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Two Years Later, New Book Tells Stories Of 'Merciless' May 2013 Tornadoes

Jun 1, 2015

Oklahomans are now finally starting to dry out after May brought as much as two feet of rain to some parts of the state. The tornadoes and flooding that have killed dozens in this state and its southern neighbor last month were a reminder of how cruel May can be when warming temperatures and moist Gulf air collide over the nation's midsection.

2015's series of storms followed a quiet 2014, but the year before, two of the worst tornadoes ever recorded hit the communities of Moore and Oklahoma City. 

The May 20, 2013 storm killed 25 people, including seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary School and one woman who succumbed to her injuries months later. Less than two weeks later, then-record flash flooding killed several more people across a community still weary from the worst storm in nearly 15 years.

Holly Bailey tells the stories of those two storms in her book The Mercy of the Sky. She's a national correspondent for Yahoo News, and covered the war in Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina as Newsweek's White House correspondent. As a University of Oklahoma student in the mid-1990s, she also helped CNN with the network's coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"I grew up here, and I knew exactly what they were feeling whenever they're seeing these storms come through," said the Oklahoma City native. "When I started writing this book and interviewing people, it was hard to hear so many stories, and this was sort-of similar to previous stories I've covered, you just have to have this sort-of emotional distance, but it's very hard, and it's especially hard with this story."

Browse Holly Bailey's book The Mercy of the Sky and read several excerpts

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the morning of May 20, 2013, after storms had already hit Shawnee and Bethel Acres the day before

On one hand, some people were excited. Howard Bluestein and his team had been able to get basically an X-Ray of that tornado, which was great for research. But then there were also people worried about, we didn't know what the toll was. It's sort-of evocative of May in Oklahoma. There had been this tornado the night before. There's word of more tornadoes, and they worried about something worse coming.

I think like everybody that morning the people at Plaza Towers woke up that morning knowing there was going to be bad weather. And the National Weather Service had been putting out warnings saying there could be a possibility of storms hitting around the kids were let out of school. They were anticipating that it could be bad weather, but I don't think anybody in their minds even imagined a storm like what happened that day.

President Obama talks with Plaza Towers Elementary School principal Amy Simpson as he visits the community of Moore to view tornado damage on May 25, 2013.
Credit Jocelyn Augustino / Federal Emergency Management Agency

On Plaza Towers principal Amy Simpson, and the role she played that day

[She's] such an amazing lady, and kept it together somehow on that day. Going back, I still don't know how she did it. It's so incredible. It was one of the last days of school, and she wanted to keep things normal for kids. They had a bunch of ceremonies marking the end of the year for some of the classes, and she was interviewing teachers for the next school year to hire them, and she had one of her assistants who was always keeping an eye on the weather for them, and during the day there were emails from Moore Public Schools. But it was really later in the day, during an interview, one of her assistants came in and she just saw the look on her face and she knew it was bad.

I don't think she ever imagined, that day, being in the path of a storm like that. But once she was, there was something her that just clicked. She felt like it was her responsibility to keep her staff safe, to keep her kids safe as much as she could. I think if she could've stood outside and somehow held up her hand, and held that tornado away, I think she would've. I mean, that's obviously something you can't do, but she just felt like it was her duty to remain calm, because no one else was remaining calm.

Fortunately, her husband is a firefighter, and so she knows what the terms mean, and she knows "recovery" vs. "rescue." She knew early on there was death at that school, but somehow she felt it was her duty to keep it together, and she wanted to tell the parents, and at one point she even scales the pile to peer down so she could identify the kids, and her husband ended up dragging her away, 'You don't want to see something like that.' She just wanted to help the parents, and she wanted to help her students, and sometimes that was to her own detriment.

On the sadness, and optimism, she felt on the first anniversary of the Moore tornado

You think about the kids who died, the seven at Plaza Towers, and then the two babies that were killed along the path, but you also just step back and realize how many people lived. It's a real miracle. I came back, and I went to this assembly at Plaza Towers where all the little kids were gathered, and some of the parents, to mark this really terrible day. They played a slideshow of the kids who died, and all the adults were really worried about what effect this would have on the kids.

At one point, I remember they were playing the slideshow, and one of the teachers that was sitting there began to cry. I saw this little girl grab her hand, and just squeeze it, and it reminded me of something that Amy Simpson had said, which is throughout the year she had just marveled at how resilient the kids had been. They still had some problems, and they had gone through art therapy, and as she put it, learned the difference between good clouds and bad clouds. But in the end, it was the kids who were just strong, and moving on, and it was the adults she said that were struggling. Watching that scene of that child comforting the adult, it was just really powerful to me.

On what's gone through her mind during the May 2015 tornadoes and flooding

I worry about the people of Moore, because they're so strong. And they try to be so resilient, and they rebuild again and again. But it's the emotional and the invisible damage that's harder to overcome. We're talking about people in a city that jump when the emergency sirens are tested now, and that's something that happens every Saturday at noon. Severe weather is just something that happens in Moore, and when I grew up here, you just knew it. And you dealt with it. But I worry about the people of Moore, because they've just been hit so hard, and so many times, and at some point it just becomes so much, and such a test. So that's something that I've been thinking about, especially as again, storms roll through after a really quiet year in 2014, which I'm grateful for. But I wish it could be quiet forever there.

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