These photographs were taken on 08 May 2003, shortly after an F3 tornado passed through Moore, Oklahoma, eventually peaking as an F4 near Interstate 240. At the time, my wife and I lived in Norman, Oklahoma — a few short miles south of Moore. We were graduate students at the University of Oklahoma. That’s where we met, in central Oklahoma.
Five years prior, in May of 1999, the same town, Moore, was devastated by an epic F5 tornado. I had just moved from central Oklahoma back to Florida a week before that particular storm. I remember watching the coverage on the tv in Tallahassee with a true sense of shock and awe. It was unbelievably brutal, that May 1999 storm.
Oklahoma, you see, is sort of my second home in life. I lived there for three years as a kid (5th, 6th, and 7th grades), again for three years as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, and yet again for another three years as a graduate student at OU. Ever since the 5th grade, when the University of Oklahoma dominated the National Championship with Barry Switzer and Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma’s been a place I’ve never left behind. I’m still connected to childhood friends, college friends, grad school friends, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve partied with… It’s a social network that’s never faded throughout the years. Hell, Oklahoma is where I met my wife. It’s a place close to my heart, even if I’ve never identified myself as being an Okie.
Bump forward to yesterday, to 20 May 2013. Moore was yet again savaged by an unrelenting and devastatingly powerful tornado. Our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds are afire with status updates and reports from Cleveland county. I have an old friend who lost a business yesterday. I have another old friend who lost his home. Another lost his dog. Many people have reconnected, some people have not. We still don’t quite know what’s what with all our Oklahoma friends and community. All I can see are scattered images of devastating heartbreak and bittersweet survival. I honestly believe that once the dust settles and Oklahoma is able to assess the scope and scale of the damage, this will transcend both the 1999 and 2003 events.
As for these photographs, they are of the 2003 event in Moore (not 2013). We lived in Norman at the time. As the storm passed to our west, I took off northbound for Moore. It didn’t take long before I abandoned the interstate. There were a ton of smashed, bloodied cars and buses and I didn’t want to clog traffic for emergency response vehicles. It was quickly evident that this was a bad, bad tornado.
I parked a half mile south of where the tornado cut through Moore and then humped it northbound on foot. As I approached the path of the tornado, I began seeing downed power lines, chunks of insulation, shingle after shingle, random photographs, and –worst of all– dazed and confused people wandering about.
Within an hour of the storm passing, people were out and about, checking for injuries, checking for property. As for myself, I was careful to avoid downed utility lines, which in places were chaotically bundled and bunched in thick weaves.
While a line of cars departed Moore, heading northbound to Oklahoma City, other cars were strewn nearby, overturned, crunched, demolished.
Small groups of people congealed, sharing their experience, asking about neighbors, searching through debris.
At the top of this post is an American flag hung from debris near Interstate 35 — an act of resilience and pride, I suppose. Later, I spotted a small group of teenagers who’d torn the flag down and were walking along the debris field and I-35, holding the flag up for passing helicopters overhead. At the time, I was offended by them having torn that flag down to wave around as they did. It felt cheap. Now, looking back, I’m more sympathetic. I suppose they wanted to express something. Anything. The flag is a ready-made tool for such an expression.
I also saw three women slowly walking by a demolished church. They looked utterly broken, devasted, numb.
As for Interstate 35, it was an artery of chaos at Moore.
Turning back to the church, the structural damage was staggering.
My wife and I were spared such immediate disaster (as Norman residents usually are). I was simply a local-tourist taking photographs of the aftermath, trying to keep out of everybody’s way. I’d been through enough hurricanes in my life to know how to play it safe and to keep the hell out of the way. The damage I saw was devastating and extensive, though it was clear the storm wasn’t nearly as vicious as that 1999 storm five years prior.
Now, I think about yesterday’s tornado. I think of Moore. I think of the utter carnage. I think about friends, some who are like family. I think of the kids, all those helpless kids. And it hurts. It just fucking hurts. I hurt for the citizens of Moore — and for all the other midwestern communities brutally savaged by these recent tornadic cycles.
Dust Tracks is going to take a nap for the next few days. We’ll be back by the end of the week. If you can, give some time, thought, and support to those impacted by these tornadoes. If you’re further inclined, you can support the victims through the American Red Cross.
My thoughts are with my Oklahoma friends and family right now. My heart aches for them. For them all. Still, with that being said, Oklahomans are extremely resilient and strong people. They band together and they help each other, especially when it counts. Though there are many aspects of Oklahoma I don’t personally connect with, their collective ability to weather the storm, to rebuild, to band together, has always been nothing short of breathtakingly inspirational. I’m proud to have Oklahoma in the fabric of my life. I am a better person for it.