MOORE — A concrete slab is sprinkled with debris at what was the Highland East Junior High gymnasium.
Nearby at Veterans Memorial Park, some of what remains of the playground equipment is slightly tilted.
Gayland Kitch has served as emergency manager for the city of Moore the past 22 years. Before he arrived in 1991, the city hadn't had much in the way of tornado activity since the 1970s.
But on his watch, there have been at least half a dozen twisters, including the three he's seen out of his office window. Among those were the F5 of May 3, 1999, and the F4 on May 8, 2003. Kitch also watched the debris swirling from the EF5 of May 20, the one that also caused the aforementioned damage.
Too much devastation
So those eyes behind the sunglasses have seen far too much devastation.
However, Kitch never forgets that this isn't just the city he works for, but this is “My city, my home.” And while he hasn't lost his house or more importantly any loved ones to the tornadoes, he also hasn't lost the memories of the many great days in Moore.
Kitch, with the driver's side window of the blue pickup down, looks toward the gymnasium slab and sees himself several years ago sitting elbow to elbow with wife, Shirley, at their children's band concerts held there. His daughter, Alyssa, played the flute and oboe while she was in junior high. Later on, Austin played the horn.
Alyssa is now 29 and Austin, a senior at the University of Oklahoma, is 21.
But the memories are fresh, as Kitch has classical music playing lightly on the pickup's radio.
“Angie (Taylor) was the band instructor and is still here,” Kitch said of Highland East Junior High. “We're good friends with her, so I suspect my son and I will probably end up helping her rebuild some of the instrument cabinets.”
You do carpenter work, he was asked.
“Not as much as she thinks,” Kitch said with a laugh. “But we'll probably end up helping in one form or another.”
Driving east, he arrives at Veterans Memorial Park. Kitch mentions family outings and a time when Austin's Cub Scout pack gathered in the park.
“There used to be a merry-go-round out here somewhere,” he said. “And I remember his mother being very irritated with him, and me too, that he'd lost his slide for his neckerchief. So somewhere out here there's a slide that belongs to my boy.”
As the emergency manager for Moore, Kitch coordinates all of the emergency management activities of the city, including hazard mitigation, emergency and disaster preparedness, training and exercising, public education, communications and warning, response, and recovery activities.
Looking back, Kitch began working as a police dispatcher for the city of Moore in 1984. Even before that, he'd done some storm spotting for the city of Norman. But he doesn't recall seeing any tornadoes.
However, after an F2 on Oct. 4, 1998, Kitch concluded, or at least wished aloud, that there would be no more tornadoes in Moore while he was the emergency manager.
“So then of course seven months later we get hit with an EF5,” he said.
A lot's changed since Kitch took the emergency management lead in 1991. At that time, Moore had 12 outdoor storm sirens. Before May 20, it had 36. And while he doesn't remember the number of shelters before May 3, 1999, he said 3,468 residential storm shelters are now registered with his office.
And then came May 20.
“The other storms seemed to take more of an angle through the city,” he said. “This storm was from one border clear to the other border. So we have a longer path.”
What isn't different is the difficulty in dealing with the loss of lives. So he said they will continue to study warning systems and educate the residents about severe weather. Kitch also will continue to work with meteorologists at the National Weather Service, Norman Forecast Office.
“If I lived in a town that sees as many violent tornadoes as Moore has seen,” said Rick Smith of the Norman Forecast Office, “I'd sleep well at night knowing that Gayland had my back.
“He's a true professional and a great guy. We at NWS Norman are proud to have him as our partner. We just wish he didn't have so much experience with tornadoes.”
While there have been differences in the tornadoes that have hit Moore, a similarity has been the reaction of those wanting to assist.
As Kitch stands in the park, looking toward the Heatherwood neighborhood, he notes that before May 20, trees and fences would have made it difficult to see anything but perhaps rooftops.
Now he looks at houses with blue tarps on damaged roofs, others with no roofs and those ground to the foundation by the tornado.
But he also sees people working around those houses. And he sees volunteers within a few yards of him, cleaning up the playground.
“People immediately came out,” Kitch said. “They took care of their neighbors, dusted each other off and within a day or two they were already pushing debris to the curb and making plans for rebuilding. And I think that you'll see this rebuilt just in short order.
“It will take some people longer than others ... but I think that you'll see this rebuilt pretty quick. I've seen it before.”