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A family is calm, resilient amid devastation of Okla. tornado

This is what is left of the Highland East Middle School gym. It was next to the locker room where teacher Anya Montgomery, Times reporter Ben Montomery’s sister-in-law, rode out the tornado.
Published May 26, 2013

It blowed away, it blowed away,

My Oklahoma home it blowed away,

Well it looked so green and fair when I built my shanty there,

My Oklahoma home it blowed away.

— "My Oklahoma Home"

MOORE, Okla. — They were ready, because they're always ready, because the people here know that when the black clouds start forming and the sirens begin to scream, it is time to go down. Down under desks. Down into cellars. Down onto knees.

They practice with eye-rolling frequency, cramming into closets and classrooms, ducking and covering, in a town where the weathermen occasionally outrank Bob Stoops and Jesus in celebrity, depending on the season.

Even so, it seemed improbable on Monday afternoon that my family would be intact on Tuesday morning. From Florida, I looked down through the television on ruined earth. Gutted cars. Flames licking a roof. Death toll climbing. The pull of home is strongest when worry catches in your throat.

"Let us know you're all right," I texted.

The responses were precious, and so slow.

"I'm ok."

"All ok."

"Ok."

I flew to Oklahoma the next day just as they started giving disaster tours to country music celebrities and launching the everything-must-go hail sales at the car lots. TV can't do the destruction justice.

If you stand at one end of the jagged scar and stare across the forever-field of tangled trees and broken brick, where the mud-eating twister sliced through 13,000 homes like boiled carrots, it seems improbable that just two dozen perished. Improbable, but not miraculous, for there are a thousand unsung angels.

• • •

They don't name tornadoes in the land of borrowed time, so the people here decorate them with stories, to keep track.

My stepfather, John "Coach" Burruss, born and raised here, remembers crawling under his bed in November 1973 and missing Monday Night Football. The Vikings played the Falcons. They found the roof of a nearby church in their back yard the next morning.

The fright persuaded his mother, Willa, to install a storm shelter in the back yard, the same shelter into which she and 14 neighbors descended Monday afternoon, 40 years later, to ride out another tornado.

Coach was a mile and a half away, at Westmoore High School, where he's athletic director. Westmoore was trashed by the '99 storm, so the district used government money to build a safe room big enough to hold 2,000 teenagers.

On Monday, funnel clouds bearing down, he hustled hundreds of students and parents and neighbors and their pets into the belly of the school, flashlight beams swinging down dark hallways. When they were all inside, he closed the metal gate and held the chain and prayed with hot breath that he didn't hear shouts on the outside from stragglers. He's a big man, but a pound on the door at this moment, that's a huge decision. It's no fun being doorman on Noah's Ark.

Across town, at Southmoore High School, my mother commanded her class of mentally disabled students to get against the wall, to cover their heads, to remember the drill. Stay down. Stay down.

My brother Matt, a heat and air guy for the school district, holed up in the boiler room at Moore High School, thinking about his wife and kids and the house they bought in April, their first. A two-story, plenty of room for their children. He started working on it the day they signed the papers. The hardwood flooring and paint they got from the Habitat for Humanity store, the old glass cabinet he pulled from my grandmother's house after she died. The rare books he has been buying at flea markets. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, first edition, signed by Tom Wolfe himself.

His wife, Anya, 32, ran inside the gymnasium at Highland East Middle School, where she teaches, inside the locker room, where 25 kids, some of them panicked, were pressed against walls they hoped were solid. Someone switched on a radio in time to hear the weatherman say they didn't have a chance if they were above ground. A substitute teacher read from the Bible. A junior high girl couldn't catch her breath. This building is made out of steel beams. Look at them, Anya thought. Steel beams.

Rain on the roof. Hail.

A text: "Matt I'm scared."

"Everybody be prepared," said the voice over the intercom.

"Take cover now."

Breathe.

Be calm.

My house is gone. That's okay.

"Take cover now!"

Be calm.

I'm going to die. I'm okay with that.

Lights out. Pitch black. A low rumbling, getting louder, louder. Air being sucked out of the room, hot air, strong, pressure changing. The roof flexing. Children crying.

Anya got baptized on Mother's Day when she was 11. Slept in sponge rollers the night before. Wore a frilly dress that itched all through church. It was the last time she could remember asking God to forgive her.

She prayed now, whispers against the black band of death.

Forgive me of my sins. Keep my children safe.

• • •

The ceiling fell with force, showering them with debris, and cold air shot down into the room. Kids were coughing now, trouble breathing. They forced open the door into what should've been the gymnasium but was now blue sky and twisted metal. It looked like the whole school was gone. Her daughter was in that school.

They climbed out of the rubble, kids okay, and there was the main building, damaged but intact. She signed her daughter out in handwriting that wasn't her own.

Matt. He had raced over, parked down the impassable street. They had three more kids to find at two separate schools. Matt held down a fence so Anya could step over, and she stepped on something sharp. Beneath her feet were bricks. Somebody's home.

In Matt's truck sat a stunned man, mid 20s, with a gash across his forehead and mud plastered to his body.

"You all right?" Matt asked.

"It's my mom," he said. "She's dead."

• • •

The kids emerged from schools to greet searching parents. People climbed out of storm shelters to find cars and houses covered in mud or gone. They sprayed paint on the sides of ruined buildings.

WE SURVIVED 5-20-2013

GOD BLESS MOORE

The wind blew the steeple off the Nazarene church on Janeway and cast My Little Pony bedsheets into the telephone wires. Sirens wailed and disc brakes gasped and choppers cut the sky.

Matt and Anya found all their kids and made their way home, past a neighborhood blown down. Their minivan was trashed, but their place was fine. In the yard they found the redistributed ephemera of a community.

A canceled check to Crescent Market for $16.37, from March 3, 1994. An invitation to a Moore High School commencement in 1989. A Willie Hall football card from 1978.

Around dark, the students remaining at Southmoore, all but inaccessible, were loaded onto a bus for a ride to a nearby church to meet their parents. My mama loaded two of her students into her car. Police led the caravan past destroyed neighborhoods.

"I'm gonna kill this damn tornado," one of her boys kept saying. "Look at what it's done."

The other was silent. When she parked and went to help him out, his face was streaked with tears.

• • •

Oklahoma is OK, and full of people who desperately want you to believe that, even if this was the third tornado since 1999 to rake through a relatively small suburb.

"Moore is either the unluckiest town in America," wrote Berry Tramel, a columnist for the Daily Oklahoman, "or atmospherically draws tornadoes like no other place on Earth."

I've watched them all on TV from other states. On CNN, in '99, I saw a familiar face running through the rubble of a destroyed neighborhood. It was my best friend, Derek Burleson, looking for his sister in mud-covered shoes.

Moore is a little too big for everybody to know everybody, but everybody can at least find everybody in a yearbook.

• • •

On Tuesday morning, Anya was washing the mud off her shoes when she found a splinter stuck through the sole. She pulled it out and ran her fingers over it, a tiny piece of somebody's house, a house that's not there anymore, washed down the drain.

"I feel like everything is wrong," she said. "My house should've been gone. I was going to die. But I woke up and the house is still here. I'm still here."

• • •

On Wednesday morning, my brother Blake and I found Willa raking shingles and sticks and pieces of patio furniture into piles on her lawn. At 87, she still works hard. She'd already found a collection of photographs. Two girls in front of the Eiffel Tower. A baby in a bouncy seat. She thought the photo of kids playing in their back yard looked familiar.

"Don't you recognize them?" she asked. We didn't.

She mentioned that the crowd in her cellar Monday was multicultural, and that they had hugged. She's from the old school. Blake and I smiled.

I climbed onto the roof of her house, like I did when I was young. Stuck in the high branches of her mulberry tree was a newspaper obituary for Sonny Bono, who died in 1998. I tried to picture the person who clipped it and tucked it away for 15 years. That's the tragedy of a mean storm. If you're lucky enough to live, it can still strip your memories. Those zombies sitting out on their scraped-clean slabs aren't mourning the building, but what was inside.

Across the street, you could see a thousand volunteers raking debris from the Moore Cemetery. Volunteer chain-saw men, more valuable than a dozen politicians, cutting trees. People from all over the region, helping to prepare a spot for the recent dead.

Blake knew one of them. Megan Billingsley Futrell, who died with her 4-month-old infant, Case, in a walk-in cooler at the 7-Eleven down the street.

Back home, we dug through an old yearbook and found a picture of Megan and Blake. They're about 4, dressed up for a homecoming in 1989. He was the crown bearer, she the flower girl. We put it back on the shelf with the rest in this town where it all seems so vulnerable.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

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