When I first drove into Oklahoma City a set of shiny structures caught my eye. Just off the highway and sitting in the fields, these colorful masses looked to be modern public art – the kind of thing the city does to make itself prettier for tourists. It seemed strange that the farmers would allow it, since I imagine it would be mighty difficult to run tractors around the 4×6 foot blocks of Experience Music Project look-a-likes. It was at this point that I realized what I was actually looking at.
They were cars.
A few weeks before I ended up in Oklahoma City a tornado had run through the town. This was the first time I considered that in addition to destruction, tornados cause a huge mess. Those farmers have to deal with the mangled cars that have ended up on their property. The vehicle owners probably don’t even know they’re there. My hosts in Oklahoma City mentioned that if I was okay with a small detour on my way out of town I could see the recent damage. The tornado, the widest in the city’s history, touched down very close to the house where I stayed. I drove less than ten blocks to see a neighborhood almost identical to the one I just left. It was one of those planned communities, where the neighborhood is very nice and every forth house has the same floor plan. I drove slowly down the side streets, identifying piles of rubble that used to be homes. There is trash and debris on every lawn and in every gutter. Because the disaster happened so recently, the neighborhood shows several stages of recovery. Some houses look the way they did the day tornado hit, with caved in roofs and bent tricycles in the driveway. Other have been reduced to piles, ready to be carted away. Some lots are only foundations.
On my way to Kansas City I drove through Joplin, Missouri, which suffered the costliest tornado in U.S. History two years ago. I stopped at the local Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait and some free Wi-Fi. I looked up the wikipedia page on the disaster and read through the article to get an idea of the tornado’s path. I finished my ice cream and headed toward where it first touched down in the southwest part of town. It was very different than Oklahoma City. This happened years ago – there’s no more debris. Instead, there’s absence. If I didn’t know better, it would just seem like an underdeveloped neighborhood, or maybe an area the city was trying to fix up. I drove past where the high school once stood, and saw where the sign used to be. I remember hearing a story once about the kids that went there. They were celebrating graduation a few miles away when it happened.
I kept driving and spotted a tree on the side of the road that had been stripped of it’s bark. In place of the natural coating, someone had painted it in rainbow colors. It seemed to me to be a rather iconic sign of hope, and I pulled into the adjacent parking lot to take a picture. I took a few shots and walked to the other side of the tree to see if I could get a better angle. That’s when I realized where I had parked. I was in a parking lot for a building that no longer exists. A few smalls pillars gave it away, the signs of once necessary overhead lights. There was the base of a sign near the road. It must have been a large building, like a sporting goods store or a chain grocery. And now there’s nothing. Whatever used to be there, it wasn’t worth it to rebuild.
Further down the road I see a bank that has taken up residence in a portable. The mobile unit sits on the land that once held a formal bank building, and I can only assume the portable is a temporary solution until a new building can be constructed. I wonder how they secure such a structure, and if money has to be carted in and out every day.
As I get near the center of town I remember a story I read in the wiki article about the local Pizza Hut. With no underground shelter to retreat to, all the employees and customers went into the large freezer. The freezer, I imagine as a safety precaution, could not be securely closed from the inside. The manager held the door closed with his arm, and was killed during the storm. There’s still a Pizza Hut in that spot. I hope they fixed the latch on the freezer.