Oklahoma tornado: In Moore, shock, kindnesses, and blessings counted

Disbelief and relief are etched into the faces of folks in Moore, Okla., as they take stock of their lives after taking the brunt of Monday's tornado. Acts of kindness, small and large, prompt many residents to count blessings.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Addyson Roberts, 7, survived the harrowing May 20 tornado strike on Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and a day later enjoyed some strawberries courtesy of volunteers traversing the wreckage and offering food and supplies. Addyson's mother, Summer Roberts (c.), credits a teacher with leading her daughter and several other students to a safer spot.

In "tornado alley," it's polite to count your blessings. So after Monday's day of dread, danger, and destruction, they were counted in Moore, Okla., where many houses were bent and broken, where there was, as a federal Homeland Security guy said, "total devastation," and where a grit of insulation and dirt was sprayed onto homes as though with a giant's power washer.

On such  days, when warm light replaces the storm's dark curtains, a simple strawberry can take on a new meaning. A crew from a wine shop – Josiah Reeder, Matt Tarpley, and Josh Eaton – made crusty-bread sandwiches and bought bins of strawberries and other fruit, and rode along Moore's battered streets with a cooler and grins, past trees stripped of their green, homes bulldozed into piles, and faces still carrying traces of both relief and disbelief.

Others, too, joined them. Oklahoma City gathered up its toiletries, its extra clothes, its medical supplies and diapers and shipped them to the city's southern suburbs, where need, it became apparent on Tuesday, was great. Others jumped in their trucks and began delivering the goods throughout a city that victim Amanda Newberry described as "definite chaos."

One who accepted strawberries was Addyson Roberts. Fewer than 24 hours earlier, seven of her schoolmates had died as one of the most powerful tornadoes in history Thor-hammered this Oklahoma City suburb, reducing to rubble the Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Addy, too, was in the school, and her mom, Summer Roberts, after hearing that the school had been destroyed, had run across fields and forded a creek turned swollen torrent to find that Addyson's teacher, Teri Veach, had shuttled the children into a bathroom, and then led them to a nearby church.

Being 7 and proud, Addyson claimed, strawberry in hand, "I wasn't scared a bit."

"Dad was crying and I just kept telling him, 'I'm OK, I'm OK, I'm OK.'"

Strawberry gone.

Matt Leake, a Moore local whose home was damaged but not totaled, and whose truck was still gunk-sprayed with the telltale tornado spit, drove to the local Home Depot, where hundreds had brought water, diapers, and canned goods, and where pit smoke hung heavy over rumbling diesel Chevys and Fords.

A reporter jumped aboard, and soon three strangers – the wine shop crew – materialized in the bed of the truck, which began rumbling onto 19th Street and then Telephone Street, offering vittles and water.

Dennis Camper, a power company lineman, accepted happily as he pulled what could be saved from his wrecked home. An ex-military man, Mr. Camper says he returned home only to find a church group busy cleaning his yard. "I don't know you," he says he yelled to the folks, "but I like you!"

With Tinker Air Force Base, just up the interstate, a popular commuting destination, Moore might be called middle-class, might be called working-class, but nevertheless a class aspiring to cookie-cutter tract homes, many with tornado shelters built into the ground beneath garages.

An Oklahoman, for the most part, yawns in the face of tornado warnings. After all, this is a place where rooftop twister-watching is a spectator sport, commenced as the tornado sirens blow their rude and routine song.

But even in that respect, Moore has a particularly steely view of tornadoes. It is, after all, the place where the highest ground wind ever recorded – more than 300 miles per hour, handily besting Mount Washington's northern New Hampshire gusts – blew homes and businesses apart in 1999. Some who rebuilt in 1999 are rebuilding again in 2013.

This time, many survivors and victims did not see the tornado. It charged through a curtain of rain, sudden and terrifying, mowing a 1.3-mile swatch into neighborhoods, across Interstate 35, and on up into Moore proper. Videos of its immense girth brought the US to a collective gasp.

The seven schoolchildren gone – after hiding unsuccessfully under their desks, as Addy Roberts recounts – serve as the most terrible reminder of the massive tornado's brutality. Yet a death total that at one point grew to 91 dropped to 24 due to accidental double counting by the state coroner's office.

That reduced toll was but one blessing among thousands counted as the cleanup in Moore began Tuesday, hesitantly at first, then with a swelling force.

On that day, strangers rode on the backs of trucks through the bruised streets of Moore, shouting, "Water? Gatorade? Fruit?" And upon each wave goodbye, a "bless you."

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