MOORE, Okla. – Students who survived a rare, violent tornado return to the classroom Friday, but heading back to school just isn't the same.
The twister tore through this Oklahoma City suburb on May 20, flattening two elementary schools and leaving 25 people dead, including seven students sheltering with their teacher.
As classes resume for the first time since the deadly storm, students who attended the destroyed Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary are reporting to two temporary sites while new schools are built. Some students' families are living with relatives or were forced to relocate after their homes were damaged or destroyed. And many children are still traumatized, terrified that storm clouds or loud noises mean another tornado is barreling down on them.
"Everything has changed," said Jeff Newton, whose son, Cade, 8, rode out the tornado at Plaza Towers. The Newton's home was also leveled, and the family is now staying in a rented house.
For Cade, the storm and its devastation continue to loom. "He's very weather aware. He's kind of obsessed with it now," said his mother, Kendra, 38, who has a home daycare business. "If it's raining … he doesn't want to go outside," said Jeff, 41, a transition coordinator for a neighboring school district's special education department. "He doesn't sleep well on nights of storms."
When asked how he feels about going back to school, Cade said: "I think I can handle it OK." But lightning and dark clouds make him "have the fear of the storm again," he added.
It's the same scenario for other kids who emerged from the rubble. Liam Newby, 7, whose first-grade teacher wrapped herself around him and two other boys before a wall fell on them at Plaza Towers, has had nightmares and fits.
"I'll feel bad" if bad weather is coming, he said, "because it scares me."
Liam rattles off the different intensities of tornadoes and repeatedly quizzes his dad, Chase, asking him to define "dust devil," or a small whirlwind.
"One of the biggest things is trying to help him through the fear and the uncertainty of, is (a tornado) going to happen again?" said Chase, 34, an IT director at an oil trucking company who moved with his family to a rental home in nearby Norman after their house in Moore was leveled by the storm. "I think everybody who lost a home and been displaced just feels uprooted and chaotic," he said.
Some 1,000 homes in Moore were destroyed and another 1,000 damaged by the tornado, forcing many families to relocate. Although student enrollment has increased districtwide, Plaza Towers and Briarwood have seen a decrease of about 10 percent, or 150 students, said Moore Public Schools Supt. Robert Romines.
Skylynn Franklin, 10, attended Briarwood last year but will now attend Antioch Christian Academy, which has a twister-proof safe room, unlike the two schools that were leveled. As the storm bore down on her school, Franklin and her fourth-grade classmates braced themselves against a wall as the roof caved in. Skylynn suffered only minor physical injuries but was traumatized.
"I'm still scared," she said. "It's hard for me to talk about it." The Franklins have spent the summer in counseling. The family's church, after hearing of Skylynn's plight, paid her tuition at its academy for the coming year.
Among those returning to the devastated schools are children whose siblings perished in the rubble, including Luci Conatzer, 8, whose 9-year-old sister Emily died at Plaza Towers.
Her mom, Kristi, had considered home schooling Luci after Emily's death, but decided that Luci needed to be around other kids, even though it scares her that Plaza's temporary site, a junior high school, does not have a storm shelter. "It's a little more comforting knowing that you're going back into class with people that understand what's going (on) around you," Kristi said.
Knowing how many kids are still jittery from the storm, officials say they are giving careful thought to how and when to hold tornado drills, which could further traumatize them. One idea is to conduct drills on sunny days rather than stormy ones; another is to not call them tornado drills.
Many families said they would never again leave their child at school if a tornado was on the way, especially since neither of the two temporary school sites has safe rooms. "Parents are going to have a really hard time dropping their kids off," acknowledged Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson, who hoped to head off such fears by holding a meeting for families to address safety. She said families' anxieties likely will be alleviated as the students ease back into the rhythms of school.
Despite the horrible memory of the storm, some families say they are looking forward to the new school year. On the day of the tornado, Christa Smith, 33, a stay-at-home mom, picked up her two sons and a nephew at Plaza Towers before the twister struck and huddled with them in a bathtub. The Smiths survived but lost their home to storm damage.
Since then, the family has lived with relatives and relied on donations, such as backpacks, clothes, shoes, haircuts and eye exams, to get the boys ready for school again. There is some anxiety about returning to class with the trauma still so fresh, said dad Russell, 39, who works for a natural gas firm. But ,"we don’t want another school," he said. "We want to stay at Plaza. We're lifers."