Stillwater News Press

November 20, 2013

As Moore rebuilds, survivors still face loss

By Michaela Marx Wheatley
The Norman Transcript

MOORE — Six months after the May 20 tornado, Moore is rebuilding at a rapid pace. However, for many who lost everything in the storm recovery is an uphill battle.

“Every day I am still living tornado, tornado, tornado,” Jaime Russell-Bartlett said. Her family home was lost. It once stood about four houses from Briarwood Elementary School, which was hit directly. Her sister, who lived 14 houses down, also lost her home.

The family is rebuilding about one mile from where they used to live, and Russell-Bartlett’s sister has bought an already constructed home. Now the sisters will live 25 houses apart instead of 14.

Leaving Moore was never an option.

“It’s not going to do me any good to run,” Russell-Bartlett said. “I grew up in Moore. That whole left side of Moore is where my life is. People who grabbed their stuff and ran out of Oklahoma, I don’t understand.”

Six months after the storm, she is immersed in home construction.

“It’s a big strain on your entire life,” she said.

The process is stressful for the entire family. She said her son got a bad grade on a first grade assignment because he couldn’t remember his address. Russell-Bartlett said nobody realized that the little boy had lost his home and had since had three new addresses.

While they live in a rental home and work with builders and contractors on the new house, the family continues to deal with insurance companies.

Then there are the times when the family is simple faced with the fact that things they took for granted are gone.

“The other day when it was so cold, I realized I don’t have a winter coat.” Off to the store she went. Again.

Everything vanished on May 20.

“There was nothing salvageable,” she said.

Russell-Bartlett, a registered nurse, was at work when the storm touched down. She left to retrieve her son from a daycare that was in the path of the storm. Russell-Bartlett and her husband walked through two miles of devastation toward their old neighborhood. Authorities tried to stop them, but she had to find her son.

“I just kept walking.”

“It took us 3 1/2 hours to find out if he was alive,” she said. Once she had learned that he was OK and her older daughter was too, she worked her way toward her home.

“The closer we got to our house the worse the houses got,” Russell-Bartlett said.

Standing in her neighborhood was disorienting.

“I was lost in my own neighborhood,” she said. In the rubble she recognized the occasional familiar item.

“The TV was crunched and bent in half,” she said. “It was like the storm had put our entire house in a blender.”

She remembered looking around seeing neighbors standing in front of the ruins of their homes.

“Everyone was in shock,” Russell-Bartlett recalled.

Some neighbors were absent from the scene.

“Are they in there? I was scared to find out,” she remembered thinking.

Russell-Bartlett said her family will soon move into a comfortable, slightly bigger house and in 40 years from now the memories and struggle will just be an adventurous story within the family history.

But even with a positive outlook, the storm has left its mark on somebody who lived all her life with tornado warnings and the infamous Oklahoma storm season.

“I want a storm shelter,” she said.

Like Russell-Bartlett, those who are rebuilding in the city rebuild with safety in mind. According to the Moore community development department, the number of storm shelter permits issued since the tornado is 1,113. In 2012, the city issued only 481.

Besides keeping her family safe, the shelter also will be storage for irreplaceable items. She said she lost many pictures of her first husband, the father of her daughter, who had unexpectedly passed several years ago.

Russell-Bartlett’s mother had died the November before the storm.

“I had my mom’s ashes on my mantle,” she said.

Russell-Bartlett remembers standing in the rubble of her home thinking they were lost forever. She called out her mother’s nickname to her husband.

“Mimi?”

“I know,” her husband replied. “I’ll find her.”

“He dug for five days and he finally found her,” Russell-Bartlett said. “In the future, mom’s ashes will live in the shelter during storm season,” she said.

Russell-Bartlett and her family are one of many who have chosen to rebuild in Moore.

Elizabeth Jones, Moore’s community development director, said that there is a lot of building going on in the city, but that some residents are still in the early stages of recovery even six months after the disaster.

The city has issued a total of 437 new home construction permits since the tornado. Of those, there are 122 new single-family homes and 315 tornado rebuilds. In 2012, the city issued 238 total.

The city also has issued 415 permits for residential tornado remodels, Jones said.

“All neighborhoods are showing robust activity,” Jones said.

While activity is high, only approximately 30 percent of the destroyed homes are being rebuilt at the moment, based on building permits issued, Jones said.

FEMA estimates were as high as 1,300 destroyed homes. However, the cities count is somewhat lower at this point.

“We currently have a total of 1,079 homes destroyed,” Jones said. “We expect that total to increase slightly in the next few months as the city continues with our condemnation process,” she said.

However, Moore is heading the right direction and is well on its way to recovery.

“The city is expecting a very strong recovery based on the activity to date,” Jones said. “In addition to the tornado rebuilding, we are also experiencing a lot of non-tornado related residential growth, especially in multi-family housing.”

To keep up with all of this construction activity the planning department has requested additional staffing, Jones said.

Russell-Bartlett said the sense of community is what makes people want to live in Moore.

“I don’t think you can go to a different place and have that kind of love and support,” she said. “The response after the tornado makes it worth staying.”