In less than 30 seconds, they went from homeowners to homeless. Monday's powerful tornadoes leveled their houses, crushed their cars, and swept away most of what they owned.
But one thing remains: resolve. As thousands of Oklahomans returned to their property this week to salvage what they could, many echoed the same sentiment: We will rebuild.
The task ahead looks enormous. In metropolitan Oklahoma City alone, the storm left its imprint on some 10,000 homes, according to the American Red Cross. In many cases, entire neighborhoods disappeared. According to one initial estimate, property losses in the metropolitan area could be as high as $500 million. It will be months before the residents of those hard-hit areas will be able to rebuild.
But that's exactly what many plan to do. Already, relatives, friends, even children have begun to clean up after America's worst tornado in more than a decade.
"It was a real nice neighborhood," says Jason Rice, who with his family hid in a neighbor's cellar in Moore, Okla. But "when we came up, it was like we were on Mars." The storm swept his entire house away. His car was hurtled 40 yards. But the senior Air Force airman has no intention of moving. "We pretty much decided to rebuild," he says.
Ditto for Joe and Jeanette Murphy, who lived nearby - until Monday. "When we climbed out of the cellar, I thought: 'Everything's gone,' " recalls Mrs. Murphy. The couple's Suburban was crushed and their pickup overturned. A tow trailer sat where the house used to be. Nothing remains. But "it's amazing what you do find."
She stands with a handful of spoons over a box full of pans salvaged from the wreckage. Another important find: her mother's antique lamp intact except for a cracked globe. "Just little things, but it helps," she says. "We are going to rebuild because it's nice here."
In the interim, many hard-hit residents are staying with family or friends. The number of people in shelters has dropped since the night of the tornado, when 1,600 jammed area facilities. Many moved to hotels, which offered free temporary lodging, but now that those free offers are ending, the new homeless will have to go back to shelters or find alternative arrangements, says Peter Teahen, a Red Cross spokesman.
Insurance companies are rushing to issue checks for temporary housing, clothing, and food. State Farm Insurance has mobilized at least 300 employees to assist policyholders. But the need is vast. State Farm anticipates 26,000 property claims and another 12,000 auto claims in greater Oklahoma City, representing $150 million in losses.
Not everyone is planning to rebuild. "I doubt it," says Ray Mayfield, hurriedly throwing dirty children's clothes into trash bags. He had recently recarpeted his home in suburban Moore, which is now completely leveled.
In many places, families and friends pitched in to start the arduous work of cleaning up. Richard Clark, who convinced his mother-in-law to leave her house 10 minutes before the tornado hit, was on the scene Wednesday picking through the rubble. "Hey Mom! Do you want these glasses?" he yells out, holding up a pair of reading glasses intact despite the storm. "Oh yes," she calls back.
Even her four-year-old granddaughter, Raven, pushes a broom to try to clear debris. Thousands of residents are still without power. Though linemen scrambled to replace utility poles that snapped like toothpicks, it was often a moot point. The new lines won't have any houses to hook up to for months.
While the lack of electricity forced most residents to throw out food left in their refrigerators, Pat Shearer found chicken still cold in her freezer and had it cooked up a in a barbecue for friends and neighbors.
Meanwhile, local officials made efforts to return some semblance of order amid the chaos. "The people see these things going up, and it serves to give them psychological hope," says Mike Dunn, a traffic construction officer in Moore struggling to put up a stop sign in a devastated block. "They know we haven't forgotten them."