Oklahoma tornado survivor set to move back to Moore, but progress remains slow in much of the city

Holly Bailey
Volunteers are building a new home for tornado survivor Barbara Garcia, which will be the first completed home in Moore after the May 20 tornado (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
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Nearly three months after a deadly tornado, Moore, Okla., looks to rebuild

MOORE, Okla. — Barbara Garcia had been living here for 45 years when a deadly two-mile wide tornado, one of the strongest on record, wiped out her home and a large swath of the city last May 20.

The 74-year-old grandmother quickly became a symbol of the storm’s devastation when, during a CBS News interview after she emerged from the rubble of her flattened house, she was reunited with her beloved schnauzer, Bowsy, whom she feared had been lost.

“Oh Bowsy,” Garcia cried, as the dog emerged dusty and dazed but alive from under a jagged piece of sheet metal. “Bless your itty bitty heart!”

Clearly emotional, Garcia told the camera crew, “I thought God just answered one prayer: ‘Let me be okay.’ But he answered both of them because this was my second prayer.”

Soon, Garcia’s third prayer will be answered.

Next month, after weeks spent living with different family members around the state, Garcia, an uninsured widow who lost everything, will move back to Moore into a new home built entirely by volunteers who were moved by her story. The home, funded by donations, is being constructed on the plot where her old house used to be.

Garcia’s home will be the first residence to be completely built from the ground up since the storm — an important symbol of progress for a community that remains devastated by the tornado, which killed 25 people and injured several hundred. Her home is one of about 80 residential rebuilding permits that have been issued by Moore since last month, when the city cleared residents to begin the construction process.

But Garcia’s new home is also a sign of how far Moore has to go before the physical wounds of the tornado are healed. Her new one-story dwelling sits in the middle of an entirely desolate city block that looks more like the terrain of Mad Max than a suburban community.

On a street that was once bustling with families and kids, every home is gone, wiped down to the sandy earth beneath the concrete slab. The only evidence of the life that once was is an occasional toy or piece of furniture at the curb waiting to be picked up as part of the city’s debris removal, which ends this week.

“You look in every direction, 360 degrees, and it’s just destruction, it’s just laid flat,” said Dave Evans, a pastor at Highland Baptist Church in Moore, which, along with the Virginia-based Operation Blessing, helped organize the construction of Garcia’s new home.

“We really thought of this home as not just a house for this one widow, but also a way to say to the community, ‘We can do this. We’re rebuilding,'" Evans said. "We can see the first sign of rebirth from this modest home that’s going up in this little neighborhood that was completely wiped out. It’s an indication of things to come. It’s an encouragement.”

And that’s something Moore still needs.

Three months after the storm, city officials still aren’t exactly sure how many residents are planning to rebuild — though they are confident that the neighborhoods will ultimately be restored, even if not by the people who lived there before. Just more than 1,000 homes were destroyed by the tornado's jagged five-mile path through the center of town, while several hundred other houses were severely damaged.

While several blocks of Garcia’s neighborhood were completely wiped out, there are some homes, damaged and empty but still standing, a few streets away. Some homeowners are said to be battling with insurance companies over their reconstruction efforts, while others still aren’t sure if they want to return to a city that has been struck by three of the most dangerous tornadoes on record over the past 14 years.

“There’s still a lot of trauma and shock, a lot of people who still haven’t made up their minds about what they want to do,” said Steve Eddy, Moore’s city manager who is heading up the official recovery effort.

It’s similar to what happened after May 3, 1999, when a mile-wide tornado wound a similar path through Moore, killing more than 40 and leveling about 800 homes. Back then, about half of the affected residents chose to rebuild, while others sold their land and moved elsewhere.

Eddy says he expects the rebuilding statistics this time will be similar to 1999: Half will stay and rebuild, half will go. But one difference between the storms, he says, is that rebuilding could be quicker — expedited, in part, by the fact that the city has had the unfortunate experience of having been through this before.

Just 10 days after the recent storm, Moore was already removing debris — thanks in part to a longstanding agreement it put in place after the 1999 tornado with an outside contractor just in case disaster struck again.

“Rebuilding is nice, but tearing it down to get rid of the old ugly is nice too,” Eddy said. “Nothing good happens until all of that crap is gone.”

As of last week, Eddy estimated about 90 percent of the city’s storm debris had been removed — evidenced by wide swaths of land along the tornado path that looked less like a neighborhood and more like a bombed-out moonscape.

There are a few signs of life. Some of the trees stripped of their bark and limbs in May have started to sprout leaves. Lilies and rose bushes that were planted in flower beds long gone are blooming again amid the rocky debris. And in the Plaza Towers neighborhood, where the winds were so strong that single blades of grass were stripped out of the ground, there were patches of green again.

Eddy estimates it could be at least two or three years before Moore is fully rebuilt — slightly less time than how long it took to rebuild after the 1999 tornado — though he's hoping the fast debris removal and an already-booming construction industry in Oklahoma will speed up the process.

Eddy, who was city manager back in 1999, recalled the anxiousness he felt after that storm, wondering how the city would ever recover.

“There’s nothing like that that goes through our minds now,” said Eddy, who notes he is the only city manager in the country who has been through three of the strongest tornadoes on record — a rare distinction he wishes he didn’t have.

“You have these feelings of, ‘Oh no, not again,’ and you wonder why it’s happening. But the most valuable lesson after ’99 is we know we can do it, to know that our community will heal, to know that the city will be better than it was, stronger than it was.”