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  • How do you begin a story about a day that will never go away?

    Do you start with the boy who did everything right on May 20, 2013, - stayed away from windows, used his arms to protect his head and neck and remained calm - and still he died?

    Has enough time passed to reveal the kind of macabre humor that people toss out because they need to be reminded that they can still laugh? (“Hey, I found your car. It’s in my bedroom.”)
  • You don't have to live in Moore, Okla., to feel its pain. If you live in the Sooner State, you suffer the side effects. Tornadoes are our scoliosis. Infused with backbones generations strong, we brace against the twisting curves because unless you move out of the state, you have to live with it.
  • Jessie and Julie Alarcon stood in what once was a bedroom doorway and stared at months of sweat equity sucked dry by Oklahoma’s ruthless vacuum cleaner. Last week, they enrolled their two children into the neighborhood school, Plaza Towers Elementary, for next year.

    Before Monday, the school was just a few blocks away, but now pieces of it cling to the skeletal arms of leafless trees and dangle from the eaves of broken homes stretching for miles.

    “Over there by what used to be the garage is a Plaza Towers classroom chair that landed in our yard, Jessie says. “It’s hard to look at because our kids will be a second grader and a third grader next year and those are the kids who died. That chair makes me so sad, but I can’t bring myself to move it. It just doesn’t feel right yet.”

    Seven children died at Plaza Towers Elementary. On the days after the tornado, nearly everyone allowed back in the neighborhood stopped by the school to shudder. In the background, you heard a grinding symphony of chain saws and helicopters and sirens and people shouting “Anyone need water? Work gloves? Trash bags?” On the street where a school once stood, you heard silence and sobbing.

    “Where did it all go, I wonder?” Julie said. “Where is the sign?”
    “There it is Julie,” said Jessie as if finding the mangled sign with its kidnapped letters were a salve. “It’s still there.”
  • Jessie and Julie painted their own sign on their roofless house. It reads: “We will be back Plaza Towers” in pink paint leftover from redecorating their daughter’s bedroom.

    Somewhere under pancaked layers of busted sheetrock, muddy board games and soggy doll clothes, a couple of gerbils thrown out of their cage found enough refuge to survive an F5 tornado. So did the couple’s two Boston Terriers.

    It’s going to take more than an F5 to move the Alarcon family away from Moore, or Tornado City as some locals call it. They want to celebrate Christmas right here in a new house with a bigger kitchen, a girly pink bedroom and boy’s bedroom that won’t take long to resemble something a tornado left behind.

    “Go ahead and shut the door, Julie,” Jessie says as he kicks a path through his lawn filled with pieces of other people’s lives. “We’ll be back.”
  • Near sundown every night since authorities opened Plaza Towers neighborhood to its residents, pickup trucks stacked high with storm-spackled belongings and worn down people roll a slow exodus out of about the worst kind of hell anyone here has seen since 1999 when another F5 ransacked the town.

    The scene is classic Okie migration, circa 1935 except it’s 2013, and most of these storm refugees will be back. Tomorrow. And the next day and next month and even next year if that’s what it takes to put their homes back together.
  • Sheila and Bryan Sanders started a new life a month ago when they got married and bought a house.

    It took just 16 minutes for all the new to wear off.

    Nothing reminds you more that the honeymoon is over than a destroyed house filled with wedding gifts that you haven’t used yet.
  • Ernest Trujillo of Albuquerque, N.M., sits at a makeshift city of migrant volunteers and holds a sign that reads: “Chaplain. Need Prayer? Free Hugs.”

    The volunteers are desperate for someone to take water, Gatorade, work gloves, trash bags and food.

    Ernest looks like a guy who might own a Harley so the chaplain status draws a lot of attention and makes him approachable to people who need comfort but are too busy for lengthy religious conversations.

    “Hey brother,” he shouts to a man who nearly falls off the back of a truck when it lurches toward the green light. “Hang on. Need a hug?”
  • How do you end a story about a day that will live forever?

    Do you tell the death count of 26 or describe the estimated $2 billion damage to some 12,600 homes?

    Do you reminisce about all the times you spent sitting in a musty cellar full of old people telling their own tornado ghost stories that frightened and intrigued you all at the same time?

    Or do you admit that you intended to interview the mother of a dead boy but after watching 30 minutes of her agonizing struggle to condense 10 years of a good boy’s life into two minutes of network news, you retreated and gave both of you a break from tornado exhaustion?
  • Maybe, you decide to go back to the liquor store bordering a tragic neighborhood, pull out $10 and give it to the man who is probably lying about being a tornado victim thirsty for something more than bottled water.

    If May 20, 2013, taught you anything, it taught you no Oklahoman really escaped this deadly storm. Everyone is going to need something strong to see us through the rebuilding process.

    And so you give the man a $20 bill instead.
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