NORMAN, Okla. – It has been nearly a month since a mighty EF5 tornado tore through central Oklahoma, killing 24 and injuring nearly 380 more residents. To say this community is still picking up the pieces is an understatement.
Many are still looking for cherished possessions, saying goodbye to homes and loved ones, leaning on each other for support, assisting those who need a helping hand or a handy chainsaw and gaining perspective after surviving a life-altering natural disaster.
“It’s just nature and there’s not a lot you can do,” said Jade Staggs, 21, a resident of Moore, Okla., the town that was hardest hit by several tornados that plowed through this area in late May. “All you can really do is be prepared when they tell you the storms are coming and to rebuild when they are over.”
Staggs should know. A contestant in this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, she, along with her family, was displaced when the roof of their home collapsed after one passing storm.
Her family’s home was spared from damage in the big EF5 tornado that hit Moore on May 20, bringing estimated winds of 210 mph that moved over a swath of more than one mile. The community was already rattled by that event when another severe weather warning was issued on May 31. Heeding the warning, Staggs and her family drove more than an hour south to wait out the bad weather.
“It’s pretty normal to get in a car and run away if you don’t have a storm shelter,” she said.
When the family returned home the next morning around 12:30 a.m., they had no electricity and insulation was lying on the floor of their living room. Using flashlights to assess the damage, they soon realized their roof had collapsed and was lying under the rain-soaked insulation on the floor.
Staggs is now bunking with friends in Norman while her parents are living in a local hotel for the next few months while their heavily-damaged home is being rebuilt. She said the recent storms left her with new perspective.
“We’re very lucky that we weren’t just digging through rubble looking for whatever is left,” said Staggs, a student at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s heartbreaking to see the damage around us and this week, I wanted to come out and play for my hometown and give them something to be proud of.”
This week’s host WAPL site, the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club, lost only three large trees in the May battering of tornadoes. The club had one large corporate outing that canceled and has donated supplies of drinking water to residents of Moore.
“The National Weather Service is here in Norman and they give us pretty good warning when strong storms are heading this way,” said Johnny Johnson, head golf professional at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club. “I’ve lived here all of my life and have never seen anything like what we had here last month.”
Lance Maxwell, a club professional at the course, also grew up in Oklahoma and took action when TV weather reports told residents to seek cover on May 20. Maxwell grabbed his dog, a computer hard drive and his important personal documents and returned to the clubhouse from his home in Moore. His plan was to go to the club’s cart barn for cover, if necessary.
The large EF5 tornado touched down 15 miles west of his house. By that time, Maxwell had returned to the club and was watching aerial news reports from television helicopters.
“I saw an aerial view of damage from an intersection in my neighborhood,” he said. “I live on 1st Street and houses on 4th Street were hit. I was just emotionally overwhelmed by the whole thing.”
But unlike nearly 1,000 homes in his community that were completely destroyed, Maxwell’s home was spared from extensive damage. He lost his fence, had hail damage to the roof of his home and had mud, dirt and debris blown into his yard from the surrounding area. He even found a residential telephone bill in his driveway from someone who lives on the western side of Moore.
“We were so fortunate, but with this event, it’s been about the fortunate helping the less fortunate,” said Maxwell. “I saw people pulling debris off houses looking for missing people and trying to help.”
Maxwell minored in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and became certified as a “storm spotter” through the National Weather Service office in 1998. He has been chasing storms since he was in high school, calling in live reports to the NWS office.
But the May 20 storm that ripped through Moore was bigger than anything Maxwell had ever witnessed, and the destruction of the place he calls home hit him with its own unforgettable force. As he drove back home after the storm had ravaged his neighborhood, he passed trucks tossed on top of 10-foot piles of debris.
He saw homes and a hospital completely peeled apart by the passing storm. All that was left of some homes was just a concrete slab on the ground.
“It’s a totally different deal when it’s your house and your neighborhood,” he said. “When it was over and I realized my house was OK, I was happy, but then I saw the homes of my neighbors who didn’t fare so well.”
The next morning, Maxwell and other community residents lined up to help. They carried shovels and saws. They took their heavy hearts and turned it into action.
On the Saturday before Memorial Day, another group of volunteers showed up at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Moore and spent the day cleaning up the park so the holiday could be observed. The playground there had been destroyed and all the debris from the nearby homes had blown into the park.
“School buses of volunteers showed up to help,” said Maxwell. “After we cleaned up the park, everybody went to work in the neighborhood.”
The community of Moore also received an abundance of help from outside Oklahoma. A truck from Sandy Hook, Conn., rolled in with supplies for residents, and there were also donations from residents in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. – cities that have suffered from past deadly tornadoes.
Corporate help also streamed in from across the United States. Verizon sent an 18-wheel portable command center for the local sheriff’s department to use while the area’s telecommunications operations were reinstated.
“What amazes me is the resilience of people,” Maxwell added. “Your belongings can be replaced and Oklahomans will always rebuild.”
And life will go on, as it always has, in the nation’s “tornado alley.” Hammers are already in action while the city of Moore picks up the pieces to restore a proud community.
“What I’ve seen from all of this is a lot of giving and caring not just by Oklahomans,” said Maxwell. “It’s come from Americans everywhere.”
Lisa Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.