Tornados are a fact of life in Oklahoma. That’s especially true in the central and western portions of the state, which belong to a region that includes parts of nine states and is dubbed “Tornado Alley.” Shaped, fittingly, like a cylinder, it stretches north from Texas to South Dakota and is the area of the country where tornados are among the most numerous and severe.
The town of Moore, south of Oklahoma City, is in the heart of Tornado Alley. Its residents are familiar with the storms and the damage they can cause. But nothing could prepare residents for two major tornados that hit the town in 14 years: the first in May of 1999; the second, this past Monday.
The May 3, 1999, tornado killed 36 people. In mid-afternoon on Monday, May 20, another tornado killed 24 people and destroyed 13,000 structures, including the district headquarters of the Moore Public Schools and two of its elementary school buildings. At Plaza Towers Elementary School, where teachers herded student into hallways and bathrooms, seven children died.
Right after the most recent storm, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) began accepting gifts of school supplies at its Oklahoma City headquarters, as well as monetary gifts for the stricken district, said Jeff B. Mills, a former superintendent and OSSBA’s executive director. Mills spoke with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy on May 22, two days after the most recent storm hit.
How is OSSBA helping?
[We’re] just trying to be a resource for them. Many of their phone lines and cell phone services are down. They can’t get their e-mail, either. Just offering support, prayers — anything they need.
How is the district coping?
Their administration building was destroyed. Their records, fortunately, are off site; but when you’ve got your computer down, you feel helpless. But if you have your whole administration building down, it’s very difficult. It’s definitely a struggle. They’re trying to move on. They’re going to go ahead with their graduation this weekend. And they’ll deal with the losses that they have and start rebuilding.
What’s been the response to the drop off site for school supplies?
There’s been an unbelievable outpouring. We’ve got a truck coming from Nebraska tomorrow. We’ve got a couple of trailers that have been loaded up down around Florida coming this way, and just from all over the country. People just are hurting for Moore and wanting to do something, and we wanted to make sure we were able be an outlet for them.
We’re working with Feed the Children here in Oklahoma City to help distribute immediate needs like water and Gatorade bottles, diapers, hand sanitizers, gloves — those types of things we get in. But the school supplies we’ll store for the district and then hold back until they’re ready to receive them, because the last thing they need is us showing up with a truckload of pens and pencils right now. But they’ll need them in the fall.
Have you been to Moore since the tornado?
No. You can’t unless you’re a state official or a first responder — or actually live there.
As a former Oklahoma superintendent, have you ever dealt with anything like this?
No, I never did. Of course we had storm issues — we always do in Oklahoma. Nothing like this. When it hit [Moore] in ’99, the schools weren’t in session; they were already out for the day. It destroyed some schools, and they had to be rebuilt. Basically, [the most recent storm] traveled the same path. The big thing that’s happened in Moore since ’99 is just a huge growth spurt, not only in housing but in retail. The area that it came through, it followed that same path — there’s been a lot of lot of expansion in retail, highway frontage, building activity that is basically gone.
What are some of the challenges facing school board member in the coming months?
I think just the overwhelming idea that, “I’ve got to deal with all of this.” It’s not just one area, one issue. And then the things that will linger once the kids come back and classmates are gone or staff members are gone. They’ll be, I’m sure, a lot of counseling hours, and then just rebuilding. It’ll be a challenge, but they are a very strong board. The members are very dedicated and focused on what they need for the children.
How will the state respond in the long term?
We’ve faced things like this before in Oklahoma, just like other states deal with tragedy. And we’ve always come out of it in a positive way. We’ll rebuild and start over. People are very resilient here, and they’re going to focus on what they can do for their kids. And we’re going to be there to support the schools and their board, and anything we can do to make that happen we’re going to do.
For information on how to contribute to OSSBA’s efforts for Moore, go here.
ASBJ has compiled an anthology of articles on disaster recovery for school districts, available in hard copy or as a downloadable PDF. Purchasing information is available here.