In 1999, the Oklahoma town was hit with a tornado that clocked the highest winds ever on Earth—and it followed an eerily similar path to Monday’s twister. By Eliza Shapiro.
On Sunday in wake of devastating tornado.
The president will visit to Moore, Oklahoma, on Sunday to survey the damage of the tornado that leveled the town earlier this week, the White House has announced. Obama will meet with families displaced by the storm that has killed 24, injured hundreds more, and razed countless homes, even an entire school. The president will also meet with first responders and other emergency workers who kicked into high gear during and after the storm. Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama has also ordered federal agencies to “provide all available resources” to the state for recovery efforts.
Stands on a pile of debris that was once a school.
President Obama surveyed the damage in Moore, Okla., the town devastated by a tornado that killed 24 and displaced thousands from their homes last week, calling the damage “hard to comprehend.” “Everywhere, fellow Americans are praying with you, they’re thinking about you and they want to help,” the president said. “And I’m just a messenger telling you that you are not alone.” Obama delivered his remarks while standing atop a pile of debris that was once an elementary school, while household items that survived the destruction were strewn in the distance. Obama insisted the area would get federal help in rebuilding, but he also urged local lawmakers to continue funding for emergency response training and equipment.
An expert in emergencies describes what aid groups do after disaster strikes. Tornado or earthquake, the script is the same, says AmeriCare’s Kate Dischino.
Last Monday afternoon, while preparing a shipment of tetanus vaccine for a town recently struck by a tornado, I received the first hair-raising alert about a massive tornado that had just leveled a suburb of Oklahoma City.
AmeriCares emergency response worker Kate Dischino, center, works with survivors in Oklahoma. (Dru Nadler/AmeriCares )
Having responded to many emergencies for AmeriCares, a global health and emergency response group providing humanitarian aid to 164 countries since 1982, I knew right away what this would mean for potentially thousands of families and individuals in the tornado’s path. There was no question that our disaster team would respond—and we knew it was vital to respond quickly. Experience says that when an EF5 tornado hits a metropolitan area, local clinics and shelters need emergency medical and relief supplies. Fast.
There is a terrible, familiar pattern to natural disasters and other emergencies, and the script is eerily similar for a massive tornado, an earthquake or a massive fire. Information is key in the early hours. That’s why we immediately started calling our partners in Oklahoma to learn which clinics and health centers had been damaged and which were still operating and able to help survivors. We began to plan our first deliveries of medicine, water and first aid supplies. We made calls through the night until it was time to leave for our 6:00 a.m. flight from LaGuardia to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn’t even try to book a flight into Oklahoma City—residents who are displaced need resources like rental cars, so we don’t want to use those.
Nine-year-old Antonia Candelaria was one of the seven children who died in Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary Schools. Why didn’t the school have a shelter? Michael Daly reports.
A thunderstorm was sweeping through the Oklahoma City area, and the mourners had to travel through driving rain, hailstones, and flooded roads. They were going to the first funeral for the victims of the latest killer tornado.
Mourners leave a funeral service for Antonia Candelaria, 9, a student at Towers Plaza Elementary school who was killed by Monday's tornado. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Country music with a Christian theme was playing inside the South Colonial Chapel, where an easel held an enlarged photo of a smiling little girl in a pink-fringed bonnet. Nine year-old Antonia Lee Candelaria was known as “Tonie” or “Ladybug,” loved to paint and draw, and had just auditioned as a singer for an upcoming talent show.
“Tonie always danced, not walked,” her family had written.
Tornado ripped through 13,000 structures.
The deadly tornado that barreled through suburbs of Oklahoma City Monday—killing 24—left an estimated $2 billion in damage, said Mayor Mick Cornett. With up to 200 mile per hour winds and an EF5 (the highest possible) rating, the twister ripped through 13,000 structures—including homes, schools, and hospitals. The Oklahoma Insurance Department worries that the damage may even exceed $2 billion. Visiting the destruction Wednesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano assured Oklahomans that she would “stay until the recovery is complete.” President Obama is scheduled to visit on Sunday.
When the tornado bore down on Plaza Towers Elementary School, Anna Canaday shielded her students with her body. When the storm was over, they were under a car. She talks to Michael Daly.
Early Wednesday evening, Anna Canaday returned to the twisted wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where she and a fellow teacher had used their bodies to shield as many kids as they could.
Plaza Towers Elementary was totally decimated by the tornado. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
“The car they pulled off you is back of the pile,” her husband, Fred Dooley, said.
He meant a black Ford that the tornado had blown into the school hallway and landed atop Canaday and her colleague Jessica Simonds as they shielded the youngsters at their own dire peril. A part of the school had then fallen on top of the car.
Rock band the Flaming Lips is synonymous with Oklahoma City. Lead singer Wayne Coyne, who’s lived in OKC since 1961, on the devastating tornado that hit his city, claiming at least 24 lives—including nine children.
There’s always a little bit of a connection between Oklahoma City and me. When the basketball team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, wins, I get, like, 50 texts.
Wayne Coyne grew up in Oklahoma City. (Anna Webber/Getty Images; Kim Johnson Flodin/AP)
I’m currently in Brighton, England, but on Monday, I was at a hotel right in the middle of London on Camden Street. We were playing a show here and I had the flu, so I had been sleeping all day Monday. My phone was lying there on the bed and I started getting hundreds of texts. After I woke up from whatever cold medicine I was on, it was around 10 p.m. in London, so 4 p.m. in Oklahoma City. I turned on the news and watched. As the night went on, you don’t know if you’re going to hear from someone who says, “Oh my god” this-and-that, and you do your best to check in on people as quickly as you can. That’s the marvel of cellphones, I guess.
In fact, the top news story over here in London was the Oklahoma City tornado. Reports said up to 75 people were dead because of a storm—and I say storm because all the other top news stories from around the world involved a lot of people dead, but from bombs and people hating each other. The only slight comfort is that these were just good people trying to go to school and go to work, and the universe comes down on them. All the other news stories were this horrible but petty man-versus-man thing. Even though the city suffered a tragedy, I’m still standing tall and thinking, “Yeah. That’s our people.”
Dogs, cats, horses—even a donkey. They’ve all been lost and found in the days after a tornado hit Moore. Christine Pelisek on the animal rescues—and one woman’s quest for her parrot.
When the twister tore through Moore, Mona Thomas lost everything. "My house is leveled," the 52-year-old grandmother said on Wednesday. “I don’t have a home anymore.”
Maeghan Hadley, of One Day Ranch pet rescue, checks over a kitten pulled from under the rubble of a mobile home destroyed by a tornado that struck the Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park, near Shawnee, Okla. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
Even so, all she cared about was her parrot.
“He’s been an important part of my life,” she said of Leroy, a 9-year-old African gray. “I’m single, so it’s just me and him. I talk about him all the time. He’s like my kid.”
Moore, Oklahoma, got 16 minutes’ notice. Can’t we do any better? Josh Dzieza on the experts using social sciences to get the word out earlier—and more urgently.
The National Weather Service spotted a vortex forming near Moore, Oklahoma, 16 minutes before the mile-wide tornado touched down, and 36 minutes before it started tearing through homes, schools, and businesses.
That warning gave residents enough time to run for cover, huddling in hallways or storm shelters, if they had them, and is probably part of the reason why the death toll was as low as it was, despite the devastation. Still, meteorologists would like to be able to give warnings even further in advance, and to do so they’re looking less to computer models and physical science, the traditional way to increase lead time on storm warnings, and more to the social sciences.
“We’re coming to the point where technology and science has progressed so much we can talk about the social side,” says Lans Rothfusz, deputy chief of warning research and development at the Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. “Because let’s face it, we’re talking about the intersection of nature and society, and at that intersection it’s not just physical science but the science of how to get people to listen, respond, and act.”
Rothfusz works on a program called Warn-on-Forecast, which is trying to develop new models and warnings to alert people who might be in the path of a tornado before one has actually formed. The weather service currently has two types of tornado alerts: a “watch,” issued hours or days ahead of time, when models predict that severe thunderstorms could be on the way; and a “warning,” when a vortex has been spotted. That’s when the sirens go off. Advances in radar have allowed forecasters to spot tornadoes about 15 minutes before they touch down, but tornadoes form so quickly and chaotically that they’ve defied attempts to accurately predict them before they form, and computer models powerful enough to do so are probably a decade and several technological breakthroughs away, according to Rothfusz.
A third-grader from Plaza Towers Elementary.
The first victim from the Oklahoma tornado—out of 24—was identified Tuesday night as 9-year-old Ja'Nae Hornsby, a third-grader at Plaza Towers Elementary School. "She was always happy, always smiling ... just happy,” said Hornsby’s aunt. The young victim’s family gathered Tuesday night at their church to pay tribute to their “beautiful child.” Plaza Towers Elementary was decimated by the EF5 tornado, which killed multiple students. The second victim in the tragedy was identified later Tuesday as 65-year-old Hemant Bhonde. He is survived by his wife, from whom he was separated when the tornado hit.
As death count stands at 24.
The frantic search for survivors in Moore, Oklahoma, may be coming to a futile end. No new survivors or bodies have been discovered since Monday—the day the deadly EF5 tornado ripped through the town. So far the death count stands at 24, a number revised from an earlier erroneous report of 91. Moore’s mayor, Glenn Lewis, does not expect the death toll to increase. “I think that will stand,” he told reporters. An estimated 2,400 homes were damaged when the mammoth tornado barreled through Oklahoma on Monday, directly impacting 10,000 residents.
And five other rules for using social media in the wake of horrific disasters.
Over the last few years, I have become all too familiar with national tragedies. In 2005 and 2006, I went with then-Senator Obama on his trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, helping coordinate support for nonprofits on the ground and organizing an interfaith vigil for families who had lost everything. I was with President Obama before he addressed the families of the men who perished at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, and as the White House faith-based office director, I deployed to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama, following the horrible tornadoes there in 2011. I went to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with first lady Michelle Obama after the shooting at a Sikh temple and traveled with the president to Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook massacre, as he comforted families who had lost their children just two days before. From mass shootings to earthquakes, hurricanes to floods, I have seen my fair share of disasters and witnessed firsthand the brokenness, pain, and resiliency that emerge in their wake.
Storm clouds build in the distance May 21 beyond tornado-ravaged homes in Moore, Oklahoma. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Watching the horrendous tragedy in Oklahoma unfold, I’m reminded that these devastating moments really do bring out the best in the American spirit—but they’re also breeding grounds for the worst. Social media have created a platform for every single American to become a “virtual first responder,” in word, donation, or deed. But the democratization of disaster response brings with it a new responsibility to do our best to make things better, not worse, when tragedy strikes. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way about responding to disaster in a social-media world.
1. Give our leaders a break (at least for a couple of days).
She’s been thrust onto the national stage by the storm that devastated her state, and Gov. Mary Fallin looks like the star Sarah Palin was supposed to be. Fallin talks to Lloyd Grove about the heartbreaking scene in Moore.
After a wrenching night full of hope and sorrow, Gov. Mary Fallin was functioning on three hours’ sleep Tuesday when she visited First Baptist Church in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. The church—one of those fortunate buildings that wasn’t blown to smithereens by Monday’s monster tornado—had been turned into a makeshift Red Cross facility offering food and shelter to victims and helping relatives separated in the lethal storm to reunite.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin walks through Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park near Shawnee, Oklahoma, which was hard hit in Sunday's tornado, with Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, on May 20. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
“When I was in the church,” the governor recounted in an interview with The Daily Beast, “I heard several ladies wailing really loud, because they’d just been told that they’d lost a loved one. It was a very emotional, hard experience to listen to utter grief—the dimensions of the tragedy and the voices of those ladies. One of them had just found out she had lost her husband. I don’t know about the other ones. But I never heard people scream and cry that loud.”
It was a challenge, but the 58-year-old Fallin—a supremely successful politician, but also a wife and mother—managed to keep her composure. The day before, the goal of simply not losing it was equally difficult as she picked her away across a debris field at midnight and watched dozens of first responders dig for trapped children in a pulverized pile that had once been Plaza Towers Elementary School.
They rode out the 200-mile-an-hour winds in a neighbor’s storm cellar. Then they heard about the 7-Eleven. In Moore, Christine Pelisek talks to two Samaritans who rushed to help.
Chris Summers, 27, was planning to pick up his young son at school at 3 p.m. Monday when the devastating mile-wide tornado touched down in Moore, Oklahoma. He and his live-in girlfriend, Sarah Southward, were forced back by hail and rain and decided to ride out the twister with nine others in a neighbor’s storm cellar.
Sarah Southward and Chris Summers in Moore, Oklahoma. (Christine Pelisek)
Summers watched the tornado, packing 200-mile-an-hour winds, jump a row of houses and continue on its lethal path. It eventually would claim at least 24 lives, including those of 9 schoolchildren, and injure more than 200 people in the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. The death toll was expected to rise overnight.
“I was taking video on my phone through a window in the cellar,” he said. “After it lifted and passed us, that’s when we went out. It went over these houses and went back down and destroyed everything in its path.”
Head injuries are responsible for the majority of tornado deaths. So why don’t more people have helmets handy? Caitlin Dickson reports on the campaign to make them a key component of every storm-readiness kit.
After one of the most severe tornadoes ever to hit the United States ravaged Moore, Oklahoma, on Monday, about 15 student football players were found alive, wearing football helmets in the interior locker room of a field house at Southmoore High School. Their regular practice having been canceled in anticipation of a severe storm, the students were watching a video of a previous practice as the tornado approached. Their coach’s instruction to cover their heads with helmets was a spur-of-the-moment suggestion to take advantage of the football equipment handy, but researchers, brain-injury experts, and meteorologists agree that helmets should be a key component in every family’s storm-safety kit.
Noah Stewart survived a 2011 tornado that leveled his family's Alabama home, thanks to a helmet, according to experts and news reports. (Joe Songer/AL.COM, via Landov)
Following April 2011’s historic spate of tornadoes that killed 338 people in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and, in particular, Alabama, a team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Injury Control Research Center set out to find a way to prevent such a death toll from future storms. They came up with what they call a “practical, inexpensive solution”: helmets. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 percent of the deaths during that four-day outbreak were caused by head injuries. What’s more, a review of research over the past 50 years found that head injuries are responsible for the majority of deaths from tornadoes. Therefore, the UAB researchers determined, the most basic piece of equipment used to prevent head injuries, from the baseball field to the back of a motorcycle, also should be used during a tornado. They began petitioning the CDC to update its tornado-preparation page to include helmets as a key component to every home tornado-preparedness plan.
Over the past couple of years, a number of stories have backed up the Alabama researchers’ argument. Eight-year-old Noah Stewart was swept up in one of the April 2011 tornadoes and came crashing down to the ground. His bicycle helmet saved his life. The Davis family of Pike County, Georgia, doesn’t have a basement, but they weathered a March 2013 tornado wearing motorcycle helmets. And 9-year-old Joplin survivor Augie Gonzalez credits his bicycle helmet with saving him from a toilet that flew out of the ground and hit him on the head during the tornado that devastated that Missouri city in 2011.
Barbara Garcia, an elderly woman who survived the terrible Oklahoma tornado, finds her dog buried alive while giving an interview to CBS News.
Months after his state was ravaged by extreme weather, the New Jersey governor is now publicly denying climate change. Expect more of that kind of idiocy as he gears up for 2016.
KFOR meteorologist Emily Sutton says she’s never seen anything like what she saw on Monday while storm chasing the tornado that hit Moore, OK.