Graduations provide respite, fresh start after deadly Oklahoma tornado

Updated 12:49 PM EDT, Sun May 26, 2013
05:07 - Source: CNN
Principal: Teachers saved students

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

(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.

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

Saturday’s graduation festivities were infused by reminders of the storm’s tragic aftermath.

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 was 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.

Honest advice from Joplin to Moore

Besides the presence of Federal Emergency Management Agency 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.”

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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.