In Oklahoma, Praying To A 'God Of Rebuilding'

May 23, 2013

All that's left standing at Kiaya Roper's house in Moore, Okla., is the bathroom. When a tornado struck the town on Monday, Roper was at work at Central Elementary School, her children were at school and her husband managed to ride out the storm by hunkering down in that bathroom.

"God put his hand down on his head for me," Roper says.

Twister-prone Oklahoma can be a challenging place to live. For survivors of the latest storm, that's just proof of how resilient their community will be.

Addressing teachers Wednesday, Moore Public Schools Superintendent Susan Pierce mentioned the Land Rush, the Trail of Tears, the Dust Bowl and "tornado after tornado after tornado." None of those made Oklahomans turn tail and run.

"Some people might say we're stubborn; I say we're tenacious," Pierce said. "We stay because that's who we are and that's what we do."

People such as Roper who have lost homes and all their possessions count themselves lucky, so long as their families survived.

At this early stage in the recovery, they have chosen to focus on the positive — the bravery of rescue workers and first responders, the generosity of people who have come to help or have donated money and goods from far away.

"I can't even describe how helpful people have been," says Sylvia Trillo, sitting outside her wrecked home in Moore.

As in other places beset by tragedy, people in central Oklahoma don't want to be defined by a disaster, but how they have responded to it, says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, which commemorates the 1995 bombing of the downtown federal building.

"You go on and live life and move forward the best you can," Watkins says. "Because a tornado blows through doesn't mean you don't rebuild or move back."

Remembering May 3

The date May 3 resonates for people in central Oklahoma much in the same way that Sept. 11 does for all Americans. All this week, residents have been referring back to the outbreak of tornadoes on May 3, 1999, that devastated Moore and other communities.

"We've done it before, so we were ready to go," says Kyle Duncan, business administrator of the First Baptist Church in Moore, which is serving as a shelter and major staging ground for insurance agents and adjusters, as well as for donated goods.

No one knew Monday morning that they'd need to come help out at the church, but dozens of volunteers have shown up every day since.

"We don't do drills or anything, but it's definitely still in the minds of the people," Duncan says.

Oklahoma Banking Commissioner Mick Thompson, who was visiting the church, also applauded how people responded immediately to a less damaging tornado that struck the town of Shawnee on Sunday.

"By the time they were reporting it, we had people out on tractors moving stuff," he says. "They'll need government assistance, but they didn't wait on government to help. They were out doing things for people before the storm even passed."

Can't Fight The Weather

There's an old joke that everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

In Oklahoma, they've accepted that there's nothing human beings can do.

"We do live here in central Oklahoma pretty much in the bulls-eye of the traditional Tornado Alley," says John Snow, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma.

But like other residents, Snow points out that there's bad weather practically everywhere — drought and fires and hurricanes. Some have made jokes this week about family members who live in California, for example, and risk "falling into the ocean."

"People in Oklahoma not only endure the weather, they've turned it into a resource," Snow says. He notes that wind farms that send electricity as far away as Alabama and the fact that his own campus is home to the National Weather Center, which serves to predict storms throughout the country.

"We had another tornado, and OK, we'll rebuild," Snow says.

Needing To Move Mountains

In a benediction, Lori Walke asked the gathering of teachers Wednesday to pray to a "god of rebuilding."

It's been a common prayer this week. Family, jobs and other ties have prompted most people to insist that they will stay, although a few are reluctant to rebuild in exactly the same spot.

There's pride in having survived so many killer storms and having responded with generosity and resolve.

"It's amazing what we go through and what God can bring us through," says Moore resident Daniel Iverson, who ends an interview with a reporter so he can go fetch oxygen for his mother.

Pride and faith are helping people pull through, as they cope with shock and begin to count up their losses.

"You need that right now," says Victor Rook, a computer and math teacher at Central Junior High. "You need to feel like you can move mountains because you have mountains you need to move."

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