Published May 22, 2013
MOORE, Okla. – Dan Garland could feel the latch on the shelter door begin to turn in his hand. It was as if the storm outside were a living, breathing thing — and it was trying desperately to get in.
Huddled beside him in the darkened 5-foot-by-6-foot hole were not just his wife and 91-year-old mother, along with five neighbors and two friends from a mile away — 10 people and two dogs, all together. Johnny Knight was among them; he sold the Garlands their home at 1324 SW 149th St., and he knew his family could cross the street and find refuge there.
As bricks from nearby homes pounded on the steel hatch in a deafening staccato, the two men hung from the handle, praying their combined weight would be enough to keep the monster outside at bay.
They didn't know it yet, but the tornado raging around them was an EF5 — the highest ranking on the scale. More than a mile across, it would carve a path of destruction nearly 17 miles long and leave 24 dead in its wake.
Block by block, a storm ripped apart Moore for the second time in 14 years, leaving survivors to wrestle with the awful calculus deciding whether to rebuild or move on. This is the story of one of those blocks.
Back when his parents farmed it, the 80 acres between Oklahoma City and the Canadian River were home to grazing cattle, and rich crops of cotton and wheat. In the late 1990s, Knight decided to carve up the land and open it to development.
He called it Country Edge Estates, because it represented the best of both worlds.
Each family had 5 acres to roam and play on. But people are still close enough that if one of Jalayne Jann's three horses or Wayne Osmus' seven dogs showed up, everyone knew where to return it.
But no one in this cluster of one-story brick and frame homes was under any illusion that this was paradise — at least, not after May 3, 1999.
Dan and Rebecca Garland were still laying sod for their lawn that day when a tornado packing winds over 300 mph — the highest ever recorded — ripped through the town, killing 36. As soon as it was over, they applied for a federal grant to help put in their concrete storm shelter.
Every couple of years, Rebecca Garland would go through the 2,500-square-foot house, opening cabinets and closets and taking photographs of the contents — documenting their possessions in case they ever had to make an accounting. The latest set would go into the floor-mounted safe in her husband's office.
The couple and his mother, Roberta, had spent much of Rebecca's 63rd birthday Sunday in the little bunker as storms raked the nearby town of Shawnee. They'd invited Johnny and Janice Knight to join them, but he declined.
In 13 years as chief of the Moore Fire Department, the 68-year-old Knight had responded to his share of tornados. The old first responder had seen countless people saved by home shelters, but he didn't have one.
He never thought he'd need one. And he hadn't — until Monday.
After watching the news coverage all day, Knight decided this storm was different from the ones that had driven his neighbors underground. He corralled his wife, their daughter, Angie Shelton, and her 15-year-old son, Chase, and headed across SW 149th Street to join the Garlands, who had already taken cover. Chase was concerned that the Garlands' next-door neighbor, Amber Bowie, did not have a shelter. He ran to get her.
Knight could see the massive cloud churning toward them as they crept inside.
His neighbor at No. 1311, Jalayne Jann, was just arriving home. Jann was at the insulation company she and her husband, Darrin, own with relatives on 12th Street in Moore. The 40-year-old bookkeeper decided she would be safer in their backyard shelter than a metal building downtown and headed home.
She was talking on the phone with Darrin, who was up in Norman inspecting some jobs, when she heard the announcer on his truck radio say the storm was at 149th and Pennsylvania Avenue — just up the street. She looked up and saw a wall of debris.
"Get in there," her husband shouted.
Her "weenie dog," Hoss, was already in the shelter. She scooped up Cheerios, the couple's pit bull, and sprinted for safety.
As the wind screamed around her, she struggled with the bulkhead door, turning the handle while the locking mechanism was still caught on the outer lip.
"I don't know how to do this," she shouted to herself.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, she managed to secure the door. About a minute later, the storm struck.
Next door, at 1313 SW 149th, Wayne and Patricia Osmus had an 8-foot-square concrete shelter beside their swimming pool. But it would do their family little good.
When the storm hit, Wayne Osmus was downtown at the auto parts store where he works. So it fell to his 42-year-old son, Mark Metz, to get his mother and disabled uncle, Jack Young, 50, into the bunker.
Patricia Osmus, 67, lame in both hips from operations several years ago, was struggling to get Young outside. But the wind pressure was so great that Metz couldn't open the metal door.
The three retreated to a designated safe room — a tiny linen closet at the center of the brick house.
Nearby, Gene and Colleen Perdue, 69 and 68, were facing a similar choice.
Like the Osmuses, the couple had a shelter. They'd installed it 39 years ago, when they built their three-bedroom brick home at 1409 SW 149th.
They'd been meaning to update it, but just never seemed to get around to it. When they finally needed it, they realized the rusted fastenings would be no match for the winds.
They hurried through the oak-floored kitchen and formal family room to a 4-by-4-foot bedroom closet and covered their heads with a blanket. They listened as the ceilings were sucked up, one by one, until they heard the one above their heads begin to peel away.
"Well," Gene Perdue said, turning to his wife. "This is it."
Oilfield parts supply salesman Scott Shelton was at work when he learned of the storm's path. When he couldn't get through to Angie, he jumped in his vehicle and sped home.
When he reached the area, police were already blocking off access. He met Max Garland, who was trying to get to his parents.
The two men picked their way along back roads. When they finally reached their block an hour later, they were amazed to see everyone sitting in the Garlands' driveway, dazed but unhurt.
Shelton hugged his wife and son in mute relief. The Garlands' home was gone but for a tiny section of the front wall; the storm had ripped the vent covers from the shelter, but could not gain entry.
It would take three hours for Wayne Osmus to make it back home.
His roof had been sheared off, and the back wall was collapsed inward. Miraculously, everyone was safe, but two of his dogs were badly injured.
Buster, the 18-year-old pit-chow mix who'd kept Osmus company at the custom wheel shop he used to own, was not so lucky. Osmus found his lifeless body lying nearby under a pile of brush, his eyes and nose caked with grit, his brown coat matted with vegetation.
The Perdues emerged from their blanket to find their 2,100-square-foot house in shambles around them. But they, too, were unharmed.
The storm had torn off part of Jann's roof and pushed a box truck 50 feet across the yard. The horse barn was demolished, but the three animals inside survived largely unscathed.
As the neighbors picked over the storm's leavings Tuesday, rain pelted down and the sky crackled with lightning. Uniformed National Guard members stood watch at the intersection, keeping all but residents out.
The Garlands dug through the rubble for the safe, which had been ripped from the concrete floor, but was intact. As Rebecca Garland stood in the rain, wearing a pink Oklahoma University T-shirt and Oklahoma City Thunder basketball cap given to her by a stranger, Max emerged from around the pile with a sodden Tin Man doll — part of her once extensive "Wizard of Oz" collection.
A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Dan Garland built the houses on either side of his, including his mother's at No. 1348, now flattened. There was no question but that they'll rebuild.
"I've only been knocked down once," he says, holding a chain saw. "No storm is going to scare me off. I'll build it a little more secure, and I'll have a basement probably. But I love my place here."
It wasn't until a day after the storm that Colleen Purdue realized that that door to their shelter had been ripped from its hinges. She looked inside to find it filled with water and debris.
"It's a good thing we weren't in there," she says, "Or we'd be dead."
The couple aren't sure they will stay. When a visitor wishes her luck, Colleen Perdue says she doesn't need it.
"I've already had all my luck," she says. "Because I'm alive."
From the outside, the Knight and Shelton homes appeared largely intact. But the storm twisted the structures in ways that only a close inspection can detect, and both homes will likely have to be demolished, Knight says.
The old firefighter had been lucky so far. But he wondered how much longer he can beat the odds.
"I've lived here all my life," he says, staring through the shattered windows of the sun room where his wife kept her three parrots. "But this deal. Every time it clouds up, they say it's headed towards Moore. And, man, it's a bad deal."
Standing atop the debris pile beside his home, Osmus shouted down to Jann over the whup-whup of hovering helicopters.
"You going to rebuild?" he asks
She answers without hesitation: "Yes. One hundred percent. 10-4."
Osmus supposes he'll rebuild as well. Osmus is a tough guy — a Vietnam-era Marine — but his peace of mind has been shattered.
Picking through the rubble, his son, Kevin Metz, finds a wall clock, its hands frozen at 3:15. After some more digging, Osmus finds one of his most treasured possessions — a menacing-looking Bowie knife with an eagle's head carved into the ivory handle, a gift from a Marine pal.
But the 1958 Ford Fairlane his father gave him is a total loss.
People always say that it's just stuff, and that it can be replaced. But Osmus knows it's more than just that.
"Memories — they're always there," he says, surveying the wreckage through bloodshot eyes, "But material items to MAKE you remember. If they're gone, you lose touch. That's the hard part."
Somewhere in the distance, a cock crows. And Osmus returns to his search.