Eight-year-old Sierra Elledge was walking along a creek bed in a zone of obliterated houses and splintered trees and smashed cars when she spotted a white card amid the tornado debris. It bore a single word.
She was wearing oversize ski gloves to protect her hands, but she managed to pick up the card and turn it over to see the word again, along with the drawing of a heart. She understood it was a learn-to-read card.
“I found something from the school!” she exclaimed.
She did not mean her school, which along with her home had been outside the monster twister’s path, which tore into the town of Moore, Oklahoma. She meant Plaza Towers Elementary School on the other side of the creek, which had been smashed to rubble and twisted beams.
To look at Sierra holding that learn-to-read card was to be pierced in the heart by the thought of the children who had been killed at Plaza Towers, seemingly at least seven, though the reports vary. There also wasn’t a firm number that might still be missing as the rescue workers continued to search.
“I just hope they find somebody alive there,” said one of the FBI agents who were helping the police close off the area.
Sierra was at the edge of the restricted zone with her older brother, Shane Elledge, and a brother-in-law, Alex Hoffman, who had found a clear plastic bag that seemed to have been a school project. It was labeled “Letters to the Future” in black magic marker, and inside could be seen folded notes addressed “To Daddy” and “From Bree to Kara of the future.”
In the immediate future, we should hope that the schools in Moore and other towns in Tornado Alley build storm shelters such as the concrete-lined one behind a private home near where Sierra now stood. The shelter had very likely saved the life of 21-year-old Skye Strouhal, who now moved unscathed amid the near total devastation.
Strouhal lives next door to the family who dug the shelter, and at the tornado’s approach he sought refuge inside. He emerged to find only a concrete pad where his house had stood.
“I didn’t have much to begin with,” he said afterward.
He had found one of his three dogs in the surrounding rubble. A second, named Fly, had found shelter inside his car after its windows were smashed. Fly had subsequently come to the attention of the media and was about to become a canine celebrity.
“She’s going to be on World News With Diane Sawyer tonight!” a producer announced.
Strouthal himself was without a home and, after being fired six days before, without a job.
“Nowhere to go but up,” he shrugged.
He might very well have been going nowhere at all other than missing in the rubble along with his third dog had it not been for his neighbor’s foresight.
And you have to wonder if the number of dead children at Plaza Towers would be none at all if there had been a big version of that shelter behind the school.
The town of Moore saw an even bigger tornado back in 1999, but this one was particularly dangerous for kids because it hit during the school day rather than in the early evening, as is usual. And this one formed with surprising speed, according scant warning, less than half an hour after the sirens sounded.
“It came from nothing, from clear sky,” said the FBI agent who was helping to secure the perimeter.
Many of the stories about Plaza Towers are much like of the horror at Sandy Hook. Teachers showed uncommon courage, shielding their students with their bodies and speaking to them about love. Parents came rushing to the school in total fear.
Only the danger at Plaza Towers was not a murderous maniac. The air itself had become unstable, churning with such force as to demolish the whole school.
Some might see the hand of God in the killer twister; others just the chance of nature in the intricate workings of temperature and moisture and pressure that can drive the air to homicidal madness.
Scientists suggest that we ourselves play a role in contributing to the conditions that heighten the chances of such extreme weather.
If that is so, then the twister was a measure of the forces we are playing with. So was Hurricane Sandy. And indeed the aftermath had much the same feeling, though the damage of a hurricane is over a far greater area, while that of a tornado is more concentrated and considerably more violent. A tornado does not just topple trees, it tears off their branches and twists their trunks until they splinter.
Just as the sea receded and turned calm after Sandy, the sky cleared and the wind abated to a soft breeze in the wake of Monday’s twister. But with both Sandy and the twister, there was a lingering sense that the time would come when the sublime would again turn suddenly savage.
On Tuesday a pink tricycle stood in front of a home turned to wreckage. There must have been pink tassels on both ends of the handlebars, but they remained on only one and stirred ever so slightly in the negligible breeze as birds fluttered down to peck where the scouring tornado had uprooted the spring grass. Some audiotape that had come unspooled hung almost festively in a tree’s torn branches.
And it would have taken only the heat of the sun to combine with the moisture rising from the sodden earth and the stirring of the air for the terror to return. And there was nothing to say that in the not-so-distant future it could be the school of the little girl who found that card reading “HEART.”