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Anniversary of Moore Tornado Poses a Painful Reminder for Some Victims

The EF5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013, claimed 24 lives, injured hundreds and caused billions of dollars in damage. However, the emotional damage can't be described by numbers.

Tornadoes often leave residents of the victimized area devastated and entire communities completely decimated. Round-the-clock news coverage tends to show the visual destruction and devastation but then fades afterward. However, for the people who survive these extreme weather events, the consequences last much longer than the news cycle and extend much deeper than what lies on the surface.

Deidre Ebrey, director of Economic Development and Marketing of the city of Moore, said that rebuilding homes and businesses was much easier than coping and recovering emotionally.

"We, as a city, have been through this before. We knew what kind of machinery it takes to get the streets clean, for example, and we know the logistical parts of it," Ebrey said.

"But the emotional part of it, this time, was a lot more difficult for us to manage. It was much more emotional for us. There was more loss of life in our city limits and the constant attention on us, the national and international attention, was far greater this time than before."

Dr. Darlyne Nemeth, clinical, medical and neuropsychologist, said long-term mental unrest of severe weather victims could be at an all-time high due to what she refers to as the anniversary reaction.

"An anniversary reaction, which occurs on or around the date of a past traumatic event, involves reactions to an emotionally charged episode which holds tremendous significance for an individual or group. When the initial event is experienced as traumatic, individuals may tend to become sensitized to re-experience the symptoms under reminiscent circumstances," Nemeth said.

Narmeth's research shows that once the storm had passed, it didn't mean that the turmoil was over. Her most recent work focuses on Hurricane Katrina victims but no matter the event, the characteristics of anniversary reactions (panic, grief and conflict) remain the same.

The most vulnerable people were those who had long-term proximity and extent of exposure to the disaster as well as those who suffered from concurrent personal issues such as relocation, loss and poor social support concluded Narmeth's findings.

"It was just devastating to lose the 24 citizens that we lost, but when you see the magnitude of the storm and you look at it, either from an aerial view or as your driving through, it just would be hard to believe that hundreds of lives were not lost," Ebrey said.

"Right after the event, it was crisis management mode," Dr. Gant Ward Ph.D. life psychologist and owner of Moore Counseling Center, said.

Ward has found the children of Moore have been most affected in the wake of the storm, including his own.

"We've come a long way in a year, but we have a ways to go. My house was destroyed in the tornado and just two weeks ago we started to rebuild. It's been tremendously stressful on a personal level to keep fighting when we are so fatigued. You compartmentalize and take what is in front of you and go from there. My wife and I tried to give our kids a summer [after the storm] and restore normalcy and everyday routines. We try our best," said Ward.

Dr. Judy Kuriansky, clinical psychologist, said that every child is different and learning how to deal with the mental aftermath has to be on a case-by-case basis.

"Any type of change can be traumatic when you magnify that loss by losing a loved one, job, property or personal injury. There is no one on this planet who isn't going to be affected in some way, especially if you find yourself missing three out of those four. One year is not enough time to put your life together practically," Kuriansky said.

The ages of the children that still may be experiencing anxiety varies. Kuriansky said that not all the children may have the words to express how they are feeling a year later. Back in June 2013, a group of students, from the University of Northern Texas headed by Jennifer Baggerly, Ph.D., chair and professor of Counseling, visited Moore and worked with children through play therapy.

"We found a lot of children were fearful for their parents, having flashbacks which led to sleepless nights and even were reluctant to return to school," Baggerly said.

One father that Bagerly's team met said that he and his children rode their bikes past Plaza Towers Elementary, that was destroyed by the EF5 tornado in Moore, in order to help his children feel calm about returning back to school there. He tried to show them not to be fearful of schools, Bagerly said.

Kuriansky said that facing the imagery and destruction is a method that works for some people. Even going back and re-watching news coverage or internet imagery, different people will see it and react differently.

"Telling them [the people of Moore] to stay away from media that day [the one-year anniversary] might not be the answer for everyone. It's a case-by-case solution where some people will find comfort in it and it shows that people care about Moore or it will bring people right back to the event. It's like a cut. You see the blood but you keep looking at it to see if there is something else you can do to survive it," Kuriansky said.

Though everyone is different, there are always resources for the people of Moore to reach out too if they do find May 20, a particularly difficult day to deal with. Ward's counseling center prides itself on helping the generations of Moore grow stronger through these tough times.

"California does earthquakes, and here in Moore, we do tornadoes, it's just how it is. I think there was a lot of loss of innocence [for the children] to even go to school and be safe while it was literally crumbling around them. But it's our duty, and that of parents and teachers, to help educate or children so we can all move on," Ward said.