Moore, Oklahoma, is no stranger to destruction. Notable tornadoes have struck the area in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2010. The May 20, 2013, tornado has the people of Moore working to restore what was demolished, and this time the city is rebuilding stronger.
Deidre Ebrey, director of Economic Development and Marketing of the city of Moore said, "It is tremendous. I honestly can't believe it, which I don't know why I can't believe it, because I have lived here all my life and we have done this over and over and over again [rebuilt after severe weather]. I'm almost ashamed that this time I thought we couldn't, but again they've proven me wrong. I'm so grateful and glad that I'm wrong."
Ebrey has witnessed the destruction that Moore has overcome from previous tornadoes and said that it was very difficult emotionally for the citizens to recover from the May 20, 2013, tornado. Along with the emotional loss, within the 22-square-mile town, there was a lot of structural damage as well.
The National Weather Service stated that the tornado was on the ground for 17 miles, which is more than half of the entire city of Moore, where an approximated 1,100 homes were destroyed.
The NWS Norman, Oklahoma, office originally gave the tornado a preliminary rating of EF4 but has since revised that estimate to an EF5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale. EF5 tornadoes are strong enough to blow away big houses and collapse tall buildings; winds are estimated at more than 200 mph.
Ebrey attributed immediate success to preparedness and the lead time of tornado warnings. Donna Wickes, director of community planning and development for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said long-term success will be due to the careful planning process.
"When you have situations like Moore, Oklahoma, there are three phases that I like to think they [victims] go through. The first 48-hour period of awe and shock, followed by the community implementing interim and short-term fixes and then the planning process for long-term recovery," Wickes said.
The first 24 hours after the tornado, Ebrey recalled images of citizens emerging from their storm shelters and literally picking up the pieces of what was left of their homes in an effort to start the process of rebuilding. She said that the debris removal process is sometimes hard for her to comprehend.
On May 29, 2013, the official large-truck debris removal process began. A total of 173,000 tons of debris was removed from Moore's city limits as well as 12,000 truck loads that were hauled out of the city. Moore was officially cleared of all large debris by Sept. 6, 2013, Ebrey said.
Debris removal, an important part of the rebuilding process, comes at a hefty price, according to Elizabeth Jones, community development director for the city of Moore.
"Looking at past numbers and seeing what we spent on debris removal, we knew it was going to be extremely expensive; $15 million is what the city put in for debris removal," Jones said.
FEMA met the city of Moore's immediate needs, such as search and rescue, basic repairs to the infrastructure, which was all paid for by emergency funds since a presidential disaster was declared.
Once debris was cleared, the progress continued forward. In mid-March, Moore's city council voted unanimously to bolster and upgrade building requirements of residential homes. Old codes were written where homes could withstand only 90 mph.
"This time, we took a stance that we have not done in the past, and that no one has done in the past, and that is to fortify our residential building codes. The hope for that is so that we can see less structural damage. Mind you, these were massive storms that came through, EF4 and EF5 that came through with wind speeds higher than 135 mph, but still, when you look at the homes that were completely destroyed and those that might be a street over, they would have had far less significant damage had they been built to these new standards," Ebrey said.
"Those first four weeks were really about focusing on the long-term picture. Where do you want to be in the future, and based on historical data, we knew this will happen again [tornadoes]. The planning process really impacted all infrastructure and it really changed the footprint of Moore," Wickes said.
New building codes were designed to have significant upgrades such as alterations to residential garage doors. Engineers who were a part of the planning process learned that often the garage door was compromised first, which then led to a lot of structural damage. New doors will be able to withstand 135-mph winds, and this new standard will help keep the integrity of the structure.
While the town is not completely back to normal, the goal is well within reach.
"We are at the point where 1,087 homes that were completely destroyed in our city limits. We have on-file building permits, for 549, meaning over half of those destroyed homes are either built back or in the process of being built back," Ebrey said.
Fewer than 10 homes are still in the condemnation process, and only eight homes have had no activity since the storm.
"When the storm first hit, I took the personal out of it, the heartbreak, and really planned. You have to move forward to make things better. I'm glad there was no rushing during the planning process. The people of Moore were patient when we told them to wait those 103 days before they rebuild and it paid off. Better planning made for better outcomes and they understood that if they waited they would get more. This is a precedent set across America," Wickes said.
The success and planning to restore Moore keeps on growing. Volunteer groups have been showing up by the bus loads over the past year to help with the efforts. Groups that formed on Twitter such as #ServeMoore, students on spring break, athletic teams at both the collegiate and professional level have all chipped in and lent a helping hand to Moore.
"We want to thank everybody and we're struggling with just how to do that, to list every single entity, but we just don't know how to start to do that. It speaks to the heart of America and to where we are, the heartland. We're in a vibrant area here and in a community where everyone wants to be apart of our schools and moving in at a fast pace because we have a great quality of life on our good days. When we have bad days, and May 20th was a really bad day, our expectation is to get back to our full potential as an amazing, thriving suburb."