MOORE, Okla. – After an anguish-filled summer, students returned to classes Friday at two elementary schools destroyed last spring by a deadly tornado that ripped a 17-mile path of devastation through the suburbs of Oklahoma City.
The children of Moore were eager to reunite with classmates, but many were still haunted by fears of the weather and memories of young friends lost to the monstrous EF5 twister that killed 24 people.
Zack Lewis, who narrowly escaped the storm that took the lives of seven schoolmates, seemed to express the anxiety on everyone’s mind when he asked his parents a simple, plaintive question: Who will come get him if another tornado approaches?
“He’s a little anxious. He didn’t want to eat,” Julie Lewis said, wiping tears from her cheeks after escorting her son to his first day of fourth grade.
On the day of the storm, Zack’s father plucked the boy from his classroom when the weather grew threatening, so the child wasn’t on campus when the twister hit. The schoolmates died when a wall collapsed on them at Plaza Towers Elementary.
The EF5 tornado, with winds that exceeded 200 mph, also plowed through Briarwood Elementary School and destroyed scores of homes and businesses.
Counselors and five therapy dogs greeted students outside the Central Junior High School, which will share its campus with Plaza Towers students for at least the next year. Parents snapped photographs of their children in front of flowers, balloons and a red-and-white banner reading “Plaza Towers Elementary School. Welcome.”
Inside the temporary school, teachers and administrators tried to create a sense of normalcy, but some acknowledged the challenge ahead.
Fourth-grade teacher Nikki McCurtain, who has many of the third-graders who survived, said she let her students pick where they wanted to sit as a way to let them feel like they had control. Gift bags filled with Tootsie Rolls, Pixie Stix and other items were left on each desk.
“I want to reassure them that it’s going to be a good school year if they make it a good school year,” McCurtain said. “It’s just so tragic what happened.”
One of McCurtain’s students, 10-year-old Cam’ron Richardson, had trouble sleeping Thursday night as a storm rolled through central Oklahoma. He didn’t speak much while preparing for school but looked sharp in his black jeans shorts and new basketball shoes.
“I am nervous for him. I just hope it doesn’t storm the next few days,” said his mother, Alicia Richardson.
The site where the Plaza Towers school once stood, in the heart of a neighborhood decimated by the tornado, has become a makeshift memorial for the dead and a meeting spot for volunteers, even though there is just a slab where the school used to be.
A handful of wind-battered trees are beginning to grow new leaves and branches again. Seven crosses, each carrying the name of a child killed in the storm, are accompanied by an eighth that has a black “7” inside a red heart.