In Oklahoma, The Sky Has No 'Mercy'

May 10, 2015
Originally published on May 10, 2015 5:37 pm

Two years ago, one of the worst tornadoes on record hit the town of Moore, Okla. And you might say to yourself, well, doesn't this always happen there? It's called Tornado Alley for a reason.

And that's pretty much how the residents of Moore think about tornadoes. They're just part of life, and you take your chances. But that kind of thinking was part of the problem on May 20, 2013. The storm that came through that day was different. It was horrific.

When it was all over, Moore, a town with about 55,000 residents, was flattened. Twenty-four people died, 10 of them children. Holly Bailey has written the story of that day in her new book, The Mercy of the Sky, and she tells NPR's Rachel Martin that the she grew up in Oklahoma. "I went to school in Moore until I was about 14, so this is a story very close to my heart."


Interview Highlights

On learning to fear the sky

It's a part of you — it's a part of your blood in some ways. You're raised from a very, very young age to always look at the sky and always sort of be wary of it. In some ways, people really love the weather and ... they admire it and they marvel at it and it's beautiful. But at the same time, you are also raised to fear it and fear what it can do to you.

On a terrible tornado that struck Moore in 1999

That storm was shocking in so many ways. That was one of those storms where at one point the wind was measured higher than any other wind speed on the face of the Earth, and I believe that record still stands. The 1999 storm was really the first storm that people watched on television from beginning to end, and so afterwards, you know, it wiped out a large part of Moore, and the city really wondered how it would recover. They worried that people wouldn't come back, but they did! And crossed their fingers — how could it happen again? But it kept happening.

On elementary school principal Amy Simpson, who realized that the 2013 storm was going to be out of the ordinary

I mean everybody in Moore sort of knew that this was going to be a bad weather day. But the thing that was unusual about this storm is that usually, most storms hit later in the day, well after school has let out. But, in the middle of the day, one of her assistants came in and she just saw the look on her face and she knew it was bad. And she looked out the window and it was raining really heavily, and then it would stop. And then she just started having this really ominous feeling about what to do. And she started ordering all the teachers and the kids to get into the hallways — which is the only place they could shelter. They don't have a storm shelter at Plaza Towers Elementary, where she worked.

[That lack of a shelter is] totally shocking. And, actually, what is even more shocking is after the '99, tornado many people in Moore, even residential homes, didn't have storm shelters. Part of it is, I think, people were in disbelief that another storm like that '99 storm could potentially hit. And usually a lot of people will think, "Well, maybe I'll have enough time to drive out of the way," and people do that. But, you know, at the schools, it's true: No storm shelters. And that's still quite a subject of debate in Oklahoma.

On a teacher who was buried in the rubble of the school

I'm so grateful that many of the teachers were able to share their stories with me. It's still hard, I mean, we're talking about teachers that, two years later, still have to put on headphones when the wind blows, because they still remember how horrifying it was that day. And that particular teacher, Jennifer Doan, was buried in the rubble. And she, for a while, wondered if people around her were still alive. Because she couldn't hear them, the cries faded out, and that still haunts her today. And it's horrifying. Totally horrifying.

On whether the survivors considered leaving

Never. They refused to let Mother Nature get the best of them, and I always wondered if it was partly because of ancestors and how this isn't the first environmental disaster that Oklahoma's had to deal with. There are many people that stayed and lived through the Dust Bowl, determined not to let Mother Nature get the best of them, and I think it's very similar — the mindset of people in Oklahoma when it comes to bad weather like this.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Multiple tornadoes touched down in Texas last night, and hail fell on Southwestern Oklahoma. The plain states are all too familiar with severe weather. Two years ago, one of the worst tornadoes on record hit the town of Moore, Oklahoma. When it was all over, Moore, a place about 55,000 residents, was flattened. Twenty four people died - 10 of them were children. Holly Bailey has written a story of that day in Moore and that storm in a new book called "The Mercy Of The Sky." She joins me from WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOLLY BAILEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you are from Oklahoma, right? You have a personal connection to Moore?

BAILEY: I grew up in south Oklahoma City not far from Moore. And I went to school in Moore until I was about 14. So this is a story very close to my heart. I grew up with these storms and have watched these storms continue to ravage Oklahoma from afar.

MARTIN: How do people think about the weather there?

BAILEY: It's a part of you. It's a part of your blood in some ways. You are raised from a very, very young age to always look at the sky and always sort of be wary of it. And in some ways, you know, people really love the weather. And they admire it. And they marvel at it. And in it's beautiful. But at the same time, you are also raised to fear it and fear what it can do to you.

MARTIN: In the book, you tease out several different characters. And you write about a few different meteorologists - one in particular named Gary England. But describe the place in the culture that they hold because it's different than being a weather person somewhere else in America.

BAILEY: Being a local meteorologist in Oklahoma is like being a god. They are more famous than celebrities. And it's sort of impossible to believe that, but it's true. I mean, we have a lot of people from Oklahoma - country music singers, like Garth Brooks and Toby Keith. But if people were asked to name, you know, a major celebrity, you know, people name people like Gary England.

MARTIN: So these storms, I mean, they're just part of life in Moore and this general part of the country. You write that before the 2013 tornado, this community was still, in some ways, reeling from a horrible tornado that happened in 1999. But how did they think about that storm? I mean, it didn't exactly alter behaviors.

BAILEY: That storm was shocking in so many ways. That was one of those storms where at one point, the wind was measured higher than any other wind speed on the face of the earth. And I believe that it still stands. The 1999 storm was really the first storm that people watched on television from beginning to end. And so afterwards, you know, it wiped out a large part of Moore. And the city really wondered how it would recover. They worried that people wouldn't come back, but they did and crossed their fingers. How could it happen again? But it kept happening.

MARTIN: So let's get to this day - May 20, 2013. You weave together the perspectives and stories of several different survivors from that storm, notably among them, a woman named Amy Simpson, who was the principal at one of the elementary schools in town. When did she realize that this storm was different, was going to be something she'd never experienced before?

BAILEY: I mean, everybody in Moore sort of knew that this was going to be a bad weather day. But the thing that was unusual about this storm is that usually most storms hit later in the day well after school has let out. But in the middle of the day, one of her assistants came in. And she just saw the look on her face, and she knew it was bad. And she looked out the window, and it was raining really heavily, and then it would stop. And she just started having this really ominous feeling about what to do. And she started ordering all the teachers and the kids to get into the hallways which is the only place they could shelter. They don't have a storm shelter at Plaza Towers Elementary where she worked.

MARTIN: Isn't that surprising that in a community that had suffered storm after storm after storm that the elementary schools, the schools in general, many of the buildings, didn't have shelters?

BAILEY: It's totally shocking. And actually what is even more shocking is after the '99 tornado, many people in Moore, even residential homes, didn't have storm shelters. Part of it is, I think, people were in disbelief that another storm like that '99 storm could potentially hit. And usually a lot of people think, well, maybe, I'll have enough time to drive out of the way. And people do that, but, you know, at the schools, it's true, no storm shelters. And that's still quite a subject of debate in Oklahoma.

MARTIN: The book is hard to read in parts. Descriptions of teachers, when the storm finally hits, you write these descriptions of teachers throwing their bodies over their students to protect them. I imagine these were tough conversations to have. I mean, at one point, you're describing one third grade teacher who was buried under the rubble and is desperately reaching her fingers out to hold the children that she'd been trying to protect. That's hard.

BAILEY: Yeah. It's very hard. I'm so grateful that many of the teachers were able to share their stories with me. And it's still hard. I mean, we're talking about teachers that, two years later, still have to put on headphones when the wind blows because they still remember how horrifying it was that day. And that particular teacher, Jennifer Doan, was buried in the rubble and she, for a while, wondered if people around her were still alive because she couldn't hear them. The cries faded out. And that still haunts her today. And it's horrifying, totally horrifying.

MARTIN: Did these people you interviewed - survivors like Amy Simpson, the principle of Plaza Towers elementary, that third grade teacher buried under the rubble, Jennifer Doan, these are women you describe as having symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Did they ever consider leaving, just starting life over somewhere else?

BAILEY: Never. They refuse to let Mother Nature get the best of them. And I always wondered if it was partly because of ancestors and how this isn't the first environmental disaster that Oklahoma has had to deal with. There are many people that stayed and lived through the Dust Bowl, determined not to let mother nature get the best of them. And I think it's very similar, the mindset of people in Oklahoma when it comes to bad weather like this.

MARTIN: The book is called "The Mercy Of The Sky." It's written by Yahoo National Correspondent Holly Bailey. Thanks so much for talking with us, Holly.

BAILEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.