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When all is gone

The town of Moore, Oklahoma USA after being hit by a tornado.
Lieutenant Sharon Autry recounts the day a devastating F5 tornado destroyed her town of Moore.

Three years have past since the 22 February 2010 earthquake struck Christchurch. In this time, other parts of the world have been similarly shaken by natural disasters and have also needed to find their way through these times of turmoil. One of these is the heavily populated neighbourhood of Moore in Oklahoma City, USA.

On 20 May 2013, Moore was struck by a category 5 tornado, with winds peaking at 340 km/h. Twenty-five people were killed, 377 injured and 1150 homes destroyed. Entire subdivisions were obliterated and two schools were severely damaged, with seven students killed at Plaza Towers Elementary School. At its peak, the tornado was 2.1 km wide.  

Following a Sunday evening of severe weather, I opened my email on Monday morning and reviewed the weather forecast brief from our local emergency management agency. My husband John was already on his way to assist with disaster relief efforts in communities nearby after storms the day before, and I was readying our children for school.

The forecast was foreboding, but in Oklahoma we know that what’s forecast doesn’t always eventuate.  Still, the apprehensiveness in my spirit moved me to keep Eliana and Isaiah home from preschool. They attended a small Montessori school housed on a farm just a few blocks from our home. The school had no storm shelter and that was enough to stir a mother’s concern.

The morning was filled with mundane tasks and it was a few hours past lunch when John realised I had the credit card he needed to purchase disaster supplies. He headed home to pick up our van and the card to buy groceries so he could help cook dinner on one of our church’s deployed emergency services canteens.

But by the time John pulled in the driveway, hail was falling and tornado sirens were blaring. I was rushing the children into our bedroom closet, unaware John was locked out of the house and trying to get in through the garage. Once inside, John scanned the weather reports before walking out into the front yard for a visual perspective of what we now knew was a likely tornado heading our way. The black wall of wind that he saw was indescribable.

John’s only words to the kids and I as he returned to the closet doorway were, ‘We need to leave.’

As terrifying as the idea of being in a minivan in the middle of a massive storm was, the lack of color in John’s face and the single-minded look in his eyes was persuasive. We ran to the garage and buckled the little ones in their safety seats.

A devastated community

As we backed out, hail pelted the van with exceptional force, and we looked over our shoulder to see a beast of wind over the neighbourhood that was home to our preschool. It was at that time that our cell signals ended and the weather forecast we were streaming went blank.

As we drove north, away from the storm’s track, we saw the first sign of God’s faithfulness. Despite wind rushing, rain pouring, and hail abounding, our children fell asleep while John navigated the treacherous roads.

After 20 minutes of driving, gripped by the greatest presence of fear, we suddenly drove into sunshine. Not a drop of rain on the ground, not a cloud nearby. It was one of the eeriest moments of my life. John and I took a moment to regroup, shock still running through our veins. Aware that this sudden peace meant the tornado had passed, we turned for home. We had no idea if our house would still be there, and no idea if those from our church who lived in Moore were alright.

The traffic heading south into Moore was at a standstill. The only vehicles moving were emergency response vehicles travelling at top speeds with sirens blasting. We realised it was too dangerous and unwise to take the children back into the unknown, so we found a store where the kids and I waited for a friend to take us to safety in the north part of town.

In our haste to leave our home, the kids left with no shoes and I left with no purse. As I walked the aisles in the store looking for shoes, I was overcome by the sound of the registers and scanners beeping, the clerks stocking shelves and the customers making their selections.

Just a few miles away, we had experienced what felt like Armageddon, but here there was sunshine and business as usual. What relief I felt when I saw the smile of our rescuer, a dear friend and a fellow Salvation Army officer. I still remember the warmth of her hug.

John drove south, connected with our Salvation Army disaster team and began to serve. It was hours between my farewell hug at the store and a text from him late in the evening. Our house was spared; most everything else was not. I spent that night fielding texts, monitoring Facebook, and learning that our church people were also spared. All their homes were intact, with debris and power outages being much of the worst of their damages. To me, this was a miracle.

Serving the community

I know that God doesn’t play favourites—as Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, ‘He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong’ (CEV). The magnitude and quantity of good and bad in our lives is never reflective of a greater or lesser love from an always perfectly loving God. But knowing that many people had lost their lives, my instinctive feeling was that since all our people were spared the tornado’s destructive power, we had to regard ourselves as ‘spared to serve’. We had to turn our attention to the needs of our community. This resolution helped me cope with my own survivor’s guilt, a little talked about affliction that haunts those surrounded by excessive loss.

While John continued his service among the suffering, I tucked Eliana and Isaiah into the warm bed my friend had prepared for us. They were too shaken to sleep on their own. I waited for John’s phone call. When it came, it was brief and laden with tears.

John had spent much of the night serving at Plaza Towers, one of the schools destroyed in the tragedy. He recalled one of the most sobering and painful moments of the day: as he was walking down a street near the school to offer nourishment and pastoral care, he saw what looked like bodies lying across the pavement. Troubled and overwhelmed, he was afraid he’d come upon some unaided victims. But upon closer observation, he found that these were parents of some of the children that had died, overtaken by their grief, weeping in the dust. He worked through the night.

Total loss

On Tuesday, with help from another officer, the kids and I made it south to be reunited with John. We felt war-torn and exhausted from physical and emotional chaos. On all counts we were not well. Our neighbourhood was spared from damage, but a stone’s throw of less than a kilometre from our front yard was total loss and destruction.

By Wednesday, we were able to access our children’s preschool. We could only arrive by foot because the damage in the area was impassable by car. Their teacher and all the preschool’s children were safe, although the roots of a giant tree now rested mere feet from where they had cowered beneath a small desk. The classroom windows were all broken, and the yard was littered with trees and perished livestock. Everything else surrounding them was gone.

‘Gone’ is a word that will forever have a different meaning for me. Because it is the word that most accurately describes the weeks and months that followed the 20th of May in our lives.

Just one street away from our home, the landscape was that of devastation. Gone. Mangled debris was all that remained. One friend’s gravel driveway and much of his grass was completely gone—a whole yard made bare as if it were crumbs being vacuumed away. We looked on in disbelief from the empty foundation that once was his home. The rest of our community looked like a game board swiped clean by a frustrated child.

It was a week later when I pulled a receipt from my purse from the gas station where a mother and child perished—now gone. Then the menu from the Chinese takeout restaurant I found in our kitchen drawer—that restaurant, too, now gone.

And yet life in the neighbourhood of our church and other parts of Oklahoma City was still very much normal. It was hard to reconcile the unaffected parts of my life—most evident in office hours and errands in the north end of town—and the parts of my life where I witnessed constant grief and total destruction.

Like each morning and afternoon as we kept our young ones in their repaired preschool. In an effort to maintain some stability in their young lives, we travelled through an emotional war-zone twice daily. Upon seeing blue tarps and splintered wood, they would speak from the back seat about everything that got hurt in the tornado. Some afternoons while driving, Eliana would ask me the names of the children that perished, wondering when she would see them in Heaven.

It was in moments like those that I wrestled with God, asking him to  make sense of it all.  Most often, it seemed there was no sense to be made.

The force of God’s love

In those hours, days and weeks, I finally understood the depravity of man and the depravity of all creation. I understood in the most intimate way Paul’s words in Romans: For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

I began to not only mourn for my neighbours, but for the whole of creation that is eagerly waiting, groaning like the force of the wind, to be brought into Christ’s freedom.

Each summer morning, I passed by a tree near Eliana and Isaiah’s preschool. It had managed to remain rooted despite the destruction of everything around it. But its beauty was marred by a mangled livestock gate—warped metal entangled around it like gift wrapping.

That tree brought me to tears nearly every day. Until one morning when I was passing by and the Holy Spirit began to sing to my mourning heart: He is jealous for me, loves like a hurricane, I am a tree, bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy. When all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory, and I realise just how beautiful you are and how great your affections are for me. Oh, how he loves us!

No matter how creation is shaken, we cannot be separated from God’s kingdom of love. His is a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

We Affirm …

Sharon shared these words with the Salvation Army congregation at Oklahoma City Corps the Sunday after the Moore tornado struck.

Lord God, we affirm that although our homes, our neighbours’ homes, our places of business, our places of learning and our places of physical healing may be separated—brick from mortar, steel from steel, wood from concrete—nothing, no nothing, can separate us from your love.

Lord God, we affirm our understanding of the fall of man and the entrance of corruption and depravity in what was once a complete and perfect world. And so, along with the whole of creation—the fallen trees, the wind-struck and forlorn flowers, the fallen livestock and beasts of the field, the grass carried away by the great wind—we cry out Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly and abide. Make us whole again in you.

Lord God, we affirm the depth and riches of your compassion.A compassion that reaches into the deepest and inmost depths of who you are, and touches the deepest and inmost depths of who we are. By your nature you refuse to crush the bruised reed, and by your nature you refuse to put out the flickering candle. Remember, oh Lord, your compassion and your loving kindness, for they have been from of old. Your compassions never fail.

We count those blessed who have endured. We have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealing—that you are full of compassion and are merciful. And we, your children, made new again in your likeness and holy, put on a heart of compassion for the sake of our neighbour. That we may be as you are, here in this fallen world, even in the midst of our deepest sorrow.

By Lieutenant Sharon Autry