Levi Wells and Cody Minor react to the destruction of Plaza Towers Elementary School following a deadly tornado May 20, 2013, in Moore, Okla. Sarah Phipps / The Oklahoman
'it changes you'

BY JULIANA KEEPING
jkeeping@opubco.com

These storms changed things.

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In a state long accustomed to the forceful nature of spring weather, the series of storms that roared across central Oklahoma during a two-week period in May 2013 altered so much.

From the way homes are built, to how children are protected at school to how mindful we are about dangerous weather. From our sense of security, to our sense of community to our sense of loss.

The storms, which destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, injured hundreds and killed 50, transformed the landscape, both physically and emotionally.

“When an event happens, it’s not fun watching and experiencing it, and psychologically, it takes you a long time to get over an event,” said Oklahoma weather icon Gary England, who for 40 years forecast weather in the state at News9. “It was traumatic, obviously. We sat there and watched live, the cameras were on the ground, we knew what was going on.”

It started May 19, when a typical supercell spawned eight tornadoes that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and buildings as they swept across Edmond, Arcadia, Luther, Carney, Prague, Norman and the Shawnee area, where two elderly men were killed.

The next day brought one of the largest and most powerful storms the state has ever seen. Among 15 tornadoes May 20 was a rare EF5 that packed 210 mph winds as it plowed across Newcastle, south Oklahoma City and Moore. Twenty-five people died, including seven students who perished when a hallway wall collapsed on top of them at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

The tragedies proved so profound they prompted a presidential visit on May 26.

“We’ve seen incredible outpourings of support from churches, from community groups who are helping folks begin to recover,” President Barack Obama said as he stood amid the rubble of Plaza Towers. “This area has known more than its share of heartbreak. But people here pride themselves on the ‘Oklahoma Standard’ — what Governor Fallin has called, ‘Being able to work through disasters like this, and (to) come out stronger on the other side.’ And that’s what we’ve been seeing this week.”

Then, on May 31, 19 more twisters gashed the still-reeling region, including a 2.6-mile-wide tornado, thought to be the widest on record in the United States. Eight people died when the tornado caught them in their vehicles near El Reno. Heavy rainfall produced historic flash flooding that killed 15 others, including a 5-month-old baby girl swept through a drainage tunnel and whose body has never been recovered.

The May 20 and 31 tornadoes were like none England had seen. The May 20 tornado was abnormal in the speed with which it formed and intensified. The May 31 tornado that struck in the El Reno area had winds near 300 mph.

It was constantly just morphing and changing," England said of the May 31 tornado. “It’s like it was alive.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said that while it’s true Oklahomans are used to extreme weather, “You don’t ever get used to seeing destruction on the scale we saw it in Moore or the other communities that got hit by ... tornadoes last May.”

Even for professional forecasters who make a career out of understanding the monster storms, these affected them like none before.

“Last year’s tornadoes really took an emotional toll on a lot of the people in our office,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Norman.

“Some of our families were impacted or threatened, some of us had damage to our homes, and all of us were affected by the tragic loss of life and destruction of people’s lives just up the road from us.”

Since the storms, Smith and his weather service colleagues are working even more closely with TV meteorologists to standardize the message when it comes to tornado safety recommendations and preparedness information.

The weather service also is working with public health community partners and social scientists to understand how people responded to the forecasts and warnings, where they sought shelter, and why they made the decisions they did.

Smith said the agency hopes to use the information to aid the agency in issuing even more effective messages to the public next time.

Meanwhile, efforts have been made to improve communication with Spanish speakers during severe weather outbreaks. The American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma hired two bilingual staffers. Television station Accion Oklahoma, a Telemundo affiliate, is increasing its social media collaboration with the National Weather Service, purchased a new weather forecast system and hired a new Spanish-speaking meteorologist, its first.

In the May 31 storms, nine of the 23 deaths came from Oklahoma’s growing Guatemalan community, many of whom are unfamiliar with the fury of the state’s spring storms.

“Unfortunately, in this state we get a lot of practice with disasters,’’ said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. “We learn from each one.”

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Maybe nowhere were the physical scars from the deadly twisters more evident than in Moore. The bustling suburb south of Oklahoma City took a direct hit from the May 20 tornado. During its 39 minutes and 17 miles on the ground, the tornado cut through the heart of the city of 55,000, destroying 1,087 homes, leveling two elementary schools, ripping apart the Moore Medical Center and causing an estimated $1.5 billion in insured losses.

Today, signs of healing are evident. The debris is gone. As of May 1, Moore officials had issued 549 home building permits and 434 remodel permits since the tornado. A new Moore Medical Center to replace the one destroyed near SW 4 and Interstate 35 is expected to open in 2016. A temporary emergency department now operates at the site.

In March, the city council adopted what are thought to be some of the toughest residential building codes in the nation, designed to prevent extensive tornado damage. Traditionally, homes have been rated for 90 mile-per-hour winds. Under the new code, homes will be wind rated for 135 mph and have other changes designed to make them more capable of surviving tornadoes, especially up to EF3.

“I would say, the community is never the same after one of these events,” Moore City Manager Steve Eddy said. “But, our community is pretty resilient, and, I’m confident that recovery is going well, and, that our community is responding well. With that having been said, I know there are still a lot of people out there struggling to rebuild.”

Work is ahead of schedule on rebuilding the two destroyed schools, Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary, and repairing a third, Highland East Jr. High. The schools are scheduled to open in August.

“I’m just really excited and very proud of what the people here in this school district have done to get us back to where we need to be,” Moore Superintendent Robert Romines said. “This community was close before the storm. Has it made us more resilient and come together more than ever? Absolutely.”

The death of seven children at Plaza Towers shot to the forefront the issue of a lack of storm shelters in Oklahoma schools. Parents who thought their children would be safest at school realized in a terrifying span of minutes that was not the case. This year, parents were much more likely to check their children out of school during severe weather, Principal Amy Simpson said.

“We don’t take a structure for granted anymore,” said Danni Legg, whose son, Christopher Legg, 9, died at Plaza Towers. “We don’t assume it’s being built to the highest standard any more. I would have never dreamed to think about things like that, in that manner, but, you have to, because you have to protect yourself. No one can protect you except yourself. No one is going to protect my kids except me.”

The Plaza Towers deaths ignited debate in the Capitol about how or if to pay for school shelters. Snarled in politics, a year on, there has been little forward movement on the issue. In the meantime, communities around the state have turned to private donors, nonprofits, churches, the federal government and local bond issues to shore up existing facilities and include plans for for safe rooms and shelters in new schools. The state Emergency Management Department operates Safe Schools 101, in which volunteer architects and engineers walk through schools to recommend the best places to take refuge, create safe rooms or upgrade facilities to protect students from tornadoes.

Moore Public Schools, which had two storm shelters before May 20, soon will have 10 shelters for its 23,000 students.

“It’s a process, and it’s going to take us some time,” Romines said.

For some, last year’s tornado outbreak also changed how safe they feel in their own homes.

Since the tornadoes, Oklahoma City alone, has issued 8,674 storm shelter permits. In 2009, the city issued just 322 permits. Moore has added about 1,100 basements or shelters in the last year.

For companies like FlatSafe, a Yukon-based storm shelter and safe room business, the uptick in demand means up to to a dozen more installations than usual, said sales manager Lisa Ingram. The company now installs around 30 per day.

“When the sirens go off, the phones start ringing with orders for shelters,” Ingram said. “Last year’s severe weather brought more business than ever before. Weather is inevitable. When it hits close to home, it gives us that real fear, or feeling, of what it’s like not to have somewhere safe to be. That’s the real eye-opening concern for a lot of people.”

The Warren Theatre's marquee and cleanup effort May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla. Bryan Terry / The Oklahoman

Many of those closest to the disaster, like Mikki Davis, say they’ll never be the same.

“The pain is always going to be there,” said Davis, who lost her son, Kyle, 8, at Plaza Towers. “My heart is going to be broken forever. But, I know in my heart, I know where Kyle is. I will see Kyle again. We’re parted for how ever long it is until it’s my time.”

Kyle Davis loved to play defense or goalie on the soccer field. He was given the nickname “The Wall” at age 5 by his coaches, Mikki Davis said. A memorial in Mikki Davis' backyard in Noble features a soccer ball, pictures of Kyle, crosses and teddy bears. Davis often spends time there, and at her son’s gravesite in south Oklahoma City, where she talks to him.

“It makes me feel better inside,” she said.

Gov. Fallin, who was at Plaza Towers the night the tornado struck, said the heartbreak was palpable.

“I think most Oklahomans saw that scene and felt a mixture of grief and helplessness,” Fallin said.

For Simpson, the Plaza Towers principal, the May 20 tornado sharpened her focus on relationships and kindness.

“The students here, and the faculty here, are closer than they have been in the past,” Simpson said. We went through that tragic event together, and it has brought us closer. We see each other differently, as, strong and resilient people, and we don’t take each other for granted.”

The biggest change for Simpson may be leaving Plaza Towers. In the fall, she’ll take over as principal at another Moore school, South Lake Elementary.

“This is just another step for me, and, as I leave Plaza, I will never forget the people I work with here, and the students I see every day and certainly those that we lost. My thoughts … will always wander back to them. But I’m thankful what I will remember — their smiling faces in the cafeteria, the hallways and at special assemblies.

Jennifer Doan, who taught third grade at Plaza Towers, lost six of her students when a hallway wall collapsed on them. She was eight weeks pregnant at the time.

She was pulled from the rubble seriously injured. Today, she is still recovering. Her son, born Dec. 21, is named Jack Nicolas — the middle name in honor of her student, Nicolas McCabe, who died with her comforting palm on his back.

“I think, it’s still a battle, every day, it’s a battle,” Doan said. “You know, I feel like it’s something that I just have to adapt to and learn to live with. That feeling, it changes you. And, I don’t think I’ll ever be the same person, ever, before all this happened. You just have to do your best and take it a day at a time, and, have your reasons to go on.”

Doan hopes to return to teaching in Moore once she’s cleared by her doctors, but to Southlake, along with Simpson. Returning to Plaza Towers would be too hard, she said.

She needed a change.