After Okla. Tornado's Devastation, A Search For Safety And Shelter

It's been seven months since an F5 tornado plowed through Moore, Okla., killing 24 people — including 7 children — and destroying more than 1,100 homes. These super tornadoes leave many kinds of destruction in their wake, but the worst damage may not be visible.

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Some of the most painful stories of 2013 came from a small community in Oklahoma, the town of Moore. It was hit by a monster F5 tornado in May. Two dozen people died. More than a thousand homes were wiped away. The damage was estimated at $2 billion. But when NPR's Wade Goodwyn returned to Moore recently, he found the worst damage might not be visible.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Stand in the middle of Lakeview Drive in Moore, and you're surrounded by a lot of wide-open Oklahoma. Turns out an F5 tornado can clear quite a stretch of land.

WILLIAM BROWN: Mine was right here on the hill, this little bit of a hill right here. This was mine.

GOODWYN: William Brown points to a two-foot stub of concrete driveway at the street. That's what's left of his three-bedroom house. He says one minute this was a cute cul-de-sac with modest ranch homes, and five minutes later...

BROWN: When this passed, there was literally nothing. It looked like a garbage dump.

GOODWYN: Brown is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who says he's seen a lot, but nothing like May 20th, 2013. That's when we first met him standing in the rubble of his home. Although the tornado destroyed every house on his street, other neighbors - like on the street behind him - fared much worse. Some died in their bathtubs, or were sucked into the sky from their bedroom closets.

Brown's wife Jennifer remains badly shaken. It was she who first sounded the alarm.

BROWN: I was kind of blowing her off, man, because she's like there's a tornado, and I'm, like, honey, there's always a tornado. This is Moore. She's, like, no, this one's really close.

GOODWYN: Brown walked out into his front yard. It was completely quiet. Suddenly, the neighbor across the street burst out of her house, screaming, her young child in her arms. She headed for the small storm shelter under Brown's garage.

BROWN: Run right to our shelter, screaming that it was just across 19th Street. You could kind of hear this low grumbling sound starting, like a big jet engine, a 747 just starting up a little, just this low, bassy, rumbling sound in the distance.

GOODWYN: What happened next still haunts Brown. The neighbors on his immediate left also bolted out of their front door and headed for his garage with their two big dogs. But Brown's shelter was built for four people, and with the mother and child from across the street, he already had four.

BROWN: And I yelled to them. I said you guys can get in here. I can't fit the dogs in here. There's no way. And, all of a sudden, they looked over to our right. I saw them shoot back in - I mean, they literally just ran back in the house.

GOODWYN: The neighbors had seen the F5 tornado a block away chewing up houses and headed their direction. Brown closed the shelter's trap door and listened. At more than 210 miles per hour, the wind ripped his garage door away like a piece of cellophane. Then he heard a massive groan, the roof being sucked off the frame.

The smell of gasoline flooded into the shelter as the now unprotected car was pulverized into scrap. Finally, roof shingles began to shoot through a small imperfection at the top of the shelter.

BROWN: I mean, they were, like, flying into our shelter and hitting the other side with really, really strong force.

GOODWYN: And then, like that, it was over. It was silent. Brown slowly raised the shelter door, his heart in his throat.

BROWN: I said, I'm going to open this door, and everything's going to be gone. My neighbors are going to be gone, and I'm going to lose it.

GOODWYN: The neighbor's house was indeed a pile of rubble. Brown picked his way toward it, his military training an evil whisper that nothing was alive in there.

BROWN: There was nails and boards everywhere, and the - really, the only thing left in their house that was standing was the bathroom they were in.

GOODWYN: Buried under sheet rock, insulation, plywood and two-by-fours, Brown's neighbors and the dogs were alive. He dug them out, weak with relief. Still, the episode haunts him, and his wife Jennifer now has trouble sleeping whenever rain storms come. In fact, the citizens of Moore could be considered a collective case study in post traumatic stress.

Incredibly, the town has been hit by five major tornadoes in the last 15 years. Perhaps nobody has suffered more psychological damage from the May 20th tornado than the children, teachers and staff at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

AMY SIMPSON: Oh, lots of grief. Lots of grief. As each 20th comes around, the 20th of any month, it's a really hard day for us.

GOODWYN: Amy Simpson is the principal of Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was turned into a giant pile of rubble. Now they've moved to a nearby junior high. As Simpson walks through the cafeteria, the children call to her, touch her, cling to her as she passes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CHATTERING)

SIMPSON: You're getting a Nerf gun? That's awesome.

GOODWYN: Seven of Simpson's third graders were killed. There probably would have been others, if not for the heroic efforts of teachers who covered their students bodies with their own as cars, vans and trucks were thrown into the gutted interior like Hot Wheels flung in a temper tantrum.

SIMPSON: There were cars everywhere. There was a car actually on my secretary's desk. So when I came out of the bathroom, there was a bumper in my face.

GOODWYN: It was a direct hit, and there was no storm shelter in the school. To crawl or be dug out of what was left of the elementary school that day was to know that death had passed you by with a kiss on the cheek. Simpson says nearly all her children and her teachers are traumatized. Now, when it rains, it's a very big deal.

SIMPSON: The first storm that came through was horrible. We had students coming down here crying. We set up a trauma room, for lack of a better word - you know, that's not a normal elementary school term - in the computer lab. A lot of students wanted to watch it on the radar, because they were afraid that dark clouds meant tornado. So we showed them that it was just rain. It didn't matter. Not one bit. They just kept staring and staring and watching it.

GOODWYN: At the temporary school, Central Junior High, there is no storm shelter here, either, and that's been a big source of fear.

SIMPSON: It certainly is. The first few days of school, that was the questions from kids. They'd be like, hi, Ms. Simpson. Is there a shelter here? You know, there was no small talk. It was just straight to point. They needed to know if they were going to be safe, and I would have to answer no.

GOODWYN: I most tragedies, the traumatized victims are administered to by caregivers who were themselves unaffected by disaster. At Plaza Towers Elementary, though, everyone has both roles, caregiver and victim, all in the same boat. Back here on Lakeview Drive, all the debris is gone. Street after street, it's a big empty. A handful of new homes are sprouting, nicer than the old ones, little islands of recovery.

And when the replacement Plaza Towers Elementary School is finished next year, it will have a brand new big storm shelter, the very first part built. The chances of another major tornado striking are slim, but after five tornados in 15 years, almost nobody in Moore has faith in statistics anymore. Eleven hundred storm shelter construction permits have been issued in the last six months.

This spring, when dark clouds gather on the horizon and the first warning sirens go off, the people of Moore will gather around their television sets and pray. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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