Skip to main content

Graduations provide respite, fresh start after deadly Oklahoma tornado

By Greg Botelho and Eric Fiegel, CNN
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Sun May 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: People hold up picture of a graduate's mom who died in the tornado
  • Three high school classes in Moore, Oklahoma, have their graduation ceremonies
  • "It's ... the closing of one chapter and the opening of another," a student says
  • Funerals continue to be held for some of the 24 killed

Moore, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Five days ago, Miranda Mann huddled in a science classroom at Southmoore High School. She should have been filed with pride, relief and excitement about her upcoming graduation. Instead, she was filled with fear as a devastating tornado powered through her central Oklahoma city.

The 18-year-old has been literally picking up the pieces of her life since.

Her house was unrecognizable, except for her and her mother's cars, after the twister destroyed it Monday.

Her family sifted through rubble and salvaged some things, only to see many of them -- such as her prized book collection -- ruined by torrential rains.

Loved ones remember tornado victims
OutFront Recap: 05/24/13
Frieda Stanley sits in what was once her living room. Her Oklahoma City neighborhood was hit by a deadly twister in May 1999 and again on Monday. Frieda Stanley sits in what was once her living room. Her Oklahoma City neighborhood was hit by a deadly twister in May 1999 and again on Monday.
Living in tornado alley
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Living in tornado alley Living in tornado alley
Heather Shannon helps a friend find family photos and other keepsakes at her home in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 22. People who lost their homes to the tornado on Monday continue to search through the rubble in hopes of finding some of their belongings. Heather Shannon helps a friend find family photos and other keepsakes at her home in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 22. People who lost their homes to the tornado on Monday continue to search through the rubble in hopes of finding some of their belongings.
Lost and found: Recovered from the wreckage
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
Photos: Recovered from the wreckage Photos: Recovered from the wreckage

Mann doesn't want to live in Moore, wary of a place that's been hit by two EF5 tornadoes -- the strongest possible -- over the past 14 years. There's been plenty of time, and way too many reasons, for tears.

But finally ... finally, Saturday was a time to smile.

"My family is all here, we get to be together," Mann said about her graduation at Oklahoma City's Cox Convention Center. "(You can) relax and let your hair down, because you know that we're not going back to the house today. We're not going to see that."

Southmoore High's seniors were one of three classes celebrating their commencement ceremonies at the facility. The date had been set for months, and it wasn't moved after the storm killed 24 people, injured more than 375 others and damaged 12,000 residences in and around the metropolitan area.

A tornado bearing down; a mom in labor

Jake Spradling is glad the show went on. Like Mann, he's a Southmoore High senior; like her, he no longer has a place to call home.

The hours since Monday have been "overwhelming," Spradling admitted, though he said the outpouring of support -- offers to bunk early at Northwestern Oklahoma State University where he'll head this fall, dozens of text messages and "calls out of the wazoo" with offers of help -- have made a big difference.

He knows people who lost family members, and many more who lost homes. He knows that they need time to plan and attend funerals, to clean up debris, to figure out what happens next.

Even with all that, "I'm glad it's today," Spradling said. "It means to me that we're not going on different routes.

"We're staying on the same path that we were meant to be on."

One block, two tornadoes: Life in the crosshairs

Graduation festivities were infused by the tragedy, including speakers' remarks and other poignant reminders. One happened when Southmoore's Alyson Costilla walked across the stage to get her diploma and about a dozen people in the crowd stood up and held up pictures of her mother Terri Long, who died in a 7-Eleven ravaged by the powerful winds.

Outside the convention center, the seniors from Southmoore, Westmoore and Moore high schools won't have to go far to be reminded of the devastation.

Funeral homes and churches are busy with services for those killed.

A balm after the storm

Ten of those killed were children, including seven second- and third-graders at Plaza Towers Elementary School. After three funerals earlier in the week, two more of those students were to be buried Saturday.

Transforming Moore back into the city it had been won't be easy. Its public schools alone suffered $45 million in damage, including the two elementary schools that were leveled. Insurance claims related to Monday's storm will likely top $2 billion, according to Kelly Collins from the Oklahoma Insurance Department.

But residents aren't doing it all alone.

Hear 911 tapes from Oklahoma
Sean Xuereb recovers a dog from the rubble of a home that was destroyed by the massive tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, on Monday, May 20. A website has been set up to help lost and found pets, and shelters have been set up to help displaced and injured animals. For ways to help, visit CNN.com/impact. Sean Xuereb recovers a dog from the rubble of a home that was destroyed by the massive tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, on Monday, May 20. A website has been set up to help lost and found pets, and shelters have been set up to help displaced and injured animals. For ways to help, visit CNN.com/impact.
Pets rescued after Oklahoma tornado
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Pets rescued after Oklahoma tornado Pets rescued after Oklahoma tornado
OKC twisters: 15 years in 2 minutes
Coburn: Govt. shouldn't mandate shelters

Honest advice from Joplin to Moore

Besides the presence of FEMA representatives and other public officials on the ground, they've had friends, relatives, even strangers come out to help.

Sharon Liston has spent the last 25 years teaching math at Westmoore High, from which she's retiring after 40 years total in the profession.

On Friday, a day before her school's graduation, a caravan of students arrived at her home to clean up her 3-acre property.

"It looked like a wall of students with trash cans and trash sacks, and they literally picked up every stick within that three acres there," Liston said.

Principals recall day tornado hit

That kind of help makes it easier for Moore's residents to move on from this horrific week.

Saturday's graduation ceremonies are similar, in that way. It means the end of one thing, and the beginning of another. A fresh start.

"It's just the closing of one chapter and the opening of another," Spradling said. "...It's one of those flipping of the pages that means a lot to everybody here."

Tornado heading your way? Here's what to do

CNN's Eric Fiegel reported from Oklahoma, while Greg Botelho reported and wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN's Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Oklahoma City Tornadoes
updated 9:58 AM EDT, Mon June 3, 2013
Heavy storms and tornadoes once again ripped through the Midwest. Already devastated areas of Oklahoma were hit again, and this time the damage spread to neighboring states. Here's how you can help.
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Thu May 30, 2013
Families share memories and snapshots of those we lost in the Oklahoma tornado devastation.
updated 1:11 PM EDT, Wed June 5, 2013
The Oklahoma medical examiner's office says 18 people in that state were killed in the storms. The office has released the names of 11.
updated 9:58 AM EDT, Tue June 4, 2013
They chased tornadoes not so much for the thrill, but in the hope that their research might help people avoid the fate to which they succumbed last week.
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Tue June 4, 2013
A menacing tornado churned behind Mike Eilts as the storm chaser's truck sped away.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Mon May 27, 2013
Why do people in Tornado Alley keep rebuilding and staying in place after storms rip through? People from Moore share their reasons why.
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Mon May 27, 2013
See the best images from the deadly storm.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
It's one of the most familiar pieces of advice from authorities to people in the path of a tornado: Get into your basement.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Thu May 23, 2013
On Sunday, a mystery photograph fluttered from the sky and landed near Leslie Hagelberg's mailbox in West Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The tornado spanned 1.3 miles -- the length of more than 22 football fields lined up end-to-end -- carved a 17-mile path of destruction.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
Second-grade teacher Tammy Glasgow walks around what's left of Briarwood Elementary, struggling to pick out of its wreckage the things that once made a school.
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
It was the end of the school day. The kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School were stuffing their backpacks, looking forward to going home, playing with friends, eating snacks.
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Tue May 21, 2013
The "Tri-State Tornado" killed 695 people and injured 2,027, traveling more than 300 miles.
See the path of the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT