Looking skyward, for the first time, with fear

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
Moore tornado aftermath
The skeleton of a tree remains in a neighborhood damaged by a tornado in Moore, Okla., last year. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

MOORE, Okla. — Robert Romines used to love thunderstorms.

Like most people from central Oklahoma, storms were practically in his blood, so normal and routine it seemed as though people here had been born with DNA specially equipped to deal with crazy weather.

Romines had been taught as a child to cast a cautious eye toward the western sky in the springtime, knowing that fluffy white clouds that looked so innocent one moment could erupt into something dark and ominous the next. And like most people who reside in the nation’s so-called “tornado alley,” where monitoring the volatile weather is almost a sport, he welcomed storms with a mix of both fear and anticipation.

After all, it was hard not to appreciate the strange beauty in the threatening clouds and the way lightning streaked across the open sky. On a few occasions, Romines had jumped into his car to follow a storm and admire it up close — an impulse that is more common than not in a state so fanatical about its weather that the local NBA team is called the “Thunder.”

“I was a storm junkie. I loved thunderstorms. I loved storm season,” Romines admitted. “But that was before May 20.”

That was the date last year when one of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded slammed into Moore, killing 25 people and injuring hundreds more. The mile-wide monstrosity, with winds in excess of 200 mph, cut a deadly path through the center of this Oklahoma City suburb, wiping out several neighborhoods, including two schools.

At Plaza Towers Elementary, seven kids lost their lives in the storm — a tragedy that many in Moore are still trying to recover from, including Romines, who had just been tapped as superintendent of Moore Public Schools only days before. That afternoon, he had raced toward schools in the path of the storm — watching in horror as the tornado picked up vehicles and rotated them in the sky like tiny Hot Wheels cars. He was there as the injured were being taken out of Plaza Towers — and when some parents realized their kids weren’t coming home.

Romines still struggles to talk about that day — though he knows that talking about it helps, or so he’s been told. But the days since haven’t been so easy either. Like others in Moore, he is weighted with guilt over the lives lost and what more he could have done that day. Little things that never used to bother him are a now a constant reminder of the tornado — as they are for others in Moore who went through the storm.

“I am still on edge when they test the tornado sirens on Saturdays,” Romines admitted. “I know it’s a test. I know it’s OK. But something in my stomach… I just feel dread.”

It’s the same dread he feels when he thinks of what the upcoming spring storm season will be like for his teachers and students — especially the kids from the destroyed schools who are still traumatized by the tornado.

It’s an issue that Moore residents will likely have to confront for the first time Wednesday. The National Weather Service issued an advisory warning of the potential of strong thunderstorms and tornadoes in Central Oklahoma Wednesday afternoon — marking the official kickoff of the state’s tornado season, which traditionally runs between now and June when conditions are optimal for severe storms.

If the weather happens as predicted, it’s likely to be the first major storm that Moore has seen since last May 31 — when city residents were forced back into their storm shelters just over a week after the earlier tornado. That storm hit nearby El Reno, Okla., killing 18 people, including four storm chasers. At nearly three miles wide, the El Reno tornado was the widest tornado ever captured on record, with winds exceeding 300 mph. It was headed towards Moore, but lifted before it hit the city — avoiding a second disaster.

Then, a strange thing happened: After two of the strongest tornadoes in history struck Oklahoma in the span of less than two weeks, storm season went quiet. Since May 31, there have been a handful of regular thunderstorms but no tornado watches or warnings issued in the entire state of Oklahoma, capping off what was, in terms of overall numbers, a quiet tornado season nationally in 2013. Outside of Oklahoma, states including Kansas and Texas saw their lowest number of tornado outbreaks in roughly a decade, according to the NWS.

“It was definitely welcome, but it was unusual,” said Rick Smith, a warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS office in Norman, which oversees forecasts for region.

But in Moore, a city trying to quickly rebuild and recover after last year’s storm, there is a mixed blessing in that quiet. Nobody wants a tornado, but in that lack of bad weather, a foreboding has settled over the community. Residents worry about how they will cope with a storm season that could bring more pain and mayhem to a city that has already suffered so much.

The famous saying is that lightning doesn’t strike twice — but in Moore, which has been hit in the last 15 years by three of the most dangerous tornadoes ever recorded (two of them almost in the same exact spot), there are many people who no longer believe it. They question why Moore has had such bad luck.

“There is definitely apprehension. People are nervous, no question about it,” said Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis, who has now rebuilt his city three times during his two decades in office. “You don’t even want a little tornado at this point… but it will probably happen again. You just have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

Perhaps that tension over storm season is most acutely felt at Plaza Towers Elementary, where both the teachers and students are still struggling in the aftermath of the storm.

The school has been operating in a temporary space since last fall while its new building — this one featuring a concrete “safe room” to withstand tornadoes — is built for the upcoming school year. There, Principal Amy Simpson and her staff have worked hard to restore a sense of “normal routine,” she said, while at the same time recognizing that the past year has been anything but normal.

Teachers had come back to school last August unsure of what to expect from students. It was a given there would be discussions about the tornado — what they had gone through and their classmates who had died — but the staff was unsure how much the kids wanted to talk. But within the first weeks of the first semester, it was clear there was anxiety and that dealing with those issues would be a major part of the school year.

“Something that is new to these kids that they watch the news now, and they know what the weather is,” Simpson said. “But they don’t differentiate. They hear ‘tornado,’ and it may be somewhere else, but they think it’s here. It’s going to hurt us.”

To cope, the school hired more counselors — many funded with outside grants — to conduct groups and programs aimed at easing that anxiety. They’ve held puppet shows talking about the weather, teaching kids about the different types of clouds and what they mean. They’ve organized art therapy sessions, allowing kids to engage in activities that encourage them to talk about their feelings about the weather and last year’s storms.

Perhaps most important, the entire school — from kindergarten to sixth grade and even the teachers — have been participating in classes to learn coping skills and breathing techniques to encourage them to relax in times of stress and fear. And one of the biggest fears: the volatile spring weather.

“I never thought in 20 years of being in education that we would have to teach breathing techniques to children to calm them down,” Simpson said. “For some students, yes, but for the entire school, no, but that’s our normal now.”

On Wednesday, ahead of the expected weather, they’ll practice those relaxation techniques again — all the while hoping they won’t have to actually use them. Also on standby: hundreds of bicycle helmets that were donated to the school last month for kids to wear to prevent head injuries should they have to go through a tornado again.

Like Romines, Simpson used to love storms. But not after May 20. Now, even the rain sometimes bothers her, and she has yet to go a week without crying over the students she lost — pain she acknowledges may never go away.

Still, she finds strength in the resilience of her students, and while what could come this spring is “daunting,” she admits, her biggest concern is making sure they are safe and can cope if the worst happens again.

“My anxiety comes in not wanting them to experience their own anxiousness. I can’t prevent it, but what we can do is put everything in place to handle it,” Simpson said. “I just want them to be OK.”