A City of Resilience – Day 9

Our first impression of Oklahoma City was filled with adoration for its beautiful brick roads and inviting blocks of restaurants, shops and cafes, but after further  digging up this city’s past, such adoration extends way beyond its surface-level beauty.

We started the morning playing tourist, stopping at Coffee Slingers Roasters in downtown where Sean tried a fancy “Nitrane” cup of joe, where you basically have your coffee like a cold brew on tap. I stuck with a traditional cappuccino and we munched on pastries while interrogating the friendly staff about what to do here. We walked away with awesome dining suggestions and a push toward nearby Bricktown, an entertainment district where you can spoil yourself and stay out late.

A nice seafood dinner and stroll through these lively streets later? Sure! … But our plans would later take a drastic change, and I’m glad they did.

We got pulled into the history of this place and ventured off to tour the National Oklahoma City Memorial & Museum, honoring those who lost their lives to the April 19, 1995 bombing by an American terrorist. Sean and I were just kids when this devastating attack rocked the country, and so walking through these grounds  was a solemn and humbling experience.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial
The Oklahoma City National Memorial

That fateful day was described just as our morning had started – a beautiful day, with everyone going about their workweek as usual. Just after 9 a.m., a truck filled with explosives parked in front of the city’s federal building, home to more than a dozen agencies ranging from The Secret Service to the Postal Service. Within an instant, this truck blew up more than one-third of the building where hundreds of workers were just starting their day – some dropping off their children to the building’s second-floor daycare.

Rescue workers immediately took heroic action that would carry on for days, but 168 people would sadly lose their lives from this attack, with hundreds more seriously or chronically injured.

This was the worst terrorist attack on American soil until the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001 – the same year that the terrorist responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, was executed in prison. It was a haunting reminder of how grateful I am to those who work every day to protect us from these evils, and no better day for such a reminder than on Veterans Day.

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One of two Gates of Time that frame the reflecting pool. The Gates of Time, are stamped with two key times: 9:01, representing the last moment of peace, and 9:03 the moment recovery began. The reflecting pool allows visitors to see "reflections of those forever changed."
One of two Gates of Time that frame the reflecting pool. The Gates of Time, are stamped with two key times: 9:01, representing the last moment of peace, and 9:03 the moment recovery began. The reflecting pool allows visitors to see “reflections of those forever changed.”
Rows comprising the "Field of Empty Chairs" honor those who died on April 19, 1995.
Rows comprising the “Field of Empty Chairs” honor those who died on April 19, 1995

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After a few hours walking through these grounds, we needed a light-hearted lunch break and stopped at the nearby Healthnut Cafe. After ordering some sandwiches and salads, we conversed with the staff, which again mentioned the lively streets of Bricktown as a perfect playground for visiting. Our conversation shifted when I asked them about Tornado Alley, admitting my childhood fascination with these natural disasters.

“You interested in tornadoes young lady? Go to Moore, right over there behind that tall building, and you’ll still find that community rebuilding,” one of the employees said. “I have friends who live out there and I don’t know why, they always get hit out there.”

My eyes widened, and the tourist in me switched off in exchange for the journalist in me. Moore – that’s the community that was devastated two years ago by the strongest tornado on the scale – an F5. Neighborhoods, schools and businesses were flattened by this mile-wide beast that ripped right through the town, killing 24 people, injuring 240, crushing more than 2,400 buildings and homes.

I had to see this town, not out of twisted entertainment, but well-intentioned curiosity – How do you pick up the pieces after something like this?

Sean drove so I could research more about this tornado’s deadly path. Major news outlets like the New York Times and CNN had heart-wrenching photos of the immediate aftermath – Warren Theatre, its surrounding neighborhoods, Moore Medical Center, and Plaza Towers Elementary were a few of the photographed landmarks crushed by this powerful twister.

So, we retraced its route.

One thing we almost immediately noticed was all of the new construction. Lines and lines of homes appeared freshly built, with some still waiting on windows and roofing. Other stretches were more complete, and if you hadn’t known about its devastating past, you’d simply admire the otherwise beautiful brick homes.

One of many neighborhoods undergoing new construction where the path of the 2013 tornado left thousands of homes flattened.
One of many neighborhoods undergoing new construction where the path of the 2013 tornado left thousands of homes flattened.

Plaza Towers Elementary was just getting out of a school day as we drove by. The flat, long building stood strong as parents were parked on the outskirts to pick up their kids. It was almost unbelievable to know that the building in front of me was crushed two years ago, killing 7 children. I can’t imagine the panic and loss those parents, the faculty, and students had to rise above. Knowing this in contrast to the ordinary day unfolding in front of me instilled such respect for the strength of this community.

Plaza Towers Elementary undergoing a typical school day despite its two-year-old scar of losing 7 students to the tornado.
Plaza Towers Elementary undergoing a typical school day despite its two-year-old scar of losing 7 students to the tornado.

Moore Medical Center is far from finished. It’s in the midst of a major new construction project on track to open next year. You can feel the wound of this punch when you drive by. The photos of its initial devastation show dozens of cars plastered into a dangling structure; it was unrecognizable in the aftermath. Residents needing care had to be transported to other nearby hospitals.

Moore Medical Center only halfway through its rebuild after the 2013 F5 tornado.
Moore Medical Center only halfway through its rebuild after the 2013 F5 tornado.

Adjacent to this rebuild, Warren Theatre stands big, bold and bright. Residents casually walked in to see what was airing. It was hard to imagine such a big building crushed by a storm, and it certainly put into perspective just how strong this tornado was – 210 mph, to be exact.

Warren Theatre was tangled and crushed by the twister, only to stand big and bright today.
Warren Theatre was tangled and crushed by the twister, only to stand big and bright today.

We continued around the corner into more residential neighborhoods, which were reported to be flattened in the initial aftermath. Many residents chose to stay and rebuild – as this was their home – while others chose to move to safer areas and start anew. Once again we found more streets under new construction, though some side streets had looked abandoned with overgrown grass, crumbled up patches of pavement, and small, random piles of rubble.

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A side street around the corner of Warren Theatre shows what appears to be remnants of life in Tornado Alley.

This house, not far from newly built homes, appears to be abandoned with all the windows blown out.

Even though much of the town is beautifully rebuilt today, standing with such an impressive resilience, you can certainly feel remnants of this disaster through all the new homes and construction projects underway.

All these newly built facilities come with some new requirements, too. In March 2014, Moore became the first city in the nation to address the impact of tornadoes on homes by enacting tougher building codes. Now, homes must be built to withstand winds of 135 mph, above the industry standard of 90 mph.

My heart goes out to this community. And even though we missed walking the lively streets of Bricktown as tourists, I couldn’t have gained a greater admiration for this community than by taking time to understand its scars.

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