What tornado-hit cities like Moore have learned

The tornado that hit the Oklahoma city of Moore – its fourth in 15 years – brought destruction but also brought out well-learned examples of resiliency, hope, and calm.

Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman/AP Photo
A rescuer recovers a horse from the remains of a day care center and barn May 20 in Moore, Okla.

Since 1998, the Oklahoma city of Moore has experienced four tornadoes. Monday’s storm, which packed winds of as much as 200 miles per hour, perhaps brought the worst devastation, leaving dozens dead, including schoolchildren, and a need for healing from grief and loss.

But the giant twister also brought out the best in a community that has learned, perhaps more than others, that it needs far more than warning systems and storm shelters.

New technology and hardened structures certainly help those caught in a tornado’s path. But as disaster experts now know, people in natural disasters need an inner hardiness that keeps them emotionally calm and mentally alert. One unfazed Moore resident, Renee Lee, told reporters, “You just do what you gotta do. It’s part of living here.”

Teachers at Moore’s two elementary schools certainly had to keep themselves calm as they corralled kids into safe areas. The city’s mayor, Glenn Lewis, huddled with others in the vault of his jewelry shop. After having experienced a tornado that struck Moore in 1999 when he was also mayor, Mr. Lewis was well prepared to take action in the wake of this latest one. “We’ve already started printing the street signs,” he said soon after the storm destroyed many street markers.

Signals of hope and resilience quickly emerged in the 20-mile swath of wreckage as Moore residents responded to those in need or helped those mourn for lost loved ones. Others who know Moore well tried to help. “Rise again Moore Oklahoma. Godspeed,” tweeted country singer Toby Keith, a native of Moore. Rep. Tom Cole (R), whose congressional district includes Moore, cited prayer as the top item on his list of what the city needs.

Among disaster experts, the concept of resilience is now a popular focus. The Obama administration issued a policy directive in February that pushes agencies dealing with the effects of extreme weather to emphasize resilience. President Obama’s budget includes $200 million for such efforts.

One expert on resilience, Andrew Zolli of PopTech in Camden, Maine, told the Monitor last year: “If you believe that the world is a meaningful place, and you have a meaningful place within it; if you believe that you have agency within the world, that your actions have meaning ... that successes and failures are put in your life to teach you things, and that they’re not just random acts of chance, then you have a much higher degree of resilience in the face of trauma.”

Such experts say communities with individuals who are spiritually grounded form bonds that help them through a crisis. Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who has studied poor neighborhoods in Chicago, writes about well-connected communities, which create feelings of belonging that provide a protection against the “steady drip” of challenges.

After its 1999 tornado, Moore was able to clean up in 61 days and then start rebuilding the city. Perhaps the cleanup this time will be shorter, not only because of the residents’ learning curve but also because Moore is better connected – even to other storm-hit places. The Missouri city of Joplin, which was hit by a 2011 tornado, immediately sent assistance to Moore.

Places hit by tornadoes find their people often have one thing in common. Their calm before a storm helps bring a calm after a storm.

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