Tahlequah Daily Press

November 20, 2013

First responders relive harrowing day

By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — As the holiday season approaches and thoughts of food and family are on many people’s minds, it’s almost hard to believe there was so much chaos and heartbreak in Moore just six months ago. But the city continues to push on.

“The progress is amazing to me,” said Moore police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis. “I mean you have numerous homes that people are back in already.”

Lewis and about 19 other Moore officers, including detectives and school officers, were on duty when the storm struck. Some were just blocks away as the tornado ripped through the heart of the city, basically cutting it in half.

“At that point officers do their best to try to stay out of the way, but stay as close as possible to the area that it’s going to hit,” he said.

There’s not really a protocol on how to survive a storm in a patrol car, but on May 20 many officers left the city because the tornado was so large, staying on the north and south sides of Moore.

“We were just trying to outrun it and then get right back to the city,” Lewis said. “Once the storm passed, guys just went into search and rescue mode.”

Shortly after the storm, the entire Moore Police Department, about 81 officers at the time, showed up along with many other agencies. Lewis said they had an influx of agencies coming in.

Deputy Steven Swinford with the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office was one of those who responded immediately. Swinford was on his way back from a law enforcement class in Ada and in Noble around the time the tornado hit. He was at Plaza Towers Elementary school within 20 to 30 minutes following the devastation.

“Whenever you see it you just kind of get that sick feeling because you know what it’s fixin to do — a tornado that large,” Swinford said.

Following the storm, Lewis remembered the chaos that ensued for about eight to nine hours. He remembered not really realizing the scope of the disaster because power was out and TVs were off. A note of disbelief can still be heard in his voice when he talks about how much destruction the massive tornado caused.

“Right after it was very difficult to get around and grasp what all is affected,” he said. “It’s hard to comprehend that it’s so large. So that was probably the toughest part right off, just the amount of area (it affected).”

The police department didn’t realize just how bad it was until they started seeing the images on TV, he said.

“We had guys hollering for help all over the city,” Lewis said. “You go through one area and think this area is really, really bad and then you go through another area on the other side of the city and it’s even worse.”

Moore has had large tornadoes in the past, but this was different than any of those they had dealt with before, he said. This one traveled through the entire city. Lewis said it also was more difficult for a lot of officers as well, seeing much of the city they are in everyday destroyed.

“I would say this affected our department differently than any disaster we’ve had so far just because it was so tragic and the amount of devastation to our entire city was just so more significant than the storms in the past,” Lewis said.

“Just by nature our whole goal is to protect people, especially children, and when you have children who perish and there’s absolutely nothing you can do, you feel kinda helpless,” he said. “That gets to guys and it did. You know, we had guys there that were having to dig the kids out and not finding them alive, it affects guys.”

Deputy Swinford said it affected him differently than disasters in the past because he was at Plaza Towers. He was there with the children.

“Being in law enforcement as long as I’ve been in, you’ve seen horrible things. But when you’re dealing with children, it takes it to a whole new level,” Swinford said.

Lewis said it affected officers in different ways and many times a lot of police officers hold things in like that, but they have people for them to talk to.

“Really when you see the death and destruction, but you’re in the middle of doing your job, you don’t really deal with it, you just do your job,” Swinford said, adding that it’s in your down time that you start thinking about it and have to deal with it.

Swinford began his career in law enforcement about 25 years ago so he knew talking through what he saw would be healthy.

“In the days after I talked about it a lot. There was a lot of emotion there,” he said.

Talking about it is important and if anyone is struggling with something, they definitely should visit a counselor, Swinford said. It’s very difficult for police officers’ personalities to go ask for help but if you bury it then it will surface later, he said.

“It’s sad. It’s extremely sad and that will always be there, but I think you just have to process that,” he said.

Lewis said after the tornado and after the police department had gone back to normal shifts, everyone went through a debriefing with counselors present. The city also offers counseling for anything police run into whether it be a major disaster or another kind of incident.

Things are starting to get back to normal though, good things could be found despite the bad, and with an outpouring of support, Moore is bouncing back quicker than ever.

“Moments afterwards your thoughts are ‘there’s no way this city can bounce back after something like this again’ and then within a couple weeks people are already building homes. It’s pretty amazing how fast the turnaround can be and it just seems like it was so much faster this time than in the past,” Lewis said.

Whether it was because of previous experience or more resources, Lewis isn’t sure, but he thinks it’s amazing. Within minutes after the storm, city street crews were clearing roads that were completely covered with trash and debris.

Lewis said the main roads were cleared immediately and even the residential streets were cleared within hours of the storm which was a huge help.

“Overall our city, every department, plays a key role and they just have learned from past storms and you could see that across the board. Everyone just kind of knew what they needed to be doing. Even though we were taken back at how large it was, still there was progress being made immediately,” he said.

Lewis said the good part about it, if there is a good part, was that the 2013 tornado hit a different part of the city so those who experienced the ’99 tornado were able to come help with this one. The police department also learned from the ’99 tornado that they needed to try and open the city up faster this time around. During the ’99 tornado, it took nearly a month to open the city back up.

“This time we opened our city up within two days,” Lewis said. “That seemed to work a lot better. Trying to keep people out, that just makes people angry.”

Opening it up sooner helped more than the police thought it would, too. It alleviated some of the traffic and some of the stress people were under trying to get to their property to see what they had left, he said.

“We try to learn from each one. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we’ve dealt with several large disasters here. As far as something that large, there’s no way you really can totally prepare for it, but we just try to figure out what worked best, what didn’t,” he said.

Things are quickly getting back to normal now. Lewis said things are pretty much normal for most of their officers. The ones who lost their homes now have new ones or those whose homes were damaged have repaired them, he said.

“As a city it’s kind of back to normal other than there’s a whole lot more construction than there would have been,” Lewis said. “People (are) sticking around and rebuilding their stuff and the ones that aren’t have sold off to people that are rebuilding, too. We’re just ready for it to get back to normal, back to the way it was.”

As the saying goes, through tragedy comes triumph. Six months in the wake of chaos and disaster, Moore has shown it is triumphant.

“Just driving through there, if you didn’t see it when it happened you’d never even know that it was near that bad,” Lewis said. “What’s scary about that is, that means we’re almost in the storm season again, which we don’t look forward to.”


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