5 years after devastation: Resilient Moore, Oklahoma, continues to fortify itself against future tornadoes

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
May 18, 2018, 2:46:46 PM EDT

Over the course of 40 minutes on May 20, 2013, the town of Moore, Oklahoma, suffered tremendous loss.

An EF5 tornado, one of the most powerful in recent memory, wreaked havoc over a stretch of 14 miles, first causing damage in the town of Newcastle before tearing through Moore, both located in the Oklahoma City metro area.

The storm caused 24 fatalities and over 200 injuries, flattened buildings and over 300 homes and left billions in damage. The wreckage include the total loss of Briarwood Elementary School and Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven children died at the Plaza Towers school when a wall collapsed.

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Five years later, the city's lost structures have been rebuilt and fortified with future tornadoes in mind, according to longtime Moore resident and the city’s Emergency Director Gayland Kitch.

A good portion of the homes and businesses are reconstructed, although Kitch still notices some vacant lots or those with lingering construction when driving around town. Both elementary schools were completely rebuilt and now feature storm shelters.

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Since 1991, Kitch has overseen the city’s emergency management operations, which has included storm recovery for three major tornadoes.

Recovering from catastrophic tornado damage in Moore is unfortunately nothing new for the community. The city has been snakebit when it comes to tornadoes as it was hit on May 3, 1999, by an F5 then again by a large outbreak on May 8, 2003.

Kitch said there are residents who have been impacted by all three major tornadoes and others who have been impacted by one or two of the tornadoes.

“Weather is very foremost in the minds of most of the people that live here,” he said.

Kitch said what set the 2013 event apart from the previous tornadoes was the high number of fatalities, particularly among the children who were in school. Five people were killed in Moore during the 1999 tornado and no fatalities were reported in the town in the 2003 storm, but about 30 were injured.

moore aerial damage

This Tuesday, May 21, 2013 aerial photo shows a residential area of Moore, Okla. destroyed by Monday's tornado. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“To have seven children die in their school, was pretty tough. People aren’t supposed to die on my watch,” he said.

While there were many shelters in Moore as an outgrowth of the prior tornadoes, the damage the 2013 storm produced certainly provided a new emphasis on the need for more storm shelters both at home and in the schools.

Kitch said over 1,600 homeowners were able add storm shelters to their homes as part of rebate program that was funded by over $4 million in donations from the Red Cross. Today, the city has around 7,000-8,000 homes with shelters.

In 2015, a $209 million bond issue was approved by voters. The bond issue called for storm shelters to be constructed on the property of every school in the district.

Every school in the district is expected to have a shelter by March 2019. In schools where they have yet to be installed, students wear school-provided helmets to prevent head injuries during emergency situations.

The city also stiffened its residential building codes in 2014. It allowed the city to become the first in the United States to adopt building codes that focus on the tornadic impact on homes and make homes more wind-resistant.

“Moore’s new residential building codes include requiring roof sheathing, hurricane clips or framing anchors, continuous plywood bracing and wind-resistant garage doors,” city officials said in 2014. “The homes would be built to withstand winds up to 135 miles per hour rather than the accepted standard building requirements of 90 miles per hour.”

moore tornado 2013 graphic

“If you can keep part of somebody’s roof from blowing off, to begin with then that keeps that piece of the house from impacting their neighbor’s house. It’s kind of a domino effect,” Kitch said.

As the spring continues, albeit one that has had fewer tornadoes than usual for Oklahoma, the community of Moore remains well aware of the severe weather potential. Still, considering what they've overcome in the past, the mindset of people in town is not one of fear.

“The alternative is to just curl up in a ball and not acknowledge anything, but that’s not the way the people are here,” said Kitch, adding it’s similar to the way people are ready for hurricanes or earthquakes in other parts of the U.S.

“We have a great community here, and as I said, we’re resilient.“

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