Gawkers, looters and a media circus: What happens when a tornado hits your town

Holly Bailey

MOORE, Okla.—Southwest 4th Street used to be known as one of the busiest cruising strips in this growing suburb of Oklahoma City, a street where teenagers for decades killed time just driving around in loops with their friends.

It was a tradition that began long before the population boom that fueled the rapid construction of housing developments west of Santa Fe Avenue, the official dividing line between Moore and Oklahoma City. Back then, the tall blinking antenna towers for what used to be KOMA Radio was the most iconic feature of the city skyline, rising high above 4th Street over what used to be mostly empty farm land to the west.

In recent years, the young have driven their cars elsewhere, attracted to the newer movie theaters and restaurants popping up along Moore’s southern border. But in the aftermath of Monday’s tornado here, which killed at least 24 people, 4th Street has been busy again, packed with cars and people on foot trying to get a glimpse of the damage caused by what weather officials say was the most devastating storm to hit this city in years.

It was a testament to what usually happens to a city in the aftermath of a major natural disaster: It turns into a circus.

On Tuesday, law enforcement officials from all over the state fanned out along 4th Street, guarding entrances to neighborhoods flattened by the tornado and where workers continued to pick through debris looking for more victims. FBI agents were even spotted blocking a path into the city’s oldest cemetery in an attempt to keep people away. But it wasn’t really working.

Dozens of people—teenagers, moms and dads with their kids and even the elderly—strolled in packs down 4th street trying to get close to the damage, walking so casually it seemed as though they were just on an afternoon trip to the mall. They carried their iPhones, meticulously chronicling slivers of lumber and other debris, and talked about footage they’d seen on television of the storm and other tornadoes they’d lived through.

A woman named Ashley, who declined to give her last name, told Yahoo News she’d driven to Moore from Yukon, about 45 minutes away, to see the damage. She was with her two kids, a 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, and said she’d parked her SUV on a nearby side street and walked over.

“I wanted them to see it,” Ashley said, motioning to her kids. “Everybody remembers their first big storm.”

Along Telephone Road, where dozens of cars were crushed into piles outside what used to be the Moore Medical Center, the muddy sidewalks were so crowded that people walked in the street—much to the anger of police officers who yelled at them, but did nothing to stop them.

Stepping over downed power lines, people paused to take photos of the dozens of media satellite trucks that had taken position along 6th Street, where some of the most famous reporters in the country—including NBC’s Brian Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper—were doing live shots outside homes that had been reduced to nothing but piles of sticks. In the parking lot of the Warren Theater across the street, there were at least 100 more media trucks from outlets all over the world, their satellites pointed to the sky like steel flower blooms.

Troops from the Oklahoma National Guard were deployed to keep people from wandering into the neighborhood—but many still found ways in, hiking through the soggy mud of a nearby park, where a refrigerator was impaled on a tree and a once-busy playground was reduced to rubble—swings literally ripped from their hinges.

Nearby, residents of one demolished home had spray-painted a message on one of the remaining brick walls of their house: “We Survived.”

But not everyone wandering through the streets here was simply gawking. Late Monday, Moore police detained at least two men, who were later seen handcuffed and sitting in the street outside a pile of debris along 7th Street. Witnesses said police had caught them walking through the remains of a nearby home and pocketing items that didn’t belong to them.

Indeed, fears of looters had prompted some residents to pitch tents outside their homes, where many said they planned to stay the night to protect whatever belongings they had left.

“There have been random men walking through houses around here all day,” said Jessica Elliott, as she stood near a tent pitched outside her destroyed home on 8th Street. “We’ve already lost so much. I don’t want to lose anything else.”

Back on Telephone Road, traffic was at a standstill, thanks in part to a man who had stopped his car and rolled down the window to take an iPhone photo of the media trucks parked across the street from the Moore Medical Center.

A few yards away, a police officer lost his temper and sprinted down the street to yell at the man. “GET OFF YOUR PHONE AND DRIVE!” the officer screamed, clearly exasperated.

“I just wanted a picture,” the man yelled back, as he pulled away.