MOORE, Okla. — Amy Simpson works hard to maintain her “happy face,” especially when she is around her students from Plaza Towers Elementary School.
It's been three months since one of the most destructive tornadoes on record cut a deadly swath through this Oklahoma City suburb, leveling Plaza and killing seven of its students. Simpson, the school’s principal, vows to be smiling and normal when the kids who survived the storm return to class for the first time on Friday.
"They want to see me happy. They want to see Mrs. Simpson OK,” she said.
But it’s not always OK.
Simpson, like many people here, is still haunted by the memories of what happened on May 20. She remembers the vibration of the ground as the EF5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 mph churned its way toward her school, flattening nearly everything in its wake. She remembers the terrified looks on the kids’ faces and fear in the teachers' eyes. And when it was finally over, she remembers climbing out of the tiny bathroom where she'd huddled with four other women and having to inch past a car the tornado had planted in her office in order to get out — only to be confronted by total destruction.
But perhaps more than anything, Simpson is haunted by the parents who rushed to the school desperately searching for their kids, only to learn they had not survived the storm. She remembers helping one mother describe her child to the recovery workers because she was in too much shock to do so herself.
“I don’t know what to write, Mrs. Simpson,” the woman told her.
Simpson — who had willed herself to remain calm and strong that day because, as she recalled in an interview, “I had to be” — stepped up to the task, even as she felt herself on the verge of collapsing into grief herself.
“I knew if I fell apart that everything would fall apart,” Simpson said. “I couldn’t leave that responsibility for someone else. It’s not in me to say, ‘Someone else do this.’”
Virtually everyone at Plaza Towers and another school lost to the storm, Briarwood Elementary, has a story about what happened May 20th. And they can also describe how they’ve struggled to get through the days since, as the school district seeks a “new normal” even as the grieving continues.
Many teachers have reported sleepless nights and persistent feelings of guilt and anger, along with the enduring question of why bad storms keep happening to Moore, which has suffered direct hits from three killer tornadoes over the last 14 years.
Erin Baxter, a kindergarten teacher at Plaza Towers, recalled a car landing in the hallway three feet from where she was crouched along with her students during the storm. But it wasn’t until she later saw television footage of the tornado churning its way toward the school that she fully began to grasp what had happened.
“That’s when I broke down,” Baxter recalled. “I didn’t sleep for about two weeks. I would try, but I couldn’t. I was overwhelmed.”
Nearly all the teachers, parents and students affected by the tornado have been going to counseling sessions organized by school administrators, as the city seeks to move past what has been such a traumatic experience for so many.
“The nerves are still on edge,” said Janice Brim, a sixth-grade teacher at Plaza Towers who rode out the storm with five of her students in a tiny closet. “The counselors have been great about getting people to just talk about their stories and have someone admit they have feelings about what happened. That’s the first step toward trying to move forward.”
There are physical scars in addition to the emotional wounds. Besides losing Plaza Towers and Briarwood, another 21 of the 36 Moore schools were pounded by the storm, totaling more than $55 million in damages. The school system also lost its administration building, leaving top officials to shift from temporary space to temporary space as they plotted how to reopen for the new school year.
Administrators finally moved into new offices just last week — less than two weeks before the start of school — and are still shaking out debris from their files.
“Honestly, there have been some days where I’ve wondered, ‘Can we do this?’” said Robert Romines, who was appointed school superintendent just a week before the tornado.
A lifelong resident of Moore and a 20-year-veteran of the school system, Romines took off toward the southwest side of the city when he learned several schools were in the storm’s path. He was bowled over by the fury of the tornado as he drove along its south side, recalling how he watched cars “floating around in the air like Hot Wheels.”
Like many around Moore these days, Romines said that he used to be a “storm junkie” — endlessly fascinated by the tornadoes that seem to come out of nowhere and rumble through central Oklahoma every spring and fall.
But he doesn’t like them anymore, admitting that he gets jittery sometimes even when there's a simple thunderstorm or he hears the weekly testing of the tornado emergency sirens.
“When I am at home and storms roll in — whether it just be rain or whatever — there’s a sense of not quite urgency but just a feeling of ‘What’s this one going to bring?’” Romines said.
He predicted the hardest part of the school year will be “that first storm” — and in Moore, that could be soon.
Typically the state sees another round of severe weather — though not quite as dramatic as the storms in April and May — in late September and October. And educators are already considering how they will prep for tornado drills, which could be an emotional experience for those who so recently suffered through the real thing.
At Plaza Towers, which is operating out of a temporary facility on the campus of a local junior high school this year, Simpson said they would likely have teams of counselors on hand if the kids want to talk about any anxiety about the tornado drills — or even about what happened in May.
“My biggest fear is just the practice because this is a new facility, and this is still really raw,” she said. “Are kids going to trust me when I say it’s just practice? Or are they going to be traumatized for the rest of the afternoon? ... I suspect we are going to have a lot of extra faces around that day telling them, ‘This is just a drill.’”
Like many buildings in Moore, Plaza Towers did not have a basement where people could take shelter from the storm because the ground is too sandy to keep the rooms from leaking or simply collapsing the structure around them. The new school building, which is set to open next fall, will have a "safe hallway" modeled after concrete safe rooms that are said to be strong enough to withstand a tornado.
In the meantime, kids will have to take shelter from the storm at the temporary facility in interior hallways and bathrooms — just as they did at the old school. But Romines said the school system is weighing how it will handle future storms — especially those that might strike during the school day, which had never happened before.
“No one had even considered the thought. It was unimaginable,” Romines said. “But now that’s something we have to think about, something we have to weigh. But I still don’t know if we would let kids go, because if they are leaving school they might just be going home to an empty house where they could be in as much danger.”
There has been no respite from the tornado recovery for many school officials. Summer vacations were canceled as administrators and teachers worked to rebuild their classrooms and make sure school would start on time.
There have been countless fundraising efforts for the students and affected teachers — including Restore Moore, a project to help teachers replace their classroom supplies. Communities around the U.S. have sent truckloads full of notebooks, scissors, pencils and Post-its.
At Plaza Towers, every student is receiving a brand-new backpack and other supplies and gifts — making it almost seem “like Christmastime,” Simpson said. Last week, as workers put the finishing touches on the temporary facility, there were stacks of books and boxes of Build-A-Bears waiting for the students when they arrive on Friday.
Moore officials expect enrollment at Plaza Towers and Briarwood to be slightly down. Between 300 and 400 kids are expected to return to Plaza Towers, down from the 500 who were enrolled last year. At Briarwood, enrollment is expected to go from 640 kids to less than 500.
The smaller numbers have been attributed to families who have been dislocated by the storm — while others simply chose “to turn the page,” as Simpson puts it, and start afresh somewhere else.
The first day of school will be tough for some parents, who Simpson predicts will be reluctant to let their kids go. But she and others say the routine of going back to school will help with the healing — not just for the students and parents but for the staff, too.
"The kids are funny because when they see me, bless their little hearts, the first thing they ask is, ‘Are you doing OK?’ Because they know that it’s been not easy,” Simpson said, tearing up. “And I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’m fine.’ And I am, though it comes and goes.”
Simpson admits she feels guilt about what happened on May 20, wondering if there isn’t more she could have done to protect the kids and help the parents. A mother of two, she feels guilty when she gets irritated with her own children “for being kids … and acting up” when thinking of the parents who lost their children.
“My kids see me like this, tearing up or staring off into space,” Simpson said, wiping tears from her face. “And thankfully they are just kids, and they say, with sarcasm, ‘Oh, is it the tornado again?” They are very put out by the fact that mom can’t be mom.”
Simpson is looking forward to the middle of the school year, after they’ve gotten back into the normal routine of class and beyond the possible storms of October.
“Hopefully there will be less tears and less stress, and they won’t be looking at me saying, ‘Tornado again?” Simpson said.
At least not until the spring.