child’s head. And shoes. Everyone in Oklahoma knows you always wear shoes when a storm is on its way.
The Moore Girls Softball Association decided on Tuesday to collect money in memory of 9-year-old softball player named Sydney Angle, a third grader who died Monday at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Within an hour, her fellow teammates and other players had collected hundreds of dollars, matched by corporate donors.
First the money filled the batting helmets meant for games now cancelled for the week. And then one by one, the players poured money into plastic buckets marked “For Sydney #35.”
When Lindsay Ray wanted to skip back across the busy intersection to rejoin her team working the other side of the street, her father, Nathan, warned her to be careful because traffic was too dangerous. He glanced at the bucket with the name of the girl who died in a school. Then, he grabbed his daughter’s hand so he could lead her across the road.
On Wednesday afternoon with a light blanket of tornado debris still settling across Moore Cemetery, 5-year-old Destiny Livingston dipped a brush into a bucket of soapy water so she could wash the mud off her father’s tombstone. Roosevelt Livingston drowned May 26, 2012, in nearby Lake Thunderbird.
“I was scrubbing my daddy’s thing and I just missed him,” she said about cleaning the tombstone knocked askew by Monday’s storm.
She and her 7-year-old brother, Damien, looked across the barren field stripped of vegetation and saw a man standing over a tombstone so they headed toward him with the bucket held between them.
Kimberley Swenn, brought her children here because cleaning headstones seemed better than waiting to see how they could help their community.
“Everything is brown, trash everywhere, dirt, debris. A lot of headstones are missing or knocked over,” said Kimberley. “You can’t really tell where you’re supposed to be or remember where you’re loved ones are because everything looks the same.”
That morning, an army of social media-inspired volunteers raked and shoveled away storm trash and tried to clean up the 20-acre cemetery. They wanted to restore it to the peaceful place of remembrance before Memorial Day and the burials expected here within the next weeks. Like everything else along the tornado’s path, Moore Cemetery is going to need time to heal.
On a wind and a prayer
Near sundown every night since authorities allowed Plaza Towers residents back into their neighborhood, pickup trucks stacked high with storm-spackled belongings and worn down people roll a slow exodus out of about the worst kind of hell anyone here has seen in a long time. Well, since 1999 when another F5 ransacked the town.
The scene is classic Okie migration, circa 1935 except it’s 2013, and most of these storm refugees will be back. Tomorrow. And the next day and next month and even next year if that’s what it takes to put their homes back together.
Sheila and Bryan Sanders started a new life a month ago when they got married and bought a house. It took just 16 minutes for all the new to wear off. Nothing reminds you more that the honeymoon is over than a destroyed house filled with wedding gifts that you haven’t used yet.
Perched on the tailgate of a pickup truck stopped for a red light, the couple shifts positions among a lawn mower, an ice chest and trash bags. They turn down another bottle of water offered by the volunteers working a makeshift relief city set up since early Tuesday morning by Mark and Robin Wood, and Shelby Hayes of the Community Church in Lawton. The volunteers are desperate for someone to take water, Gatorade, work gloves, trash bags and food. Ernest Trujillo of Albuquerque, N.M., holds a sign that reads: “Chaplain. Need Prayer? Free Hugs.”
He looks like a guy who might own a Harley so the chaplain status draws a lot of attention and makes him approachable to people too busy for lengthy religious conversations.
“Hey brother,” he shouts to a man who nearly falls off the back of a truck when it lurches toward the green light. “Hang on. Need a hug?”
Ernest, who says he’s been a lay chaplain for several years now, drove into town on Wednesday morning. He planned to go to the Crossroads Community Center to help out, but God directed him to this tiny patch of grass where migrant volunteers are gathering collections and handing out supplies. This generosity city keeps growing every day. No one is quite sure how long it will stay open.
“We started with 25 cases of water at about 1:30 in the morning on Tuesday,” says Mark. “I just pulled in here and set up near the entrance because I knew folks would be wanting to check on their homes. Now, we have 10 pop-up tents that some guy donated and all that water and people just keep bringing stuff.”
Some people walk up to drop off a box of baby formula and ask for prayer. Emotions run so raw here that the slightest memory triggers a downpour. Everyone welcomes the release.
“That’s what we’re here for,” says Mark. “If someone needs supplies, we got them, but if all they need is someone to hear them out, we got that too.”
He’s been sleeping in his truck over at the convenience store since he pulled into town with a generator and some bottled water early Tuesday morning.
“The first people I helped were two guys who needed to charge their cell phones. We were the only ones with power” he says. “The guys worked for the FBI.”
How do you end a story about a day that will live forever?
Do you tell the death count of 26 or describe the estimated $2 billion damage to some 12,600 homes?
Do you reminisce about all the times you spent sitting in a musty cellar full of old people telling their own tornado ghost stories that frightened and intrigued you all at the same time?
Or do you admit that you intended to interview the mother of a dead boy but after watching 30 minutes of her agonizing struggle to condense 10 years of a good boy’s life into two minutes of network news, you retreated and gave both of you a break from tornado exhaustion?
Maybe, you decide to go back to the liquor store bordering a tragic neighborhood, pull out $10 and give it to the man who is probably lying about being a tornado victim thirsty for something more than bottled water.
If May 20, 2013, taught you anything, it taught you no Oklahoman really escaped this deadly storm. Everyone is going to need something strong to see us through the rebuilding process.
And so you give the man a $20 bill instead.