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Fear followed Oklahoma tornado but there are glimmers of optimism

Tornadoes and Wind StormsTelecommunication ServiceMoore Oklahoma Tornado (2013)

MOORE, Okla. -- In the middle-class neighborhood of brick and frame homes known locally as South Moore Addition, there was no discernible pattern to the destruction inflicted by a tornado that killed at least 24 people.

Some residents stood in a drenching midday rain Tuesday, sweeping up broken tree branches and soggy leaves outside homes that were unscathed except for mud and gunk spattered across windows and doors. But other homeowners stood on ragged mounds of rubble that had once been their homes, trying to find something to salvage.

"That was my house," said Luis Lopez, gesturing toward a haphazard collection of tan bricks and roofing shingles. "It’s gone."

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

No one was home when the tornado flattened the house Monday afternoon, and Lopez was grateful for that. But he looked mournfully at his beloved black 2004 GMC Yukon, which lay now in a muddy, crumpled heap, its expensive, showy rims still attached.

The tornado had blown the car about 50 yards from where it had been parked in front of Lopez's house, and he marveled at the ferocity of the storm. "Oh, man. Oh, man," he said, staring at the wreckage.

Down the street, Melissa Neidel and her sister Lori Neidel poked through soggy debris that clogged the gutters and lay heaped in yards. They were searching for their neighbors' lost belongings: family photos, jewelry, important documents.

Melissa’s home was just a couple of blocks away, she said, but it was untouched by the storm. She and her sister felt blessed.

Melissa had canceled a hair appointment Monday afternoon that would have put her in the storm’s path. Lori had picked up her 8-year-old daughter from school and arrived safely home just before the tornado touched down nearby. A close friend of her daughter's was one of seven children killed when the storm struck Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore. 

Now the sisters felt compelled to do something to help neighbors who had lost everything. Perhaps, they thought, they could salvage some beloved item that would ease the pain and loss.

"It’s not really the house that’s lost," Lori Neidel said. "It’s all the stuff inside that you can never replace."

A drenching downpour had finally eased by midafternoon, and residents began to make their way on foot into neighborhoods where surviving homes stood sentinel over the water-logged remains of structures eviscerated by the storm. To ward off looters, police had blocked off surrounding roads to vehicles, creating impenetrable traffic jams, compounded by electrical outages that left streetlights dark.

The storm was capricious. It damaged a movie theater and ripped holes in a nearby hospital, but left entire shopping centers intact. Few surviving structures or patches of grass were spared from uprooted trees, flipped cars or crumpled cellphone towers – or the widespread spattering of mud, ooze and shredded wet shrubbery.

Amy Selix was at work, 15 miles away, when the tornadoes hit Monday. So was her husband.

But their young children — her 5-year-old son, Xander and 22-month-old daughter, Edie — were in Moore, at school and day care.

"It was simply terrifying, watching the storm and seeing it form," Selix told the Los Angeles Times in a text message. "I just stood there, frozen, with my hands on my face. I felt physically sick."

Selix and her husband, Cole, received automated messages from their son's school, Santa Fe Elementary School, letting them know that children were being released to parents only. She couldn't reach the day care where their daughter was because the power was out, and she was frantic in the confused hour after the tornado hit. She finally got a text message to the director, and, not knowing Selix's number, the director "sent back almost instantly, 'just very scary so far.'"

"It took more than 90 minutes to drive those 15 miles" from her office to the day care, Selix wrote. "I was using my map on my phone to navigate through the neighborhoods to stay off the main roads." Her husband arrived 15 minutes before her.

The family's home in Moore was unscathed, but neighborhoods about a mile away were wiped away. The Selixes had no electricity Tuesday and were staying with family out of town.

Tod and Logan Thornton, who had lovingly remodeled their ranch-style home, made their way past police barricades Tuesday to inspect the damage. They had fled moments before the tornado roared across Interstate 35 and ripped into the neighborhood.

Their roof had been sliced cleanly off, its ragged remnants scattered in the damp grass out front. But inside, their furniture and possessions were remarkably intact, if a bit damp. Even their family photos were safe.

"We have a few new skylights, but that’s the worst of it," said Tod, a landscaper whose business sign still stood upright in the yard amid scattered debris.

Logan, a hairdresser, looked up at the missing roof, where the late-afternoon sunshine poked through, brightening the home’s interior.

"It’s just a house," she said.

Her husband hugged her. "We’ll rebuild it better than it ever was," he said.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Zucchino reported from Moore and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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