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May 21, 2013

On the Scene in Tornado Hit Town: 'Even Trees are Stripped of Everything'

by Greg Flakus

VOA correspondent Greg Flakus is at the site of the tornado damage in Moore, Oklahoma. He spoke with English broadcaster David Byrd Tuesday afternoon about what he is seeing.

Byrd: Greg, can you describe for our listeners what in looks like in this town?

Flakus: The first thing you have to understand is not all of the town was affected, in fact it's only a very small area compared to the overall area. But it's a good 10 percent and certainly affected probably hundreds, maybe even a few thousand people. There were people's homes completely shattered. I'm standing right now in an area where you see mud and debris. Walking around, you have to be careful. There's a lot of debris and broken pieces of metal and that kind of thing in the mud. And it's amazing to think as you look at this is that these were once comfortable homes. These were places where families went to sleep at night in their beds, where they shared dinner. And now you look and all you see are scraps of broken wood and twisted metal. Even the trees have been stripped of everything. They're just like sticks coming out of the ground. They don't look alive. They don't look like a living thing. They look dead.

Byrd: City officials have been reluctant to give a final death toll in this storm. You told me the number of people actually killed is still fluid. What are some the steps that the city is still taking to catalog or to find everybody who was either injured or who was killed.

Flakus: One of the problems is that since electricity and most essential services were cut off in this town. Even in parts of town that weren't directly affected by the tornado, they don't have power. So they had to take people to other hospitals in Oklahoma City and in nearby Norman and other communities. You also have a lot or firemen and policemen and officials from other parts of the state here, so just getting all that coordinated is kind of a problem. And they haven't had time to fully assess it. So they say it'll be a few days before they get that worked out. They aren't even sure, really, about the exact number of homes destroyed and businesses. I walked along a part of where I'm right near right now and you had a row of businesses in kind of a strip mall. All of them completely destroyed. I talked to one woman there who told me that in the meantime, all the employees are without work, The owner, of course, has no income coming in. And that's going to have a big impact on this town because you have many businesses that aren't functioning because they were destroyed, but many others, just because they don't have electricity or water or other services.

Byrd: This town is located in what is referred to as 'Tornado Alley,' which is a strip through the central United States where this kind is storm is common. But this particular storm was a rare one. I understand this was an EF-5 tornado  the highest you can get on the measurement scale.

Flakus: I'm not sure. The last I heard was E-4, but I've been out here in the muck and debris and I may not have heard that. But this town was hit by an E-5 tornado about 14 years ago and it's a pretty amazing thing. Somebody was saying that mathematically, the odds are just enormous that something like that would happen. There've only been about 10 of those really big storms recorded and two of them have happened here.

Byrd: What's the spirit of the people like? Are they mostly still in shock or are they determined to rebuild?

Flakus: They're for the most part determined to rebuild and neighbor helping neighbor, community coming together helping people. There's a great spirit here. I have, however, talked to a few people who've said 'I've had enough. These tornadoes that come every year and I want to move somewhere else.' Maybe they'll change their minds later but some of them I think were quite spooked by it. I've talked to a couple of people who have told me about certain psychological effects, how they jump and spook at noises and things when you have storm conditions as we did earlier today, people get nervous. they think 'Now what. Maybe another tornado.' So that psychological impact is going to linger for some time.