Deja Vu as City Hit by Twister

Wall Street Journal, May 22nd, 2013

Tornado

MOORE, Okla.–After a second tornado in 14 years caused devastating damage to this city Monday, Mayor Glenn Lewis gathered at City Hall with many of the same officials who had helped deal with the aftermath of the earlier disaster.

Mr. Lewis, who has been mayor for nearly 20 years, joined with fire personnel, police and others to plot the city's response. Many played the same role after a May 3, 1999, twister killed at least 44 people in the region.

Twenty-four people died in Monday's tornado, including two babies and eight children, the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said Wednesday. Property damage is estimated as high as $2 billion, with as many as 13,000 homes hit.

"I was watching it and all I could think was, 'Here we go again,' " said Mr. Lewis, who was in his Moore jewelry store when Monday's twister blasted through with winds over 200 mph, scrubbing out entire neighborhoods.

"But this is when we shine," he added. "Last time, we cleaned up in 61 days, which was a FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] record."

On Wednesday afternoon, residents were allowed to return to their ravaged neighborhoods after emergency workers sifted one last time through the rubble in search of survivors.

Shortly after the tornado swept through Monday, Silver Star's heavy trucks were pushing through downed power lines to clear streets for rescue vehicles.

Some people in this town of about 56,000–which bears the scars of three major tornadoes since 1999–have had enough.

Dave Rhea, a 41-year-old executive for a local media company, said he listed his Moore home for sale on Tuesday. Though it was spared by Monday's storm, two of the other tornadoes that hit Moore "took the same path, which is where I go get milk for my two young sons," he said. "I've got to move out."

Mr. Lewis said he learned from his 1999 experience. After that, the city relied on local construction company Silver Star to lead cleanup efforts instead of going through the federal government for a list of approved contractors.

This time, Mr. Lewis said he knew what questions to ask when President Barack Obama and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin called to expedite emergency relief. "Logistically, this will be a larger job," he said, referring to the wider path of destruction.

Moore employees already were printing new street signs to replace destroyed ones. The city already obtained approval to start burning wood rubble.

One question the storm left is whether to mandate citizens to include safe rooms when they rebuild. Mr. Lewis said he is considering proposing a city ordinance that would require new homes to have shelters, but added he still needs to examine the cost.

"We don't want to be so expensive that our homes are not affordable," he said.

Ms. Fallin said that at the state level, "we aren't going to require people to do anything [about shelters], but if someone chooses to do that, we'll certainly encourage it." She said Oklahoma already has one of the most generous incentive programs for storm shelters, offering rebates up to 75%.

"That will open up roads and streets and then individual homeowners will be worked with to get that debris out of there," she said.

Moore Officials had played down the likelihood that the city could soon again be hit like it was in 1999: "If we are struck again, it will very likely be by a much less intense storm," the city's website stated.

Each of the last three major tornadoes followed almost the exact same path. Yet, in most cases, residents chose to rebuild.

Brenda Roberts, a 69-year-old city employee who has lived through many tornadoes, said she has no intention of deserting Moore: "We are a family, and we've been through a lot. It's these things that bind us."

"This is one of the friendliest communities I've ever been in," said Caleb Sloan, a 24-year-old college student who lost his home Monday, said, "We join together to help people. We've pulled out bodies together."

Debbie Bird, a 47-year-old music-store owner, is more wary. She lost her home in the 1999 tornado. She rebuilt farther south and watched Monday's storm come within a half mile of her new house. "Sometimes I wonder if Moore just isn't supposed to be here," she said. "It's so unbelievable that this happens over and over and over."

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com and Ana Campoy at ana.campoy@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared May 23, 2013, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Déjà Vu as City Digs Out.

Back