Monday, June 17, 2013

Photo Essay: May 20, 2013, Moore, Oklahoma, EF-5 Tornado

When I went into work May 19, 2013, to cover a local tornado I felt mildly inconvenienced. It's selfish but it's an emotion common to many journalists: We cover too many depressing topics to take things too personally. We become experts at compartmentalizing so we can get the job done and get the job done well. Still, with that said, I wasn't prepared for the next afternoon's EF-5 tornado in Moore, Okla. May 20, 2013, is a day that will live in my mind forever.

This is my photo essay on my day's experience:

Sirens go off around 2:30 p.m. in Norman. The entire building takes shelter in the basement. I grab my purse and notepad and continue transcribing notes while we wait for the all clear — it's not so much that my work needs to get done that urgently, but I need to distract myself from what the radio is saying. Tornadoes terrify me. We're told we can head back upstairs. We turn the TV on in the newsroom, and I feel sick to my stomach as I hear the meteorologist say over and over the word "deadly." We know this is going to be bad, but we're not sure how bad. I think about how my pre-assigned beat for tornadoes is the hospital beat. I try to brace myself for the worse: For an unimaginable amount of injuries and death. All I feel is numb. The meteorologist is tracking the storm, shouting out it's path through Moore. I turn to look at my editor, who lives in Moore, she is quietly sitting behind her desk wiping tears from her eyes. She calls her house to see if the line still works and we both pray that her home is still standing. We continue to watch footage for minute after horrifying minute until it appears it's coming to an end. We're given the all clear to head out to the scene and I load up with my coworker, Caitlin, to see what we can cover. She's the education reporter and we decide our first goal will be to find one of the schools that's been hit. 

I don't know how long we were driving but the traffic was bad. As we got closer to the impact site, we saw ambulances driving towards the hospital and even trucks with a few people in the back, some holding what looked like bags of saline. We have the radio on and hear a reporter's voice crack as he describes children being pulled from rubble. That's exactly the site we're looking for and I tell myself I won't cry until it's all over. 

We park blocks down from where the tornado hit because the street is covered with debris and downed power lines that are likely still live. We start walking towards the site, careful to step over debris, avoiding puddles and trying our best to absorb everything that's happened. Everyone around us looks just as dazed as we are. Like a bunch of zombies in a stupor. 

At this point the destruction isn't bad, but we both already feel like we're living in a movie. Windows are blown out of nearby businesses, the smell of natural gas begins permeating the street, wet dogs are weaving between people's feet and the people wandering up and down the street are either placid or frantic. It's too surreal for either of us to wrap our minds around it. We both try to focus on the task at hand: Finding people to interview.

We finally get up to one of the neighborhoods that's been hit hard. As we're walking by this home I hear a woman say in Spanish, "There's the kitchen." We stop her to ask her some questions. She's with her sons and they help translate for her. She said the house a few blocks down from this was her home. We asked how she felt and she said over and over, "It's just stuff." They left to find the rest of their family and we continued talking to another woman who lived through the May 3, 1999, tornado. She told us the similarities between this tornado and the May 3 tornado are eerie. We thank her for her time and split ways.

As we keep walking we stop a woman and ask her if she knows how to get to Plaza Towers Elementary, the school with the children trapped in it. She gives us two options, we pick the path through the neighborhood hoping for opportunities to talk to more people.

Broken water pipes make some areas almost impassible. 

We see this poor pup standing on top of a pile of rubble and our hearts can't help but break. He seems like he's stuck where he is, and Caitlin goes to rescue him. It's not long before someone is chasing us down yelling at us, telling us they left him there on purpose. You know what they say? No good deed goes unpunished.  

At first this looked like a sidewalk, but it's a wall that somehow fell straight to the ground.

More wreckage. We both noted how debris falls in the same direction because of the powerful forces in tornado winds.

As we walked by this home, the woman was comforting this man. After their embrace he asked, "Has anyone tried to reach my dad again?" It was heartbreaking imagining what was running through this man's mind.
This mother dug out snacks that had survived in the storm. She shouted excitedly when she pulled out perfectly preserved records, including birth certificates. Her daughter behaved like this was just another day, and didn't seem at all stressed.

As we were walking by we heard shouts for help. Men and women in various uniforms, some in street clothes, came sprinting with the hope of finding a person buried beneath all this rubble. We stood, waiting in anticipation, as rescuers called over and over again to the pile in the hopes of hearing a faint voice beneath. The surrounding crowd was ushered to silence several times as we all eagerly listened for signs of life. We heard nothing, and eventually we moved on.

Rescuers continue the search.

Rescuers hoping for an answer.
This man, Drew, was with all the other uniformed individuals trying to help. He asked if I had cell reception and asked me to text his wife to tell her he was okay. He said while they were watching the destruction on the TV, he picked up his work boots, turned to his wife and told her he was heading out to help as soon as he could. I saw him a few other times while we were out there.

More crews searching for people alive under the rubble. 

Metal twisted around trees near destroyed neighborhoods.

Emergency personnel headed towards Plaza Towers Elementary.

Behind the school. The playground.

Approaching from behind.

What was once the playground.

Behind the school.

Abandoned books in the mud.

They were just starting to tape off the school as we approached. We were yelled at more than once by various first responders. We were told by one of them there was a staging area for media members towards the front of the school. We continued walking that way in the hopes of finding somebody to talk to.

My feet were drenched in water and mud at this point. I had to make a conscious effort to keep from losing them in the mud.

Plaza Towers Elementary from the south side, I believe.

The south side of the school. Crews were continuing to work to dig children out. At this point we ran into another reporter from the paper in Oklahoma City. We asked him if he knew about the media staging area and he had no clue. After that we saw several broadcasters and other newspaper people doing the same thing we were doing — standing around wondering who could give any kind of official word. I think the answer is that there were none. They were busy with more pressing issues. We, the reporters, were really only there as observers.

First responders waiting to help in front of the school.

We felt like we should document we were there.

Many of those in the area beyond the first yellow tape are parents waiting to hear about their children.

The neighborhood in front of the school.

Plaza Towers Elementary. 

At this point we heard parents were being ushered towards a local church to talk to police about their children. We wandered down there to see what we could find.

When we arrived we saw many people sitting on curbs, people standing aimlessly, people holding each other, hysterical tears, quiet tears, reserved optimism, despair — all the emotions were found in that parking lot. Police officers started speaking to parents, writing down descriptions of children and contact information to take to local hospitals to try and reunite families. The most striking person there was the principal of Plaza Towers. She had debris in her hair, mud all over her feet, but she quietly buzzed between parents and police, a yearbook in her hand as she worked to identify children. She was doggedly focused and fiercely selfless as she worked to serve her students and their parents. She approached us to ask who we were. When we said we were with the media, she quickly brushed us off and got back to work. Angelic and heroic do not begin to describe this woman's ferocity. She acted as a saint that day as she put others' needs far above her own. I will never forget her example.

We weren't sure who to approach to talk to since everyone was either clearly occupied, in hysterics or utterly numbed. Neither of us had had any lunch and by this time I think it was 5 or 6 p.m. Thankfully, I had thrown an apple and water in my purse. We shared my apple as we took a break on the curb.

Another tired parent. An ambulance eventually came to take her away.

We stayed at the church just long enough to talk to one distraught parent and watch the American Red Cross roll in.

Graduation cap from local high school abandoned in the debris as we walked back to the car.

Destroyed businesses.

As we walked back to the car I stopped to pull some tylenol out of my purse to help with my aching joints. I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed with guilt that I got to return home to a bed, to my husband, to comfort and safety. Though I was intellectually aware of what I had just seen, emotionally I felt numb to the magnitude of it all. I felt completely drained. Exhausted is an understatement. We got back to the newsroom, ate some pizza that was waiting for us, slipped off our soaked, muddy shoes and started writing a story together. This is the story we came up with before we both called it a day and headed home.



Hilary said...

So well written, Hannah. And the pictures you took are amazing and horrifying at the same time. Thank you for sharing.

Hannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Hilary!

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