Storm Recovery in Oklahoma

By Nora Carr

Home alone on the afternoon of May 20, Moore, Okla., school board member Karen Shuey heard the sirens blaring, checked the latest weather reports, and moved into a central room to wait out the storm.   Huddled with a cell phone and an all-weather radio, she tracked the tornado’s progress as it hit the ground outside of Moore. She sent texts to her family. Her husband was at work on the north side of town; her teenage daughter was at her high school on the west side.

“Shelter in place” was the common refrain they shared with each other, along with any news about the storm’s path. A code familiar to all of those who live in the Midwest’s tornado alley, the emergency management term basically means that it is safer to stay put than to travel.

For native Oklahomans, dealing with severe weather is simply part of living in a place they call home. Shuey was concerned but calm until she heard something on the live radio stream: The monstrous storm had shifted and was barreling toward at least three schools.

“I became physically sick,” says Shuey. “I know where every school in our district is, and I knew that the tornado was headed where our kids, our teachers, our principals, our employees, and our friends were.”

A phone call from the district’s central office confirmed her worst fears. Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools had been hit -- and hit hard. Lives were lost, but the count was unknown.

“I cried more tears than I thought my body could hold,” says Shuey. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would have parents who had sent their children to school that morning not knowing they would never be coming home.”

Seven children at Plaza Towers died in that storm, along with a teacher and her baby, whom she had just picked up from a daycare center. The tornado decimated Briarwood, but miraculously, no one else was killed.

In those first hours after the storm, the extent of the damage was unknown. The devastation was widespread, straining the region’s robust emergency management system. Educators, support staff, parents, and neighbors joined in the race against time to rescue survivors.

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