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Foreign Students in Oklahoma Confront Tornado Threat

A tornado-damaged bedroom with clothes hanging in the closet is pictured in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma May 22, 2013.
A tornado-damaged bedroom with clothes hanging in the closet is pictured in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma May 22, 2013.
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— For many Americans in the nation’s center, tornadoes are a frightening fact of life. But for foreign students, usually from countries where tornadoes never occur, twisters can be an even scarier experience. Such was the case this past Monday when a tornado devastated the U.S. town of Moore, Oklahoma, killing at least 24 people and leaving thousands homeless.

“It was such a bad thing to see and experience,” says Manoj Venkatesan, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma.  Venkatesan, who is from India, was about 13 kilometers away from the tornado.  “We had heard the alert for 10 minutes before the tornado.  As soon as we heard the siren, I went to the campus and then went down the basement.  It was scary.”

When he heard the siren go off, he did not expect the tornado to be as big and damaging as it was. Venkatesan says he hopes life returns back to normal soon.

The University of Oklahoma is about 16 kilometers from Moore and near Oklahoma City, the largest city in the southwestern state.  Oklahoma is in a region often referred to as Tornado Alley - which stretches from Texas north toward Canada and east toward Ohio and Kentucky.  Those areas frequently experience tornadoes - violent rotating columns of air that extend from a thunderstorm to the ground.  They can travel scores of kilometers, destroying buildings in their path.

Most communities in the central United States use sirens to alert people of an approaching tornado. Once the siren goes off, people are urged to take shelter - usually in basements or in sturdy buildings.

Sitta Tarawally is from Sierra Leone and an international student at the University of Oklahoma. “I was at the university and went to the basement after the siren went on,” she said.  In Oklahoma, people expect tornadoes every now and then, she said, adding she could tell that something was different about it.  “We expected something worse than before,” she said.

Another international student, Mohammed Aldabbous, says few natural disasters happen in his country, Saudi Arabia, so this was his first time he experienced such a storm.  He was 10 minutes away from the tornado.  “When I heard the siren going on, it was a tragedy, I was shocked,” he said.  Aldabbous said that luckily, the place where he stayed was not damaged.

“I saw the tornado from away and heard the siren everywhere.  It was scary,” Aldabbous said. “I feel very sorry about what happened in Oklahoma.”

The University of Oklahoma, which just finished its spring semester, has opened its dormitories to people who lost their homes.  People and companies have started to donate money to help the tornado victims, and President Barack Obama has promised that Oklahomans will get the aid they need.  President Obama travels to Moore this Sunday to meet with survivors and first responders and get a firsthand look at the devastation.

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