Special Report: Disaster in Moore

Special Report: Disaster in Moore

June 14
13:32 2013

While the remainder of this issue is dedicated to the arts in Denton, we felt it was necessary to recognize and honor the story of those affected by the fatal May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla., 156 miles north of Denton. The storm was one of the deadliest in history. Editor-in-chief James Coreas traveled to Moore the morning after to take pictures and gather interviews. Managing editor Nadia Hill compiled the information and quotes into the article below. We hope to accurately tell a poignant account of what happened that afternoon, and represent the extent of the destruction. 

Nadia Hill/Managing Editor and James Coreas/Editor-in-Chief

Keith Dennis heard the sirens wailing from two miles out, patiently listening and waiting for his sister’s voice on the other line to reassure him she was alive. She was wrapped in blankets, padded by all of her pillows and huddled under a foam mattress topper in a closet. The wind screamed and windows shattered. He knew she was rain soaked, alone and in shock.

An hour later, Dennis and his 22-year-old sister Sarah Torrey picked apart her life, one scrap at a time, and looked over as her neighbors did the same to their homes. The buckled brown wooden beams were piled across the bleak landscape for miles after one of the deadliest tornadoes in Oklahoma history destroyed homes and took lives.

At 2:56 p.m. May 20, 16 minutes after a tornado warning was issued for the area, an EF-5 twister ripped a 12-mile path across southern Oklahoma for 40 minutes, with winds peaking at 210 mph. The storm killed 24 people, seven of them children after two elementary schools collapsed – Plaza Towers in Moore, Oklah., and Briarwood in Oklahoma City. More than 120 were injured and sent to local hospitals for treatment.

“I thought I was dead. I just kept telling him I loved him and hoped for the best,” Torrey said. “I just feel incredibly lucky to be alive. There are lots of people without loved ones. I’m glad to be here and all of my family’s safe.”

Torrey lives in Moore, a suburb 11 miles south of Oklahoma City, which was hit the hardest by the deadly tornado. Some neighborhoods crumbled while others remained untouched, and 20 of the dead were from the city of 56,000. The May 20 tornado was eerily reminiscent of Moore’s infamous May 1999 storm, another EF-5 cyclone with 302 mph winds. The storm killed 42 people and traveled the same path as this year’s tornado.

This time, Dennis sat a mile south of the town, inching closer in heavy traffic to his family, watching cars, homes, rain and hail get thrown in all directions. After the warning was issued, he immediately called Torrey to make sure she stayed safe. She didn’t pick up. He called six or seven times, and when she finally answered, Dennis said it was too late to make it to a shelter. They mentally went through everything in her house that could protect her, and she wound up in the house’s center hallway with pillows, blankets, a foam mattress topper and her small dog.

“We had cell reception the whole time so I was able to talk her through it,” Dennis said. “Then she was able to verbally tell me on two or three occasions, ‘I can hear it, I’m starting to hear it.’ She said it’s getting closer, it’s getting louder, that she could hear it. And by then of course I could hear it on the phone.”

As the mile-wide tornado descended on the house, Torrey put her phone on speaker and sat it next to her. She clutched her dog as the storm tore through her home. Dennis heard all the noises in the background and continued to talk to her, even though she wasn’t responding. When she came back on the line, Torrey was just taking deep breaths. Then it was all over.

“I just laid there with my dog in my arms and he told me to stay calm and talked me through it,” Torrey said. “Then I crawled out the window to try and find anyone that was trapped.”

Dennis watched the tornado cross I-35 and gave his sister the all clear to go outside.

A recent nursing school grad, Torrey felt compelled to find and help anyone she could, after determining she was fine. While she was checking on her neighbors, Dennis was trying to drive into her neighborhood to find his sister and assess the damage. It took more than an hour for them to reunite, but he eventually found her at 10th and Telephone Streets, a major intersection in town.

He jumped out of his truck, hugged her and they immediately went back to her house, which was in shambles. Part of the roof had fallen in, mud was splattered throughout the entire house and Torrey’s car was encased with debris.

“You feel like you’re shopping for your own stuff again,” Dennis said. “Our first intention was to get extremely valuable stuff. Now we’re trying to figure out what’s left.”

While Torrey was able to salvage a few things like electronics, clothes and her grandmother’s jewelry box, others were not so lucky. Search and rescue wrapped up May 21, more than 24 hours after the tornado struck, with the death toll stabilizing at 24. Initial reports had it at 91 with 70 children injured.

The Oklahoma Insurance Department initially estimated the damage at about $2 million, and President Obama recently traveled to console victims and assess the devastation.

How you can help:

Starbucks at 288 and 35 is accepting non-perishable donations

Denton Kiwanis Club is sending care packages

ServeDenton has organized relief efforts

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