They call Moore, Oklahoma, “Tornado Ally in Tornado Alley.” In 1999, the town was pulverized by a monster twister.
Lack of funds and the fatalism of the town’s inhabitants meant that little was done to protect the town against future storms. So, on May 20th 2013, when another deadly storm bore down on Moore, few buildings had storm shelters.
At Plaza Elementary School, which took a direct hit, seven children died.
Holly Bailey, a former White House correspondent for Newsweek, who grew up in Moore, arrived the day after the tornado to discover that familiar childhood landmarks had been obliterated. Her new book, The Mercy of The Skies: The Story of a Tornado, weaves together the stories of half a dozen residents in Moore as they battle to survive the storm.
Speaking from her home in New York, she explains how children died because there were no adequate shelters; how returning to Moore compared to visiting New Orleans after Katrina; and why weathermen in Oklahoma are like rock stars.
Your book is about the deadly tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20th 2013. Take us back to that day.
It had been several days of very severe weather, which is not unusual in Oklahoma in May. People in Moore and central Oklahoma had been warned that it would probably be a really bad storm but no one anticipated how early the storm would form.
It started a little before 2:00 p.m. The local TV stations went into back-to-back coverage. They deployed all their storm chasers to this storm developing to the south of Moore.
Suddenly this wispy, little cloud erupted into a mile-wide tornado with 200 mph winds. Strangely, it went on the same path that many storms have taken when heading towards Moore. In the end, it wiped out a large swath of the central part of town, making a direct hit on two elementary schools where kids were still in class.
Twenty-five people died because of the storm and several hundred were injured. Among the dead were seven little kids who were at one of the schools that took a direct hit.
I was shocked to discover that the schools didn’t have storm shelters because they believed tornados strike later in the day when kids will be back home. Isn’t that crazy?
It is. But it’s just something that people accepted–that tornadoes don’t hit until later in the evening, even though we now know that’s not true. At the time, they did. Oklahoma is a pretty conservative state, so they’re limited on education funding. The education funding schools do have hadn’t been used to build shelters. But that’s changed a bit since 2013.
This is also a personal story–you grew up in Moore. What was it like to return under these circumstances?
When you’re from Oklahoma, you are raised to be weather-aware from a very young age. My Mom used to walk out the front door and look up at the sky to see what it was doing. I would mimic that, especially in the spring because you really never know what might happen.
It can be blue skies one instant and within 20 minutes there are dark skies, rumbling thunder and flashing lightning. You learn to become this person who, on the one hand, is scared of storms. But you also admire them. The way the storm clouds blow up in the west is quite beautiful, especially in rural parts of the state.
The way tornadoes dance over the fields is quite extraordinary to watch. It’s when they happen in urban areas that is terrible. But the storms that hit when I was a kid were nothing like the storms that have been terrorizing central Oklahoma over the last decade or so. Those were small storms, EF1 or EF2 on the Fujita Scale. They seemed terrifying to me, but they were not anything like what we’re seeing now.
Oklahomans are used to adversity dating back to the Dust Bowl. Give us an insight into the Okie mindset–and how it helped them cope during the storm.
Oklahomans are very resilient. They’re very much, ‘I’m gonna take care of myself, I’m not gonna rely on anybody else to do it for me.’ They have this mechanism that enables them to cope with incredible tragedy. Part of that comes from the Dust Bowl.
People in Oklahoma also have this strange relationship with the weather. They love it and they hate it but they’ll never leave. They won’t let Mother Nature drive them away from their homes.
After the 2013 storm, I spoke to a lot of people in Moore, who were rebuilding their homes, Most people said they didn’t want to move anywhere else. ‘We’re gonna stay in Moore and rebuild, and if another storm comes, we’ll rebuild again.’
We have all seen YouTube footage of storm chasers. Take us inside the mindset of these people? Are they just crazy?
[Laughs] Some people say they are just crazy. There are a couple of different ways to categorize them. There are storm chasers who are complete amateurs and want to go out and see what tornadoes look like.
Then you have people working for the local TV station who see themselves as Paul Revere in a way. They go out with their trucks,have cameras and are the ones who can pinpoint exactly where the storm is.
Then you have people that aren’t affiliated with TV stations but are filming these things and often sell their footage to TV stations. Over the years in Oklahoma the roads have gotten increasingly crowded from people chasing these storms!
In most places, weathermen are regarded with a mixture of boredom and mild amusement. In Oklahoma, they’re like rock stars. Tell us about Gary England.
Gary England is the rock star of meteorologists in Oklahoma. He retired right after these storms, but he is the person who really shaped what weather coverage is like today, not just in Oklahoma, but nationally.
Weather coverage in Oklahoma is unlike anywhere else partly because the storms are so deadly. Local stations cover the weather like an emergency.
The person that created that style was Gary England. He grew up in this speck of a town in western Oklahoma in an era when TV meteorologists mostly relied on the National Weather Service to tell people what was happening. He was the first person in the country to get a Doppler radar for a commercial TV station and subsequently used it to create tornado warnings.
There are lots of stations around the country that rely mainly on the National Weather Service to give them warnings. But in Oklahoma, weathermen are very proactive. Sometimes they issue warnings even before the National Weather Service does, which is frowned upon.
But in Oklahoma viewers have come to expect that. They view these people as their lifelines, the people who are going to keep them alive. On storm day it becomes like this intense reality TV show. You have all these storm chasers, who are beaming back the view of the storm and literally track it inch by inch over hours.
Tornadoes in Oklahoma are like car chases in L.A. In fact, one of the helicopter pilots who works for Channel 9, Gary England’s station, was one of the helicopter pilots that chased OJ Simpson in his white Bronco back then in 1994! Now he’s chasing tornadoes in Oklahoma.
You left Oklahoma and ended up as the youngest ever White House correspondent. How did your experience in Moore compare with the scenes of devastation you witnessed in New Orleans after Katrina?
I was with President Bush when Hurricane Katrina hit ten years ago. We flew to Alabama and Mississippi and then to New Orleans where we flew over in helicopters. The destruction was terrible! Especially in New Orleans, which is one of the most beautiful cities in America. To see it under an ocean of water was absolutely horrible.
It was tricky in Moore because you are a journalist and have to compartmentalize your feelings to focus on your job. But when you see a street you grew up on as a kid and landmarks you recognize….gone. It’s an overpowering emotion. Even though I’d seen destruction like that before, it’s quite different when it’s in a place you know and love.
Our scientific understanding of hurricanes has increased greatly. Is the same true of tornadoes?
We do know more about tornadoes, but not nearly enough. When I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma, you didn’t know that a tornado was coming until the house across the street blew away. Now, thanks to radar, there is lots of warning time. But scientists want more.
Howard Bluestein describes tornadoes as the last frontier of atmospheric science. Another scientist compared tornados to icebergs. You see the funnel but it’s what’s going on above it in the clouds that they still don’t understand. They don’t know why, for instance, storms like this keep hitting Moore. Something about the geography or geology. But there is still a deep mystery about these kinds of storms.
You talk about the increasing severity of tornados and the enhanced Fujita scale. What accounts for their new intensity and frequency?
The Fujita scale, which was developed in the 1970’s, was used to measure the severity of storms. But in 1999, the storm that hit Moore and others, like in Joplin, were so severe that scientists began to rethink, is the Fujita scale accurate enough?
So, they created an enhanced Fujita scale, which is why you hear the term EF1 or EF4, to take into account not just the size and the wind speed, but also damage on the ground.
But scientists are baffled by the severity of these storms, which seem to be getting bigger. You’ll have one year, like in Oklahoma in 2013, which was one of the highest [storm] years on record. Then, in 2014, it was the lowest on record.
This May, in Cleveland County alone, there were more than 80 tornado warnings. That’s one for the record books and they can’t explain why that happens.
Very few houses in Moore had adequate storm shelters at the time. Have things improved?
Steve Eddy, the city manager of Moore, who’s been through all these tornadoes and helped rebuild the town again and again, pushed for, and actually succeeded in, getting stricter building codes so that the houses they are rebuilding are stronger and able to withstand these storms better.
What is so shocking to me is that after the 1999 storm, which wiped out a lot of Moore, I thought more people would have storm shelters. But it was not the case.
This time around there has been a bigger push to have more storm shelters. But one of the problems is that storm shelters are quite pricey. We’re talking thousands of dollars. People that live in Moore make a good living but most of them are not rich. That’s a huge sum of money. So, many people continue to go without.
Surely, the local government should build a community shelter.
After what happened in Moore in 2013, there was a statewide push to pass a bond issue to add storm shelters at schools. But it didn’t go anywhere.
People said, if I live in a part of the state where tornadoes never hit, why should my tax dollars go to protect people in central Oklahoma?
People in Moore rebuilt the two public schools that were hit and added storm shelters. They’re also trying to find the money to build storm shelters or add safe rooms to all the schools, which would not only protect kids if a storm hits but also be a place where people in the community could shelter. It’s an ongoing debate.