Oklahoma Tornado Project

Paul Phillips stands in front of his home. He rebuilt on his lot after the 2013 tornado destroyed his house.
Kate Carlton Greer / KGOU

It’s been two years since a deadly EF-5 tornado swept through Moore, Oklahoma, taking the lives of 24 people, including seven children, and destroying nearly 1,100 homes. In the months following the storm, there was a housing boom, but that surge has since plateaued.

It’s easy to drive through Moore and south Oklahoma City to figure out exactly where the tornado came through two years ago. Construction vehicles crowd streets, overgrown weeds occupy lots where homes used to be and clusters of new houses pepper the once-established neighborhoods.

Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Tornado Project

With threats ranging from ice storms to tornadoes, Oklahoma ranks first in the nation in the number of presidentially declared disasters over the past 14 years.

That’s why the state says it's important for local officials to maintain hazard mitigation plans, explaining the steps they're taking to reduce or eliminate their risks. But keeping things up-to-date has proven tough. 

Kate Carlton Greer / Oklahoma Tornado Project

After a federally-declared disaster, the U.S. Small Business Administration issues low-interest loans to help homeowners and businesses recover. The agency disbursed over $20 million to Oklahomans following last year’s severe weather outbreak in the central part of the state, so we wanted to look into exactly what it takes to get one of those loans. 

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

In the year since a series of severe storms devastated Central Oklahoma, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded nearly $146 million to the city of Moore and the state to help with recovery. But so far, only a fraction of that has been spent, and spending the money has turned out to be harder than you’d think. 

Victims embrace amid the devastation in Moore after the May 20, 2013 tornado.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

After last year’s deadly tornadoes, private insurers paid out over $1 billion in claims. FEMA also chipped in $15 million as part of its individual and household assistance program. But nearly three-quarters of that program’s applicants were denied.

As part of our series tracking the federal aid money, we look at the decision-making process that left much of Central Oklahoma out of luck. 

On the evening of May 20th, 2013, James and Sheryl Pennington stepped outside their home in Moore to find debris everywhere. The tornado had left a devastating trail, and they weren’t exempt from its destruction. 

Andrea Booher / FEMA

When tornadoes damage buildings, there are a number of things to account for when it comes to insurance and federal aid: how many square feet were there? Is the building a total loss? How much will it cost to repair?

But you often don’t think about the contents of a building. For example, what about the number of beakers in a school science classroom?

Robert Romines had been the superintendent of Moore Public Schools for just one week when the May 20th tornado devastated the town, leveling two schools, damaging multiple buildings and taking the lives of seven children. Romines promised the town that the district would rebuild, and it would do so quickly.

“We made a lot of promises early on, and I'll be honest with you, there were a lot of nights I went home shortly after May 20th, 2013 and thought to myself, ‘Holy cow, we have made promises not only to our community, but worldwide media was here,’” he said.

State Farm / Flickr Creative Commons

After a string of deadly tornados hit Oklahoma in the spring of last year, President Obama signed a federal disaster declaration that paved the way for up to $257 million in aid.

One year later, about one half of that funding has been spent.  The Oklahoma Tornado Project teamed up with Oklahoma Watch to track where all the money went. 

Following huge disasters, there’s always a potential for things to go wrong. In New Orleans, former mayor Ray Nagin was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking bribes from contractors rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And in New Jersey, there’s been criticism that some Sandy aid money has gone to less needy areas.

So we wanted to look into Oklahoma’s post-storm recovery. State Department of Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood – who has worked closely with FEMA – says outright fraud is less common than it used to be. 

Kate Carlton / The Oklahoma Tornado Project

Earlier this week, KGOU's Oklahoma Tornado Project and the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center hosted an opening reception for the exhibit "Not Just Another Day in May" at Leadership Square in Downtown Oklahoma City. A few of the photographers who have work featured in the exhibit were there to talk to listeners about the images. 

Severe Storms Forecast For Oklahoma Tuesday

Apr 2, 2014
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Norman Forecast Office / National Weather Service

Oklahomans are facing their first significant risk for tornadoes of the spring storm season. The National Weather Service says the potential for severe thunderstorms increases Tuesday afternoon. If storms develop they are likely to be severe.

While the storms will be fairly isolated, forecasters say conditions for severe weather will become more favorable through the day. What the weather service calls “significant severe storms” are possible mainly between 4-10 p.m.

National Weather Service

Meteorologists are really good at understanding all sorts of complicated weather-related jargon. But when severe storms are in the forecast, it’s important to communicate those threats in a way that people can easily understand. 

The National Weather Service has been testing a new, simpler approach in different parts of the country, and last week, they introduced their system to Oklahoma. 

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

If you documented any part of the tornadoes that devastated parts of Oklahoma in May of 2013 through still photography, KGOU is asking you to share your photos for possible inclusion in an exhibit marking the one-year anniversary.

Kate Carlton / Oklahoma Tornado Project

During spring break, most college kids escape school and work for a simpler life at the beach. But sometimes, groups of teenagers and 20-somethings venture away from the sand and into the dirt. 

One Oklahoma group has decided to use those students to revitalize areas of Moore affected by the May 20 tornado. 

Spending your spring break planting trees in a muddy park thousands of miles from your home may not sound like the most relaxing and rewarding way to spend a week. 18-year-old Tyler Lawson from Connecticut realizes he’s working a lot harder than many of his classmates.

The aftermath of the May 2013 tornado in Moore, Okla.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has announced an additional $109 million in disaster aid for Moore and the state of Oklahoma for recovery efforts from last year's tornadoes and other disasters.

Moore will receive nearly $26 million and the state will receive $83 million from the federal agency's community development block grant program.

Monday's announcement is in addition to nearly $28 million in HUD funds announced last August.

Harold Brooks, Rick Smith and Michelann Ooten speak about storm safety at The Oklahoma Tornado Project's March 12, 2014 forum.
Kate Carlton / Oklahoma Tornado Project

With tornado season approaching, many Oklahomans will turn to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to stay informed of the latest hazards. 

Use of these outlets explodes during severe weather outbreaks, as people try to disseminate information, share pictures and update each other on the course of the storm. But despite their ability to quickly deliver breaking news, social media can often contribute to spreading outdated information. 

Kate Carlton

While many view tax season as a nuisance, it can be especially frustrating for people struggling to rebound from disasters, like the deadly tornadoes that swept through the state last May.  

Some residents of central Oklahoma lost homes, cars and old tax documents, so they’re confused and unsure how to proceed, and that’s left many tornado alley taxpayers with lots of questions.