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Oklahoma tornadoes: Survivors, helpers share stories

In Moore, Norman and Newcastle, people work together to move on after tornadoes.
Published: May 25, 2013

When a car pulls up and rolls its windows down, Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Gabe Leach never knows whether its driver is in good spirits or angry.

Either way, he understands.

“We have people come through that are teary-eyed — they haven't been to their house yet and they're pretty anxious to see what they've lost,” he said. “We also have some that are pretty frustrated.”

At one point, nearly every intersection in town seemed to be staffed with troopers or the National Guard, men and women checking IDs one at a time before letting anyone through to the neighborhoods devastated by Monday's tornado.

By Thursday, the checkpoints had tapered off to a one-square-mile radius. By Friday, they were gone.

“Thank you guys, we appreciate it,” said the driver of one car after Leach scanned his ID and let him through.

Behind the trooper, desperate residents pored through stacks of shoes and piles of clothing looking for temporary replacements for the stuff they lost during the storm.

Mark Wood and his wife, Robin, came up from Lawton with about 25 cases of water and a generator — left over from an ice storm several years back — to set up this relief stand. Now, it's a Wi-Fi hot spot and a roadside thrift shop.

Across the street, Derek Johnson flipped burgers on a grill he brought down from Riverton, Kan.

Wearing a shirt that commemorates a close friend who died in the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., Johnson said he didn't think twice about taking on the role of relief chef.

He took a break to wipe the sweat from his brow and eyed the line of cars that stretched down the block and out of sight.

“I don't know if you call it organized chaos or what — there's just a lot going on and everybody's dealing with it the best way they know how,” he said.


When emotions flow, dogs can help

A dog's bark rang over the din of children playing in the lobby of the University of Oklahoma's Walker Center Thursday.

Jo Humphrey looked at Journey, a 1-year-old standard poodle, shook her head and smiled.

“If he's excited, the volume goes up,” she said.

Humphrey is the owner of Panhandle Area Community Therapies, a therapy dog service in Perryton, Texas.

Humphrey, her husband, Robert, and dog handler Diana McGarr were at OU Thursday afternoon with Journey and another dog, Gracie.

Journey and Gracie worked with children and adults who are staying in emergency housing at OU while they're displaced because of Monday's tornado.

The dogs offer comfort to people who are stressed or in pain, Humphrey said. She hopes to take the dogs to shelters and hospitals around the area to help comfort those who were affected by the tornado, she said.


‘They're trying to smile'

The sun beats down on the three Daniel brothers as they clean up the wreckage of their parents' home.

They've already found most of the valuables — jewelry and guns — and now they are trying to see what else can be salvaged before the rubble is taken away.

Michael is standing on a rain-soaked quilt. His brother, Jeff, tells him to move so he can pick it up.

“I'll bring this back to Mom,” he tells his brother.

Their parents, Forrest and Barbara Daniel, are not there. Michael, 52, said the gravity of what happened began to wear on his mother on Thursday.

Barbara wasn't at home when the tornado hit, and Forrest rode it out sitting next to the refrigerator because their house had no shelter.

“He told me he never thought he would die before that day,” Michael said.

The couple probably won't ever go back to where their home once stood, he said.

But before they left, Michael snapped a cellphone photo of his parents, standing arm in arm in front of the wreckage of the house they shared for 30 years.

“They're trying to smile,” he said.


‘It was a blessing'

Months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on Perry Robb's nearly complete backyard addition were gone in moments when the EF5 tornado that later hit Moore hit Newcastle Monday afternoon.

The upside: It's all insured.

Not thinking about the potential for severe weather, Robb had called his insurance agent Monday morning since his renovations were nearing completion.

After the tornado hit, Robb got a text message from his agent telling him his paperwork had been pushed through before the tornado, and Robb's renovations were covered.

“It was a blessing,” Robb said.

After spending more than $220,000 building a backyard paradise, Robb was relieved. His contractors were almost two days from finishing the backyard overhaul including adding a pool, pool house, outdoor entertainment center, palm trees and sandy beaches — when Robb's progress and home were destroyed.

“It basically brings you to tears immediately,” Robb said.

With his house in shambles and his new lawn furniture blown away, Robb plans to tear down what remains of his home and rebuild — palm trees and everything.


‘He asked us why we were crying'

John Monroe Cruise was confused by his parent's reaction.

The 6-year-old was clearly pumped to see his blue bicycle had been replaced by some wonderful co-workers of his mother, Jackie, but his parents had burst into tears when they gave it to him.

“He asked us why we were crying,” Micah Cruise said as he stood next to the pile of pieces of scrap wood and drywall that used to be his home. “He was devastated when he saw our house after the storm, because it was just gone. So I told him we are crying because we are happy for you buddy. Go get it.”

Both Micah and Jackie have dedicated their lives to helping others. Micah is a deputy for the Cleveland County sheriff's office while Jackie works for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Both said they have been overcome by the generosity of others now that they are in their time of need.

“We have been blessed beyond measure, and we truly feel loved by everyone,” Jackie said.

“I know that sounds kind of cliche, but it's just amazing what you find out in a tragedy or natural disaster and what people you have around you. They will give any and everything they can. Just to help. That's what I find amazing. There are good people out there.”


‘I wish we could find everything for you folks'

Hutchinson, Kan., residents Casey Frischenmeyer, 30, and Brian Reeves, 27, made the nearly four-hour trek to Moore with their church after witnessing the seemingly endless devastation and ruin on TV.

The duo, who had never witnessed destruction of this magnitude firsthand, were overwhelmed with shock and disbelief after arriving in the city that was ravaged by an EF5 tornado Monday.

At the first neighborhood where they stopped, ruined vehicles and debris littered the streets. Most houses lucky enough to be left standing were deemed too dangerous to occupy.

Frischenmeyer and Reeves got to work immediately, rummaging through collapsed houses to salvage family heirlooms and anything else intact. They were determined to find anything onto which these families that had lost their livelihoods could hold.

“I wish we could find everything for you folks, but we can't,” Frischenmeyer said.

They often succeeded. On one occasion, they were cleaning out a destroyed property and stumbled upon some family photos. A short time later, the family pulled up, wondering who could possibly be trying to clean through what's left of the home.

The elation the family felt after being reunited with its only remaining pictures was enough of a reason for Frischenmeyer and Reeves to keep pressing through the chaos to restore some hope, no matter how little, to as many families as possible.



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