The Mercy of the sky
By Holly Bailey
Journalist and native of Moore, Oklahoma, chronicles the May 20, 2013, EF-5 tornado that killed twenty-five people, including ten children. Discusses the path of the storm, which hit two elementary schools and a hospital among other sites, reactions on the ground, and the aftermath. 2015
I wonder if you, like me, found yourself glued to your TV, watching CNN or some other news channel, on May 20, 2013, unable to tear yourself away from the coverage of the disastrous tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma that day. I work from home, and I remember turning off my work computer and turning on my TV to hear about the storm, already in progress. It was a night of tragedy. Twenty-four people lost their lives, ten of whom were children, and seven of those children, third-graders at a local elementary school. The tornado demolished two elementary schools that day. In one, all the children and staff survived, but in the other, seven children died.
This book follows a group of characters, Oklahoma’s famous meteorologist, Gary English, a few families, the principals of the two schools, city officials, and here and there a random person, whose stories must have touched her heart as they did mine while I read. She doesn’t go much into the nature or history of tornados, but she goes into great depth into the history and lives of the people of Moore. She grew up in the area, so this book was deeply personal to her.
It seems that Moore Oklahoma has a weird history of being more often slammed by monster tornadoes than any other city in the state. They used to talk about what they call, May 3rd, like the rest of the country talks about September 11. May 3, 1999 was the date of another killer tornado that struck the area, and after surviving that, the town was hit multiple times over the next fourteen years, culminating in the horrific events of May 20 2013. Bailey brings this to life in such a strong and personal way, that you almost feel as if you could have experienced it. Not quite, unless you’ve lived through a tornado, but she makes you know the people, the town, the spirit, and the strength to pick up and go on after disaster.
As I read, I often felt amazed that people experienced tornado after tornado, lost everything, lost loved ones, and yet, they still continue to rebuild, right in the same place. Why don’t they leave, move away, I found myself asking, over and over. Then I had to remind myself that I grew up in California, and there’s a whole state full of people who haven’t run away from earthquakes either. Shaking my head, I’d think, well, guess there’s no place completely safe when Mother Nature decides to get tough.
I was in awe of the spirit of the residents of Moore during the storm. One weatherman, who knew the tornado was heading right toward his own home, continued to do his job, staying on air, trying to get people to get into shelters, get underground, get off the roads and be safe. He didn’t know if his wife and their two dogs would survive, but he stuck by his post. Then there were the teachers at the elementary schools. Time after time, Bailey told how teachers threw their bodies over those of the children in their care, desperate to protect their charges, not thinking of their own danger. One of those teachers was in the area where the children died, but the three children she was able to cover with her body survived. And yet, after it was over, months later, she still felt she had failed. I wondered, would I be that brave and unselfish. Would I throw my body across a child to protect it? I hope I would, but here were examples of real people, not actors in a movie, who did this. Not just one teacher but all the teachers. They deserve medals of Honor.
There was even some fun trivia, such as the fact that Gary English was quoted in the movie twister, and he and other meteorologists from the area had bit parts in the movie. I need to get hold of that movie I think. It was fascinating to me, how some people develop such a passion for storms, like English, who grew up wildly interested in storms and doing everything he could to get into the field, to the point of practically obsession. And I know storm chasers have provided valuable information about tornados, but I kept thinking to myself that they were just plain idiots. But then, some people are obsessed with earthquakes! But I ran away from California rather than live through any more of them. There’s no accounting for taste.
This was an amazing book, riveting, exciting, tragic, victorious and absolutely fascinating. With all the tragedy and sorrow of this book, it was a story of triumph in many ways. Yes, it was heartbreaking. I wept for the children, terrified, crouching in hallways that gave pitifully little protection. I ached for the people who didn’t have shelters so crawled into their bathtubs and still were blown away by the storm and lost everything, some losing their lives or their children’s lives. My heart broke over the animals that died, on one Horse farm, dozens of beautiful horses in the area for some kind of show.
But the people of Oklahoma don’t sit around and dwell on it all. Yes, they grieve, but they get up, brush themselves off and start putting their town and their individual lives back together. I’d like to go hug them all, shake their hands, bring them cookies. but I never want to go near Moore, Oklahoma, just in case, you know.