Moore, OK. May 20th, One Year On.

One year ago today, an EF-5 tornado hit Moore, OK and southwest OKC.


This shot is from the I-35 overpass at SW19th street in Moore, about a mile and a half northwest of my house, and about 3/4 mile northwest of my old house.  The view is almost due west.  I make this turn almost every day on the way home from work.  The tornado was at full EF-5 strength in this shot.  It was in the immediate vicinity of Briarwood Elementary.

Here is an app by one of our local news stations.  Each of the pictures has a slider you can move left and right to change from before to after views.

The National Weather Service at Norman, OK has a webpage up with resources about the tornado, now known as the Newcastle-Moore EF-5.

The day here on Balloon-Juice opened normally enough, with one of Anne-Laurie’s usual morning open threads poking fun at the excesses of the opposition.

We had gotten up and around that morning, after sleeping the first night in the new house.  We’d been hearing for a few days that NWS and local weather forecasters were predicting severe weather, with a high probability of dangerous weather, so we kept the radio tuned to local NPR.  We’d had some hail about golf-ball and baseball-sized on Saturday briefly.  We went about our day, which consisted mainly of finishing moving out of the apartment in the city we had occupied since selling our previous house in February, and the boy went to hang with his friends and go to graduation rehearsal.  We kept the daughter out of school just because she’s very helpful, and a lot of fun to be around.  As the day progressed, we returned the moving van to the U-Haul and continued to load out the small lamps and knick-knacks and pictures and other various items that seem to make up so much of our lives and the daughter and I took a couple of loads to the house in the Toyota Highlander while my wife stayed in the apartment to finish cleaning.  We had a radio on in the house, and we got word of a severe storm brewing east of Newcastle, OK–about 10 miles away–at around 2:00 PM.

And then things started to get worse.  At 2:00 PM, KROU, the NPR station in Norman switched over to live audio from local television tracking the storm.  At 2:47 PM, the sirens went off.  The radio reported that a tornado that was rapidly increasing in strength was due west of us.  The street names sounded familiar.  We didn’t have a storm shelter installed (that was scheduled later) so Soonerdaughter and I decided to go to the laundry room, which was close to the center of the house, and had two large beams intersecting above it.  We stayed there until the radio reported that the tornado had turned northeast and was passing through the northern part of our old neighborhood.  I went outside and stood on my driveway and looked to the northwest.

Here is the NWS timeline of events.

I have been mortared, IED’ed, and even shot in the chest plate of my body armor and I’ve forgotten how many firefights I’ve been in.  I’ve had surgery on my heart.  I’ve been in two car accidents and I had a parachute accident in the Army.  I’ve never been so overwhelmingly terrified and awestruck as I was looking at that tornado.  I read Watership Down when I was a kid, and I remember Adams describing rabbits as having gone “tharn,” paralyzed with fear and dread, unable to think.  I went tharn.  After a bit, I switched into “Sergeant-mode” as my wife calls it.  Took stock of the situation as I knew it, made a couple of decisions, and came up with a plan and a priority of work and off we went.

Here at BJ, the first report of the storm that I can find was posted in a comment by Heliopause.  Initial reports were confused as they always are.  Interest on the site was intense.  The next thread was all about it. You guys actually had more and better information than those of us on the ground for a couple of days.  Power lines were down, a substation had been hit, cell towers were destroyed.  As we drove around to the east of the city to get north to pick up my wife, my daughter had intermittent cell service.  We couldn’t get a message or a call out to anyone.  A trip that normally took about 20 minutes to the apartment took about two hours.  My wife had been cleaning in the apartment and listening to music on her phone and had no idea anything had happened.  She was pissed at me for being gone so long and not calling.  We couldn’t raise my son at all.  You guys were starting to get a little concerned.  Reading that later, I was deeply touched.

The highschool my sister teaches at had been completed in 2012, and was rated to withstand a near miss from an EF-4.  The tornado missed it by a couple of hundred yards.  We didn’t know at that time what had happened to Briarwood Elementary or Plaza Towers Elementary.  Both schools were built to code in the 1970s and 80s.  Moore Public Schools had a bond issue to pay for tornado upgrades after the May 3, 1999 tornado had damaged Westmoore High School, and some schools had been retrofitted with reinforced hallways, auditoriums, and gymnasiums.  Briarwood and Plaza Towers were both scheduled for upgrades to start in the new fiscal year.

The drive to my sister’s house from the apartment normally took about 20 to 30 minutes depending on the traffic.  It took almost 5 hours of stop and go under 10 mph the whole time.  We were able to get a couple of text messages out to family in California, but no other contact.  Pieces of damaged and destroyed houses were all over the place.  The Moore Medical Center was blown out and instead of the modern steel-reinforced concrete three-story building, it resembled a shabby open parking garage.  Trees completely stripped.  A body under a sheet in a yard.  Power lines down.  A fire hydrant gone, a geyser shooting into the air.  Cars crushed. a gas station and all the buildings around it completely gone, as if the foundations had been poured and the buildings never built.  People covered in mud and blood.  We helped a couple of them as best we could.  Every couple of miles, a new roadblock would get put up and we would get diverted.  We finally arrived at my sister’s house about 11:00 PM.  She had heard from my father who was OK at his house east of the metro, and from my son, who told her he was in a shelter “in a Baptist church” before the phone cut out.  My family was safe.  I had nothing to do at that point.

In the OKC metro, there are dozens, if not hundreds of baptist churches.  Realizing that finding my kid would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, I started chuckling.  Then giggling.  Then laughing hysterically, tears streaming down my face.  I began hyperventillating and crying, long buried memories from Iraq and Afghanistan mixed in with the sights and sounds and odors of that day filled my head, and I couldn’t stop crying and shaking.  The carefully constructed wall between my prior life and this one was torn apart by the same storm that had leveled so much of my town.  The last thing I remember of that night was dry-heaving.

At 5:00 AM on the 21st, my brother in law and I got in his truck and drove straight south to Norman.  At a Walmart there, we bought all of the bottled water and AA batteries we could afford between the two of us, and we set out.  Forming a plan of action and executing it is something that the Army makes one pretty good at.  At the first checkpoint, we dropped water and batteries and got directions to a church where refugees might be.  We drove there, and my son was not among them.  Drop more water.  Go to the next place they told us.  Drop water and batteries at a checkpoint.  Go to the next church they told us about.  Drop water.  Arrived at the First Baptist Church in Moore.  FEMA trucks there setting up.  These people at this church are legendary here locally for their work with FEMA and the Red Cross.  We asked after my son, and a young lady with a clipboard said that she’d try to find him for us.  A few minutes later, he came strolling up, no shoes.  We hugged for what seemed like forever as my knees felt weak and I thought I might start crying again.  As he gathered his stuff, my brother in law and I began unloading a bunch of bottled water and batteries for the church to use and distribute.  On our way out, we saw two deputy sherrifs talking with a woman who was screaming and crying.

I checked in with you lot later that day.  I spent the next several days assisting a team from the VA Mobile Vet Center that deployed to the Moore Walmart parking lot (along with USAA, FEMA, Farmers Insurance, some church groups from Wichita, KS, and a “Competitive BBQ Team” from south Texas–AMAZING brisket sandwiches, among others) to setup and keep their communications going.  I spent some time helping friends and neighbors dig out.  Several groups like The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon worked out of the Lowe’s and Home Depot parking lots for months.  And I finally started getting routine counseling, six years after my last combat tour.

Today, construction in Moore and South OKC is going gangbusters.  New houses are going up all over the place.  Today’s building codes are stricter than they were in the 1980s and 1990s when many of the houses that were destroyed were built.  The City of Moore has passed it’s own addenda to both residential and commercial building codes.  New houses, like the one next door to us that completed last week are selling before the paint dries.  The new owners are having a tornado shelter installed in the garage right now as I type this.  Other new construction includes the shelter in place.  Ours was installed last August.  Requirements for tornado/hurricane straps and extra bolting to the foundation, in addition to no south or west facing gables and other changes are expected to increase the hardiness of buildings built here.  The remains of Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary schools have been cleared, and new, state of the art buildings are going up, with the exterior walls buried by berms, and both buildings made of direct-poured steel-reinforced concrete slabs instead of the usual cinder block with steel rebar and concrete.  All of these changes will make schools and homes safer, but there’s not a whole hell of a lot you can do to protect against a direct hit by EF-5 winds.  Everybody I know has the FEMA and Red Cross Tornado apps on our smartphones, as well as apps like Family 360 Locator.  I have given John multiple ways to contact me.

This being Oklahoma however, some needed changes won’t be made.  Governor Fallin and her lapdog Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, are doing everything they can do to thwart a proposed law that would expire a franchise tax cut on oil and gas producers and use the money to pay for shelters at OK schools.  They favor local bonds in each district to pay for this, and deepening the franchise tax cut (of course.)  In the Moore Public Schools, so many bonds have been let to pay for construction and upgrades that the district, one of the richer ones in the state, can’t afford another bond.  OKC Public Schools has a relatively huge population of poor and lower middle class neighborhoods that can’t support such a bond, and other districts like Delaware County in NE OK, northeast of Tulsa, are so poor that local businesses donate money to pay for fuel and repairs to school busses.  The OK Democratic party, which is only slightly less useless than the OK Republican party will not, of course, capitalize on this.

Life goes on.  The dead are mourned and buried, the old parks rebuilt, and new ones added, and new children born to grow.

45 replies
  1. 1
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    You schoolkids…you’re on your own. Providing shelters will cost the bidness community too much in the way of hookers and blow money.

    Have a nice day, kiddoes!

  2. 2
    Fuzzy says:

    Oil and gas people would rather make money than help save 500,000 school kids. If it is left to the school districts we all know that the poorer kids will be sacrificed to appease the greedy energy moguls.

  3. 3
    JPL says:

    Sooner I and I’m sure the rest of the crowd appreciated whatever updates you could provide us during that time.
    You have had one sucky year and I’m glad that you went to counseling. Some things are best shared.

  4. 4
    Neutron Flux says:

    Damn, Sooner.

    Hang tough Sarge, be strong.

  5. 5
    Betty Cracker says:

    Scary, scary times. Glad you guys have a shelter now.

  6. 6
    Trollhattan says:

    The good people of the “family values” Bible Belt ought to think a wee bit on whether they would like to relive the avoidable tragedy of Briarwood Elementary. It does not have to happen again, but they need to saddle up and demand it not. Show some spine and the people in your statehouse will fold and make it happen. It will take more than a gazillion bake sales, I’m afraid.

    Don’t think I don’t ponder over whether the seismic standards for schools are adequte, but by God we have them.

    Thanks for the recap, Sooner. It’s been a hell of a ride for you all (a year already?!?).

  7. 7
    scav says:

    Schools, putting ideas in all those poo’ chillins heads. The Lord GOD dun smite those schools for all that idea-mongering. Shouldn’t be spending good greenbacks encouraging book-larning, climate!-larnimg and protection-seeking in those innocents The Lord GOD has marked out fer example-making. They should just shut up and be smote on the cheap as the Free-Market Hand Intended.

    Glad to hear things generally going well, all the same.

  8. 8
    JPL says:

    @scav: God likes bake sales.

  9. 9
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Totally OT, but surprise, surprise, surprise: Reactionary dirtbag pleads guilty to campaign finance fraud.

    Too bad the sentence can’t be tarring and feathering, or perhaps sentenced to a cage match with Allen West or something. That would be entertainment!

  10. 10
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @scav: We need to feed some “Christians” to some wild animals. How about starving ferrets? That might be fun…

  11. 11
    C.V. Danes says:

    Reminds me of the time I had to ride out hurricane Hugo when it hit Charleston S.C., with an 18-month old and a 2-day old. We are nothing, less than ants, against the awesome power of Mother Nature.

  12. 12
    Haydnseek says:

    I wonder how many of the good folks in the area who have the FEMA app on their phone have also vilified Obama for setting up FEMA relocation camps where they will be forced to get gay married under Sharia law.

  13. 13
    scav says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Why not a few? I’ve personally often wondered about being nibbled to death by ducks, and there’s a certain charm in pondering the symbolism in feral lamb (baby demon sheep)-evangel matchups. No reason to unduly curse one critter type with the dietary burden.

  14. 14
    Ash Can says:

    I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to go through that. May you and everyone else affected by that terrible storm continue to heal and thrive.

  15. 15
    gratuitous says:

    I saw Gov. Fallin on the news machine last night. They were asking her about tornado preparedness, retrofitting buildings and bringing new building up to some standard. She blathered on about “local control” and whether or not the people in a particular area wanted to pay for their own stuff. The reporter, from what I could tell, wasn’t quite believing that the governor would be so callous, and approached the question from a couple of different angles. Fallin just repeated that if people wanted some kind of protection and preparedness, they could just do it themselves; the state of Oklahoma was not going to be coddling its citizens with no fancy-pants storm shelters or reinforced walls.

    I was left with the distinct impression that the governor would happily blame the victims of the next storm for being too cheap (or poor, really) to protect themselves. And yes, this seems like a really good issue Democrats could use to distinguish themselves from that other political party.

  16. 16
    Betty Cracker says:

    @C.V. Danes: Holy shit, that must’ve been terrifying.

  17. 17
    Flying Squirrel Girl says:

    My cousin is a teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary. She was evacuated with her class (2nd grade) before the tornado hit. They were taken to a nearby church but we didn’t know that for several hours. It took her daughters about 4 hours to connect with her and find out she was OK. Incidentally, she was named Teacher of the Year a few weeks ago! :)

  18. 18
    D58826 says:

    @Trollhattan: You have to understand that for these folks life begins at conception and ends when the little stick turns blue. after that your on your own.

  19. 19
    🌷 Martin says:

    All of these changes will make schools and homes safer, but there’s not a whole hell of a lot you can do to protect against a direct hit by EF-5 winds.

    Go below grade. You might get trapped under debris, and you have to deal with the problem of water infiltration/flooding, which is doable, but a bit expensive, but that’s the solution.

    These aren’t hard problems to solve. They require resolving a single question: what is the life of an Oklahoma resident worth regardless of whether they’re a stranger or your kid? There’s no grading on a scale here – everyone gets the same number. If you’re worth less than the cost to solve the problem, then you know where you stand with the people answering the question.

  20. 20
    Haydnseek says:

    @gratuitous: Yep, because things like building codes enforced by trained, competent inspectors is a horrible example of gubmint overreach. The only things worse than this are gay marriage and Negroes presidentin’.

  21. 21
    geg6 says:

    Sorry to go OT on this, but


  22. 22
    scav says:

    @geg6: I’ll OT Whoop! in Solidarity.

  23. 23
    Belafon says:

    @geg6: From DailyKos, the judge, who was backed by Santorum and appointed by Bush, said the following:

    “In future generations, the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage,” Judge John Jones concluded in the Pennsylvania case. “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

  24. 24
    Roger Moore says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    We need to feed some “Christians” to some wild animals. How about starving ferrets?


  25. 25
    mai naem mobile says:

    OT Penn gay marriage nan struck down. How long before we hit majority of states?

  26. 26
    ericblair says:

    So, when disaster struck, roving gangs of Those People didn’t immediately swarm over right-thinking people’s homes like locusts, destroying everything and everyone except for extremely well-armed paranoiacs with ten years’ worth of dehydrated beans in a concrete bunker? People helped each other, and made sure strangers had a place to sleep and food to eat and the Gubmint didn’t force the survivors into work camps? Unpossible.

    On the unsnarky side, having “it’s God’s will” as official state policy is really shitty disaster preparedness, and that’s what a lot of red state thinking resolves to.

  27. 27
    Calouste says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    That’s animal cruelty, feeding starving ferrets to “Christians”.

  28. 28
    mai naem mobile says:

    Did anybody else see the story in wash monthly this w/e from the cam about farmers suing Illinois town’s in class action suit because they hadn’t prepared for global warming appropriately? I wonder if tornadoes come under that since they become worse with climate change.

  29. 29
    Citizen_X says:

    Powerful stuff, Sooner.

    And yeah, get on the lege’s and Governor’s cases over shelters. Make ’em explain themselves.

  30. 30
    eldorado says:

    i took my dad fishing yesterday, just west of yukon (a bit east of oklahoma city) on a little private lake off u.s. 66. he’s been in the auto body and wrecker business all his life, and i’ve heard just about every fishing story he knows at least five or six times. probably more. anyway, we were passing over a small creek that still shows major evidence of the storm, and he told me a story from quite a bit back, when he was still running the wrecker, not my brother (and now nephew). i’d never heard it before.

    seems there was a pretty big winter storm, and he got a call from a guy asking to pick up a car that was stranded, but my dad thought the roads were too bad. they guy told him he had left his uncle in the car, and gone looking for help. my dad agreed to try, and picked up the guy on the way out of town. on 81 north, the grade started to get too much, and the wrecker got stuck.

    they had to make their way to a farmhouse that wasn’t too far away, and that family put them up for the night. my dad ended up talking to this guy for quite awhile. they were both vets with some things in common. he told my dad that ever since he had come back from vietnam, he was horribly claustrophobic, and that was a big reason he went looking for help, rather than wait it out. later that event the uncle showed up at the same farmhouse, picked up by someone else, who also then got stuck nearby.

    anyway, this fellow ended up living in the area for quite awhile, built a nice house, and had a family. may 20th, he put his family in the storm shelter there, but wouldn’t go in himself, because of the claustrophobia. he and another family member were killed somewhere close to interstate 40 that afternoon.

    my brother and his family were in a storm shelter that same day. my mom and my dad ran instead. but they got far enough south.

  31. 31
    C.V. Danes says:

    @Betty Cracker: Actually, far more terrifying was standing in line at Sam’s club the next day trying to get some water and a generator before a riot broke out :-)

  32. 32
    Anne Laurie says:

    Just want to add to the chorus: I’m really, really glad you’re still here to share these powerful stories, Soonergrunt!

  33. 33
    c u n d gulag says:

    I remember reading you that day, and worrying about you and your family.

    Thank goodness it all ended well for you!

  34. 34
    Belafon says:

    @mai naem mobile: In this case, Farmers may end up doing more harm than good:

    Ironically, the region’s avowal of the threat posed by climate change — and its alleged subsequent failure to do more to address it — may have made them a target, Rosenberg reports. Farmers cites Chicago’s climate action plan in its suit to argue it was aware of risks like flooding.

    Chicago had actually begun preparing for it. Who else is going to actually do something if they are going to get sued?

  35. 35
    ruviana says:

    @Belafon: Judge Jones is an honest judge and good guy. He found against intelligent design and for the teaching of evolution in public schools in the Dover case.

  36. 36
    catclub says:

    @mai naem mobile: I did not read farmers. I read it was insurance companies. Who have the money to pay the lawyers to sue, and have the money to protect to avoid paying claims.
    ETA: Farmer’s!, as in Farmer’s Insurance company. Never mind.

    Insurance companies will the the first step in wingnuts realizing that climate change is no joke.

    Anyone else recognize: “A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain.” ?

  37. 37
    jenn says:

    Yeah, I remember that day, but appreciate the reminder. Glad you and yours made it through alright!

  38. 38
    J R in WV says:


    Wow, what a story! You guys did good with the truck load of water and batteries delivered while searching for your son. So glad for the mostly happy endings for your family, and for the below grade shelter in your garage!

    I’ve had a few events involving personal damage – t-boned by a sports car while on a bike, rolled in the F-350 on I-25 just last March… but your story takes the cake!!

    Hang in there brother – and take care! Hope your daughter’s doing well too.

  39. 39
    sharl says:

    Ah, you bring back memories of that tragedy. A well written account here, one which I’m glad you and yours survived. Keep on keepin’ on!

  40. 40
    PurpleGirl says:

    Sooner — thanks for this well-written and evocative reflection on the tornado and its aftermath. It is also very informative.

    Here at BJ we were very worried about you and your family, and concerned for the community. This place gets hairy and weird sometimes but at the core its people have deep hearts.

    Here’s hoping for a quiet bad weather season this year… No EF-5s, no EFs at all.

  41. 41
    PurpleGirl says:

    @gratuitous: Next tornado she really needs to meet up with a storm launched 2 x 4…

    (Cruel and mean, yes; but no less than she deserves. And it would be G_d ordained and very Old Testament.)

  42. 42
    chopper says:

    as i think i’ve mentioned here before, my town got hit by an F5 once (tho it did most of its damage to the next town over, which it practically wiped out). there are no words to describe the scene that follows. it’s insane.

    glad you made it through, sooner. you were lucky. lucky again a week and a half later when the el reno tornado decided to up and dissipate just outside of OKC, that fucker was almost 3 miles wide.

  43. 43
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Soonergrunt, I’m so late to this thread that you possibly won’t even see this comment, but I join my fellow Juicetariats in being grateful that you and yours not only survived but thrived. I remember very well indeed the worry we felt for you, the relief when we heard from you, the nail-chewing during the time you were looking for your son, and the happy happy joy joy when you finally tracked him down. I also remember being just totally knocked out at your personal generosity, in the midst of all your loss and worry and stress, that you would stock up on and distribute batteries and bottled water. The word “mensch” was invented for you.

  44. 44
    The Fat Kate Middleton says:

    So very happy you and yours made it through, SG … thank you for sharing this. Back in 2008, as I lined up high school seniors to receive their diplomas, one of the teachers cried out, “Aplington-Parkersburg High School has been destroyed by a tornado!” Parkersburg IA is my home town, and close to half of the town was literally wiped off from where it was sitting. As Chopper says above, there are no words to describe what you see afterward. The town is rebuilt now, but I can very easily get lost in that tiny burg now. The winding new streets and homes have rendered it literally terra incognito for me.

  45. 45
    BubbaDave says:

    Was that one Rabbi Small? I seem to remember it being a short story, and most of those are full novels, but it sounds like Rabbi Small in my head.

    Also, I loved the fact that the whole point he was trying to make was that a conclusion could be perfectly logical and still wrong. Not so much….

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