Moore wasn’t the first: 5 deadly tornadoes have hit Oklahoma schools, killed students, since 1917

Hi and thanks for reading. I am writing a blog a day in May for cystic fibrosis awareness month – my son Eli, 1, has CF. However, a year ago today, deadly storms and tornadoes hit the Oklahoma City metro. I’ve been engrossed in tornadoes and weather and the grief of mothers of victims and other survivors for two weeks in my other life, that of reporter, in order to write a few anniversary stories. Sometimes delving in these topics gets a lot knocking around in my head, and I feel the need to write it out. So that’s what I’m doing here.

For those not from around here, this is how it’s explained the weather events of May 2013 in my article in The Oklahoman this week about the anniversary:

In a state long accustomed to the forceful nature of spring weather, the series of storms that roared across central Oklahoma during a two-week period in May 2013 altered so much.

May 21 2013

… It started May 19, when a typical supercell spawned eight tornadoes that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and buildings as they swept across Edmond, Arcadia, Luther, Carney, Prague, Norman and the Shawnee area, where two elderly men were killed.

The next day brought one of the largest and most powerful storms the state has ever seen. Among 15 tornadoes May 20 was a rare EF5 that packed 210 mph winds as it plowed across Newcastle, south Oklahoma City and Moore. Twenty-five people died, including seven students who perished when a hallway wall collapsed on top of them at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Then, on May 31, 19 more twisters gashed the still-reeling region, including a 2.6-mile-wide tornado, thought to be the widest on record in the United States. Eight people died when the tornado caught them in their vehicles near El Reno. Heavy rainfall produced historic flash flooding that killed 15 others, including a 5-month-old baby girl swept through a drainage tunnel and whose body has never been recovered.

In my research for the anniversary piece, I found five more instances in recorded history in which tornadoes have killed students at schools in Oklahoma.

Christopher Legg, photo provided by Danni Legg.
Christopher Legg, photo provided by Danni Legg.
Because only about 9 percent of tornadoes have historically hit the state between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., the school shelter issue had been absent from public discourse for a long time, according to my sources at the National Weather Service and the superintendent of Moore Public Schools, Robert Romines. With most tornadoes striking in the evening, the emphasis on shelters has been residential. The disaster on May 20 changed that discourse. I spoke to parents of tornado victims and survivors of the school disaster in the last two weeks. The loss hurts today just as much as it did a year ago. On May 20, 9-year-old Christopher Legg rose from a spot where he sat with another class to comfort a crying friend. He covered her as the <a tornado splintered the school. Legg died when a wall collapsed on him. His cause of death is listed as mechanical asphyxia. He, and most of the other children, smothered in the wreckage. Danni Legg, Christopher's mother, told me grief hurts in the quiet moments at home. Christopher Legg loved rough-housing with his brother, sister and dad. There was a familiar clamor at home that's gone now, because the tornado took the family's beloved brother. β€œWe need more noise,” Danni Legg told me. β€œYou get used to that. You get used to that level of voices. Then it’s not there, and it hurts so Kyle-Davisbad.” One boy, Kyle Davis, 8, was killed by blunt force trauma. Davis loved to play defense and goalie in soccer matches, his mother told me. On account of his hardy size, his coaches nicknamed him “The Wall” at age 5. A year on, Mikki Davis struggles every day with the loss. β€œThe pain is always going to be there,” she said. β€œMy heart is going to be broken forever. But I know in my heart, I know where Kyle is. I will see Kyle again.”

My heart goes out to these families.

Their tragedy is fresh, but similar school-tornado disasters have hit Oklahoma before.

I wanted to share front pages following tornado disasters from 1917, 1930, 1944 and 1945. According to Richard Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, these tornadoes killed 16 students at a poorly constructed Indian mission school in Vireton (near Lake Eufala) on Jan 4, 1917; six students Nov. 19, 1930 in Bethany; One student at evening basketball practice on Jan. 26, 1944 in Granite; and three students on April 12, 1945 at a school for the blind dormitory in Muskogee.

1917:

1930:

1944:

1945:

Our weather is so unpredictable. Two of the historic school-tornado disasters hit in January. Students were killed in 1944 and then 1945. Sixty eight years passed, and then the twister killed students in Moore. I hope for a quiet spring.

My hope is that this brand of nightmarish tragedy never, ever happens again.

For more on the history of deadly tornadoes at schools, view the below PDF. The presentation was authored by Richard Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service offices in Norman, and Harold Brooks with the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

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Denied: Why can’t a baby can’t get his medicine?

A tornado dropped out of the sky over a hill in a rural stretch of Newcastle, Oklahoma six months ago. Inside an underground concrete shelter just beyond that hill, 17 people and seven pets clung to each other. The grinder sounded like a freight train. Its winds grasped at the top of the shelter, then grabbed hold of its wooden door and pulled.

Continue reading Denied: Why can’t a baby can’t get his medicine?

The monster

My newspaper called the EF5 tornado that struck the state Monday a monster.

This is accurate.

The monster took 24 souls.

It sucked an infant and a 4-year-old, sisters, out of their mother’s arms. It crushed two elementary schools, claiming the lives of seven children inside of one of them. A mommy and baby died hiding in the freezer at 7-11.

This photo illustration edited in Picframe and Afterlight on iPhone. May 20, 2013 Oklahoma tornado.
This photo illustration edited in Picframe and Afterlight on iPhone. May 20, 2013 Oklahoma tornado.

The violent loss of life is awful. What makes this so much worse is that this tornado took so many children from their parents, even as everyone did everything that they could to hide the children and keep them safe from the storm, it seems.

The storm was the stuff of nightmares.

That’s why even though I’m exhausted, I’m *trying hard* not to complain. My babies are safe. My house is a wreck and the refridgerator is bare. At least I’ve got a roof over my head. Thousands of people in the south Oklahoma City area don’t even have a home to mess up anymore.

I’m trying to rally.

I spent all week at disaster scenes and in a newsroom and other places people don’t typically go to just hang out.

Believe it or not, I finished my piece on Eli on Tuesday.

That was an ordeal in and of itself.

To back up – I had the piece about 90 percent complete for most of the week before my deadline.

There was one more call I needed to make.

I met Andrea Cochran at our Great Strides event earlier this month. She’s 27 and has CF.

Andrea Cochran had over 100 supporters with her. She is in her 20s and lives with CF.
Andrea Cochran had over 100 supporters with her. She is in her 20s and lives with CF.

I spoke to her because the large number of people surrounding her, supporting her, caught my eye.

First, I talked to some of her friends.

I asked about her. Her age, the basics.

Then I asked “Is she able to work?”

It was the first thing I thought of.

It’s kind of a rude question.

She couldn’t work, her friends said.

This upset me. We started our walk. I started to think of Eli, growing up, getting sicker, not being able to work at the time of his life he is supposed to be healthy, strong, like most of the rest of us.

I wanted to cry.

Great Strides in OKC
Great Strides in OKC

After the walk, I tracked down Andrea.

She had such a big smile on her face, a glow about her. It was freezing cold and windy. I explained that I was a mom of a baby with CF and a reporter and – actually, she was the first adult with CF I’d ever talked to. I wondered if I could get her cell and maybe talk to her about her life later. Kind of for the piece but also because I’d like to get to know more older people with the disease.

We parted ways. My family went home.

May 4. The day of the Great Strides fundraising event.

That was the entry in my Oklahoman piece that remained blank.

The monster visited the state on Monday, May 20, but the carnage from the tornado outbreak started the day before.

This weather was the story — but just case – just in case we needed something for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend — hey, it was a long weekend — I still needed to get my piece done. This is to allow others to work on it before its original run date: Sunday, May 26.

I tried really hard to get out of it.

I ran to the Shawnee area Sunday with a photographer as soon as I heard a trailer park there had been flattened.

me on job

On Monday, when not hiding in a closet Tweeting the monster, I made my way to the morgue, just to see what I could see.

The kids were in bed. I needed to somehow help figure this thing out.

You would think this is not normal behavior. But it is for a reporter. Reporters want to help break down devastating events when they occur.

I wanted to work on the tornado, not the piece about my son, I told my editor. I tried to get my deadline for the CF piece pushed back.

Nope. It had to be done.

I was at the morgue.

There I met a toxicologist who was a surprisingly good listener for the line of work he was in.

I had my lap top open in the lobby of the medical examiner’s office. This turned out to be great place to get a little work done.

I asked him what brought him there tonight.

He had no real business being there, he was just there to support his fellow staff members. They were going to be working through the night. It was his day off and he wanted to make himself useful, he said.

I told him I knew the feeling.

I’m writing a piece about my son, I told him. I’m hung up. Can’t finish it.

“This is really hard,” I said to my new therapist at the morgue.

“Those are the best to read,” he said. “The ones that are the hardest to write.”

You know I really kind of liked my new morgue BFF.

We talked about media.

We talked about CF. He told me about a friend who has a child with the disease – a child doing a really well.

We talked about natural disasters like this that tend to hit Oklahoma. Where he was during the last couple – May 3, 1999, which is a date everyone knows around here. That tornado in the same area killed over 40.

My new friend got back up. Firemen had arrived. They were wearing blue medical gloves. He needed to see what they needed.

I had written a basic story on the event and on Andrea as I sat at the morgue seeing what I could see, but I just couldn’t finish the May 4 post. I couldn’t really get it straight what I wanted to say.

It was writer’s block like I’ve never had before.

The morgue had no official news to release so I went back home.

Even given the fact that, yes, I am a reporter, and yes, I want a piece of any huge story that hits my area — It’s just not like me to try to get out of something I’ve promised so many people, frankly. I was so gung-ho when I got the assignment to let people know about my son, about facing a life that isn’t the life you thought you’d get.

Then all the sudden, I quit trying to finish it.

It was like I’d been training for months for the race of a lifetime. I sprinted the race then got to the last 50 yards and just started to walk.

The piece was due the next day. It wasn’t done.

I wanted to call Andrea before my shift, which starts in the afternoon on Tuesdays.

I work at 1 p.m. I called her at noon.

You know, I’m glad I did.

I told Andrea it was hard for me to call. I know I’d love to talk a lot more – I just wasn’t sure that I could now. It’s my son, I said. I have a hard time thinking about him getting sick.

She totally understood. However, we did get to talking a bit.

She’s a sweetheart. Andrea also has great perspective on her own medical care, which is really valuable. I got to know her just a little bit, confirmed the basic facts I’d gotten from her friends the day of the race, and said I’d call again.

I went into work.

I sat down to talk to my editor about the piece, my hang ups, my unusual field trips.

I didn’t even know what to say going into the meeting.

I decided I was going to ask — no, beg — for more time.

Instead, I confessed:

I can’t stand thinking about the future when it comes to my son.

I can’t stand it.

I told her that I agreed to do the piece thinking I could handle it since I’d been writing all along. I hadn’t realized how emotional it would be, how it would put my mind through the ringer to learn things I didn’t want to learn, face things I didn’t want to face. To face Eli’s future.

I confessed something I hadn’t even realized was true until I blurted it out: I’d been hiding at disaster scenes to avoid my own life.

The future was my monster. The monster from my nightmares, the monster waiting to take my son away.

It was easier for me to cover other peoples’ disasters than to look ahead, into the unknown, into Eli’s future.

And yet, CF is so different in everybody. And medicine is advancing so fast. I know his life will be happy, good. Andrea’s life seemed happy and good. She’s so strong, even though she faces major challenges – she had to have open heart surgery last year. That’s because a catheter near her heart – much like the one Eli had for his medical procedures- developed a blood clot.

Still, she’s married. She has a dog, June Bug, and a ton of love and support in her life. Her spirit is so strong. I loved learning all that. But I hated that she was sick. Too sick to work. This wasn’t fair.

I hate that Eli has this disease.

I thought I was ready to face it all.

I’m not.

I still made the call, I told my editor.

I have every detail I need.

And I will finish it.

I needed the deadline to make the call.

After I spoke to Andrea, after I talked to my editor, I finished the last post in less than 20 minutes.

I said everything I wanted to say about what we had experienced, what we had learned so far.

The words just flowed. I knew exactly what I wanted to express.

Of course, the piece was held.

There is no room in the newspaper right now for an long piece about my family’s experience. This is the worst natural disaster since ’99.

In a few weeks, or maybe even sooner, the time will be right.

Maybe people around here need a story like this.

The monster took so many children, so many homes.

Each person left standing in the rubble got a new life. Each person in the new life is grieving for the old life, is grieving for what was supposed to be, then, in an instant, wasn’t.

Life is like that. Hard.

We are all pushing forward, together, stronger for the things we’ve had to endure.
darlin who lost her home May 19 near Shawnee, OK

Disaster communications

It’s been a long few days. My state has been hit with a terrible string of severe weather and tornadoes.

That is normal here. What happened today – Monday, May 20 – in Moore, OK and south Oklahoma City is not normal.

Today was my day off. I was no where near Moore. Our city is vast and wide and cattle graze in parts of it, far from the skyscrapers. Over 600 square miles. I was not on the south side, not even close.

We are all OK.

My nanny Lo came over today to help with the kids so I could catch up from the severe weather weekend.

I got to Target and back. Of course I went to Target! I couldn’t help but buy a little darling I met after a different tornado on Sunday a few things. Every girl needs to know she’s a princess. Even if she lives in a mobile home park and no longer has a home, just a bull dog named Chubs, a mama, a dolly and the clothes on her back. She needed some sparkle to match her smile.

darlin

I got back from Target with a few things for the darlin and some groceries. Me, Laila, buddy and the nanny ended up taking cover together for the better part of the day. The sirens kept going off. I put my daughter in helmet and buddy in a car seat. We all got in a closet at the lowest point of our home and in the middle of our home. I Tweeted the disaster from our bunker.

I was glad Lo was here. First of all, she grew up here. She understands the weather and can handle it calmly. During our drills, one of us needed to closely follow the weather and one of us needed to entertain buddy and make Laila think this was all a fun game. Mark was at school.

He kept calling and calling. Lo had to spring to action to calm him down.

He was panicked.

A tornado was on the ground in Moore and he had just learned it destroyed a school with children inside.

The people in Moore did just as they were supposed to do but the tornado killed many of them.

This is what is going to occupy my week at work. I am dreading it at the same time some I know may vouch that I have an extremely difficult time staying away from work when disaster strikes.

The news is upsetting, though. The thought of dead children makes me sick.

One of the first interviews I did here in Oklahoma City was with Buddy Shadid, father of Anthony Shadid, a storied NYT correspondent who died in Syria. He told me of his son’s writing philosophy: “It’s not about the bombs, it’s about the people the bombs fall on.”

I’ll keep that in mind.

Also, I need to keep my family in mind.

This is alarming. They need me too.

And we need help. Lo is our nanny and she is putting in extra hours to get us through this. I have to work more and we have no family here. This means we need her help now more than ever. We could not do this without her.

The tornado hit us Monday.

The night before, Sunday night, a separate twister struck Shawnee, about 30 miles away. Hours after eating ice cream with my family I was sitting on top of an Oklahoma County disaster control tour bus that shone a spotlight over a mobile home community that had vastly been erased by mother nature. Two people died in the Shawnee area, including an elderly man in the mobile home community I toured with the sheriff.

I try to keep these people – the dead – in mind while I report. I am working on a grave site. You don’t run and skip and joke and laugh at a grave site. The dead deserve some sanctity.

Poor Laila is all discombobulated from all the jumping in and out of closets and mommy and daddy acting crazy.

Mark and I need to work on our disaster communication plan.

These twisters have our nerves on edge. We couldn’t help but notice we’re not very nice to each other when we’re as edgy as these twisters have made us. However, we agreed to work on that.

Please think of and pray for the people of Shawnee and Moore and Oklahoma.

me on job