This week marks 15 months since a deadly tornado swept through Moore, Oklahoma, leveling two schools and taking the lives of seven children inside Plaza Towers Elementary. It’s been a long journey, but the schools finally reopen Tuesday, and the kids are excited to be back.
10-year-old Marissa Miley was finishing up third grade at Moore’s Briarwood Elementary last year when an EF-5 tornado destroyed her school.
Later that summer, the City of Moore decided to move Briarwood’s classes to Emmaus Baptist Church. It was Marissa’s first time going to school anywhere other than Briarwood, and it was tough.
“When we were at Emmaus, things were very different, so it was hard to get used to things,” Mariss said. “The year went by really slowly for me. Even the days were slower.”
“It just felt like we were kind of on pause,” said Marissa’s mom, Mercedes. She still can’t figure out why everything feels slower.
“What happened to this past year? It just feels like it's been the longest year of our life. It felt like for a long time nothing was really happening.”
She recognizes that rebuilding a school in just over a year is fast, but emotionally, she still grew tired of waiting.
The Mileys live just a few blocks from the school, so they’ve watched the entire rebuilding process. And Marissa has paid pretty close attention, especially when it came to whether or not the district would install storm shelters.
“When they said that they were going to put one in Briarwood and try to put one in all Moore schools, I felt relieved,” Marissa said.
“I think that kids safety shouldn't have a price on it and that they should pay for it and that we should be able to have a storm shelter in our schools.”
Both Briarwood and Plaza Towers now have safe rooms, and school officials say they’ll put shelters in new construction from now on.
Moore’s Superintendent Robert Romines said earlier this summer that adding those safety precautions is generally pricey, but the district had help this time.
“In regards to safe rooms, with OEM, which is Oklahoma Emergency Management, and FEMA, we probably will recoup about 87% of the safe room cost at each site, but then the Red Cross stepped in and said, ‘We'll take care of the other 13%.’ So when I say we've been blessed, we've been blessed,” Romines said.
The elementary schools cost roughly $12 million each to rebuild, including costs to speed up construction so they’d be ready for the start of the school year. Romines had only been superintendent for one week when the storm hit last year. He called the rebuilding process a baptism by fire.
“I've learned more about insurance and FEMA and tornadoes, F5 tornadoes, grinder tornadoes, concrete, brick, I've learned more than I can shake a stick at. It’s been one crazy ride.”
He credits school officials, the insurance company and a host of other groups for the district’s speed and success in rebuilding over the past 15 months. Recovering from a loss that totaled roughly $50 million requires an army, Romines says.
“Without good people, we would not be where we are today. Don’t get me wrong, we've had some uphill climbs, but everybody has worked together, and we've gotten through the issues together,” he said.
As for Marissa Miley, she’s still nervous when severe weather rolls in, but she isn’t afraid to return to Briarwood.
“I'm just excited that we have a new school and we can be normal again,” she said.
One of the hardest things about Emmaus was the constant reminder that she was still displaced from the tornado. Marissa says more than anything, going back to school is an opportunity for her to reconnect with friends she hasn’t seen all summer.