A Year after Deadly Tornado, Fear Still Lingers in Oklahoma

Moore students and community look back at how their lives changed

 

 
 
 

SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press | | Tuesday, May 20, 2014

GALLERIES

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MOORE, Okla. (AP) — Ten-year-old Kai Heuangpraseuth will return to a new Plaza Towers Elementary in the fall, built on the same spot where seven of the boy's schoolmates died last year after a top-scale tornado reduced it to a pile of rubble.

Christopher Legg will not be there, but his mother says perhaps her son's death will hurt a little less if last May's tragedy in Moore helps lead to safer schools.

One year after the deadly tornado carved a 17-mile path through the heart of this Oklahoma City suburb and killed 24 people, deep scars remain — especially for families who lost loved ones and children traumatized after riding out the fearsome storm inside two elementary schools.

JEMS Moore Tornado Coverage

Neither Plaza Towers nor nearby Briarwood Elementary had an underground shelter or tornado safe room, so when the tornado bore down, with winds speed exceeding 200 mph, the students huddled into hallways or crammed into bathrooms or closets. Most of the child victims died after a massive wall collapsed and suffocated them.

Kai, who was plucked from the school's rubble by a police officer in a moment captured by an Associated Press photographer, is excited about the new school, but still troubled by bad weather and certain loud sounds.

"He's still got his triggers," said Kai's mother, Jacalyn Russell, who plans to move back into the Plaza Towers district this summer. "It's not really the rain. He likes the rain. It's more the wind, and sounds that sound similar ... like the trains."

Even the slightest turn in the weather can cause anxiety and fear for the surviving Plaza Towers students, who have been attending classes at a refurbished junior high since the storm, Principal Amy Simpson said.

"We try not to say 'tornado' around here," said Simpson, who rode out the storm with five other staffers in a small bathroom. "Just the word scares them."

Even the continuous outpouring of cards, gifts and well wishes from students across the country brings fresh reminders.

"The hardest part about that is that the kids are reminded each time someone gives something to us that their friends are gone," she said.

Nine-year-old Haley Delgado carried a pair of headphones around with her for months to block out the sound of the wind, which reminds her of the EF-5 tornado, mom Athena Delgado said.

"We still have them, but she doesn't still use them," said Delgado, whose 10-year-old son Xavier Delgado also was in the school that day.

Xavier gets apprehensive when Oklahoma's unpredictable weather takes a turn for the worse, Delgado said, but mostly he thinks about the friends he lost.

"Those were his classmates who died," Delgado said. "He still misses his friends."

For some Moore families, the chance to watch their child return to school ended on May 20.

Danni Legg, mother of 9-year-old Christopher, says it has been "bittersweet" to watch the community recover from the storm. The neighborhood surrounding Plaza Towers was one of the hardest hit, with homes flattened to the foundation and reduced to piles of splintered debris that stretched for miles. Today, brand-new homes pop up on lots that have long since been cleared, many by the thousands of volunteers who arrived to help.

Legg has found some comfort by pouring herself into advocating for more storm shelters in schools and launching a political campaign for the state House.

"If more shelters can come out of this, it will be worth it for Chris," Legg said. "Yes, seven children's lives were lost, but if half a million Oklahoma students and staff can be protected, it will make this hurt a little less."

A safe-room shelter is being constructed into the new Plaza Towers Elementary School, where Kai reunited recently with Moore Police Officer Travis Muehlenweg, a four-year veteran who helped pull the third-grader from under the collapsed wall.

"Thanks," Kai told the officer and then moved in for a hug. They walked across a field to get a closer look at the new school. "It looks huge," the boy said.

"Maybe I'll see you there," the officer responded. "I'll come over."

___

Follow Sean Murphy at www.twittercom/apseanmurphy

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

Moore firefighter Lieutenant Corley Moore poses for a photo at Fire Station 1in Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Moore was one of the firefighters who rescued children from under a collapsed building at Plaza Towers Elementary school following the May 20, 2013 tornado. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this May 20, 2013 file photo, Moore firefighters from left, Andrew Burum, Corporal Josh Trent, Lieutenant Corley Moore and Major Mark Murdock, and Moore police officer Travis Muehlenweg, upper left, search for victims trapped in the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla. For the students of Plaza Towers, who have been attending classes at a refurbished junior high school building since the storm, the slightest turn in the weather can cause anxiety and fear, said principal Amy Simpson. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

Moore firefighter Major Mark Murdock carries his equipment through the bay in Fire Station 1 in Moore, Okla., Friday, May 16, 2014. Murdock was on the scene at Plaza Towers Elementary school following the May 20, 2013 tornado. A firefighter for 28 years, 25 of them in Moore, Murdock has worked large tornadoes before, but said that his work of rescue and recovery at the school that day was one of his most difficult assignments. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this May 20, 2013 file photo, Kai Heuangpraseuth is pulled from beneath a collapsed wall at the Plaza Towers Elementary School following a tornado in Moore, Okla. Heuangpraseuth will return to a new Plaza Towers Elementary in the fall, built on the same spot where seven of his schoolmates died last year during the storm. (AP Photo Sue Ogrocki, File)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

Moore police officer Travis Muehlenweg, right, hugs 10-year-old Kai Heuangpraseuth, after they met outside the new Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Muehlenweg was photographed while helping to pull Heuangpraseuth from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary school following the May 20, 2013 tornado. Heuagpraseuth's mother, Jacalyn Russell, said that her son has wanted to meet Muehlenweg for nearly a year. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this May 20, 2013 file photo, Cam'ron Richardson, center, is carried out of the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary school after a massive tornado hit in Moore, Okla. The children at Plaza Towers and nearby Briarwood Elementary huddled into hallways or crammed into bathrooms or closets as the tornado, with wind speeds exceeding 200 mph, bore down on them. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this May 20, 2013 file photo, Xavier Delgado is carried from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary school following a tornado in Moore, Okla. Impaled by a ceiling tile, Delgado needed seven interior and seven exterior stitches. Neither Plaza Towers and nearby Briarwood Elementary had an underground shelter or tornado safe room. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

This May 15, 2014, aerial photo shows the new Plaza Towers Elementary school, still under construction, in the Plaza Towers neighborhood in Moore, Okla. Many new homes are replacing the ones destroyed by the May 20, 2013 tornado. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this May 13, 2014 photo, a temporary fence surrounds a tree that was ravaged by the May 20, 2013, tornado and has been named the "Hope Tree" by fourth grade teacher Kimberly Martinez, in front of the new Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla. Of the more than 1,000 homes in Moore destroyed in the storm, city officials said more than half already have been rebuilt or are under construction. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this May 13, 2014 photo, Moore Police Officer Travis Muehlenweg, right, shows 10-year-old Kai Heuangpraseuth, left, the interior of his police vehicle in Moore, Okla. Muehlenweg, a four-year veteran helped pull the third grader from under a wall at Plaza Towers Elementary after a tornado hit the town on May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this photo combination, volunteers pray at a makeshift memorial on May 26, 2013, outside Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., the day after seven students died when a massive tornado hit the town, top. A boy walks past the rebuilt school building on the same site on May 7, 2014, bottom. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

In this Monday, May 20, 2013 file photo, LaTisha Garcia carries her daughter, Jazmin Rodriguez, through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013. Jazmin was a third grade student at Plaza Towers Elementary school, where the tornado destroyed the school, trapping third grade students under rubble. Seven students died. (AP Photo Sue Ogrocki, File)


Gallery 1

Moore, Oklahoma: One Year Later

This aerial photo combination shows the damage to Tower Plazas Elementary School, May 21, 2013, in Moore, Okla., after seven students died when a massive tornado hit school on May 20, top, and reconstruction continues at the school on May 15, 2014, bottom. (AP Photo)



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