A year after a deadly tornado, Moore, Okla., rebounds, but storm fears remain

·National Correspondent

MOORE, Okla. — Last May, Kristy Rushing was at work when she first heard the reports a tornado had developed just southwest of the home she shared with her husband, James, and their five foster kids.

It wasn’t the first time her house had been in the path of deadly weather. A mile-wide tornado, one of the most destructive captured on record, missed their home by mere blocks in May 1999 — not long after they moved in. Four years later, in May 2003, another tornado hit, wiping out a neighborhood a mile north.

“It missed us just by a hair those two times,” Rushing recalled.

But on May 20, 2013, her family wasn’t so lucky. The monster tornado, nearly a mile and a half wide with winds in excess of 200 mph, took dead aim at her neighborhood, obliterating virtually everything in its path.

Her home was reduced to splinters — 15 years of life mercilessly destroyed in an instant. But Rushing was one of the fortunate ones. Her husband, a UPS employee who worked the night shift so he could care for their kids in the afternoon, had awoken just before the tornado hit and took shelter at Plaza Towers Elementary School directly across the street where their son was a student. Both were injured but miraculously survived even though the building was totaled. Others weren’t so lucky.

In all, the storm killed 24 people — including seven third-graders at Plaza Towers—and injured nearly 400 more. While Rushing and her family lost everything, at least they had their lives.

“And that was what was important, thank God, we still had each other,” Rushing said. “The other, it was just stuff.”

A year later, the memory of that horrible Monday is as fresh as if it happened yesterday for Rushing — who can still feel the sick, paralyzing fear that she had lost her family. And Oklahoma’s spring thunderstorms, once just an accepted part of life here, now make Rushing and her family jumpy.

But next week, a year and a week to the day after the tornado disrupted their lives, the Rushings will move back into their old neighborhood, into a brand-new home on the plot of land where their old house once stood.

Like other homes that have rapidly risen up in the tornado zone in Moore over the past year, the Rushings' home is bigger — about 400 more square feet — and better than what they had before. It sits across the street from the new school under construction to replace Plaza Towers Elementary — this one outfitted with a tornado “safe room” should another storm hit. There will soon be new roads, and Moore city officials are preparing to rebuild parks, sidewalks and other amenities wiped out by last year’s storm.

“It’s the first time me or my husband will have ever lived in a brand-new home, and our kids are going to go to a brand-new school, which we had never experienced either,” Rushing said. “It’s going to be so much nicer than it was before.”

But against the backdrop of the new is a dark thought ever-present in the back of Rushing’s mind: What if another tornado hits?

“I hate to worry about that, but I do, every day,” Rushing admitted. “I can’t help it.”

And she’s not alone in Moore, a town that has been exceptionally unlucky when it comes to severe weather outbreaks. A booming suburb of Oklahoma City, Moore has rebuilt three times in the past 15 years after tornadoes that have set records in size and wind speed. A fourth tornado, which hit in 2011, spared the heart of the city — barely — as it moved through the largely rural southern part of town.

At City Hall, officials admit they've become experts at how to rebound from natural disaster. Their skill in quickly rebuilding from severe weather outbreaks that have paralyzed other cities is evident all over town as Moore prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of last year’s tornado, which left an estimated $2 billion in damages.

Of the roughly 1,100 homes that were destroyed last May 20 in Moore, about half have been or are currently being rebuilt — a faster pace than rebuilding efforts after previous storms here and something rarely seen in other cities hit by disaster. Much of that activity has happened just within the past eight months. The tornado-struck neighborhoods, practically a moonscape last summer after tons of debris was removed, are now stunningly different — repopulated with bigger new homes.

In a strange way, tornadoes have been an unfortunate form of urban renewal in Moore, transforming older parts of the city into new neighborhoods — though city officials are loath to put it in those exact terms.

“Out of the most awful, the most worst thing you can really imagine, good has come,” acknowledged Steve Eddy, Moore city’s manager, who has overseen rebuilding from tornadoes since that first deadly tornado in 1999.

It was that storm, Eddy said, that schooled him and his colleagues on how Moore could rebuild from disaster. After the 1999 tornado, the city put into place many “just in case” contracts — including one that retained a company to come in and begin removing debris within 24 hours after a storm. And as unlucky as Moore has been, the plus side, Eddy said, is that they “now know what to do and what not to do,” which has made rebuilding efforts quicker.

“The biggest difference between that storm in 1999 and what’s happened since is that we know we can do it, we know we can rebuild,” he said. “Back then, we didn’t know that, and it was overwhelming to think of everything we had to do. There was the pressure of wondering if we could really bounce back.”

But’s not just the city that has learned lessons. Private industry has too — evidenced in part by how quickly builders descended on Moore to help rebuild neighborhoods destroyed by the tornado. Within hours of the storm, local builders were already ordering supplies of wood and brick — recalling in 1999 how stock had run low and prices had shot through the roof. In addition to constructing homes for families who lost theirs to the tornado, builders also quickly bought up plots put up for sale by residents who decided they wanted to live somewhere else, and are raising new structures.

While there is no official estimate, city officials say they believe about 50 percent of residents who lived in the tornado-stricken neighborhoods decided to rebuild, while the other half either moved to another part of Moore or left the city for good.

That estimate seems to be confirmed by signs posted in front of homes around the neighborhood. About half offer new houses for sale or rent. In front of other homes, builders have posted signs touting the fact that they are rebuilding on behalf of a specific displaced family — a sign to other neighbors that some people from the old neighborhood are coming back.

While virtually everyone in Moore believes another tornado is inevitable, interest in buying a house in town hasn’t waned. Realtors say prospective buyers raise the issue of weather, but Moore’s real estate market is still booming—and, unsurprisingly, so is the demand for storm shelters.

“You can’t control what Mother Nature is going to do,” said Brad Warner, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty who represents several properties in the Moore. “Everybody loves Moore, and they want to be there — especially after seeing how they reacted to the last storm, how they took care of each other.”

In April, Moore took another step to keep its residents safer. The city passed one of the strongest building codes in the country, ordering that new homes be built to withstand 130-mph winds, or the equivalent of an F-2 tornado. But that code doesn’t apply to homes that have been newly rebuilt, only homes going forward.

As Rushing and her family prepare to move into their new home next week, she acknowledged the family considered not coming back to Moore because of fears they could be caught in the path of a tornado again. But that changed a little over a week after the Moore tornado when the family found themselves in the crosshairs of an even bigger tornado as they were staying with relatives. That tornado, which hit El Reno, west of Oklahoma City, was a record-breaking 2.6 miles wide — the widest tornado ever on record. It killed eight people, including three storm chasers, and it sent the Rushings into panic as they scrambled to get out of the tornado's way.

“We were running around all over the place, trying to get away, and it was horrible,” Rushing recalled. “After that, I realized that it’s really up to the Lord at this point because no matter where you are here a tornado can get you. It’s not the city, it’s the state.”

Rushing said she does not want to leave Oklahoma or the life she's built up in Moore — even a life permanently altered by last year’s tornado. Now, when the wind blows, her son gets nervous. And she and her husband, who had been used to bad weather all their lives, now cast wary eyes toward the west, wondering if another bad storm will upend their lives again.

“We are all different,” she said. “I don’t think we will ever be the same.”

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