May 20, 2014 at 7:43 AM ET
One year after a powerful tornado left a 17-mile wake of destruction through the heart of their town, the people of Moore, Okla., have shown inspiring resilience.
The EF-5 tornado that tore through Moore on May 20, 2013 killed 24 people and destroyed more than a thousand homes.
“People ask you, ‘Are these families OK?’’’ Moore mayor Glenn Lewis told Matt Lauer on TODAY Tuesday. “And we have to say, ‘Yes, they’re getting better, but they’re not OK.’”
Lauer, who was in Moore during the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, returned to see how far the town has come.
One year later, Moore is continuing to rebuild, breaking ground on a new facility slated to open in the fall of 2016 where Moore Medical Center once stood. The town has also adopted the toughest building regulations in the entire nation, setting up more than two thousand storm shelters since the tornado.
At Plaza Towers Elementary School, seven children died when the tornado hit the school with full force. The memory is still fresh for principal Amy Simpson.
“I don’t think I ever will (move past it),” Simpson told Lauer. “We make a promise when those parents drop them off. At that moment, I felt like I didn’t keep my promise.”
Lauer reminded her that there was nothing she could do in the face of the tornado’s wrath.
“I do know that,’’ she said. “It’s still a burden that I’ll carry with me.”
Plaza Towers student Xavier Delgado told Lauer he thinks about the victims — his classmates — every day. However, the children told Lauer that they would not want to live anywhere else.
“This is home,’’ student Athena Delgado said.
“Safe right here,’’ student Colby Brown said, drawing laughter from his classmates.
A new Plaza Towers school is being constructed and will open this fall. The new school will feature a tornado-safe room.
“This community is resilient,’’ school superintendent Dr. Robert Romines told Lauer. “We’re moving forward. We’ve turned many corners over the last year, but we won’t ever forget.”
Major Mark Murdock of the Moore Fire Department, who stood with Lauer at the site of the destroyed school last year, rejoined him to see the new school being constructed.
“To see the school being rebuilt, especially the progress where it's at at the moment, is incredible,’’ Murdock said.
Survivors like Jerrie Bhonde, who took shelter in the shower of her home with her husband when the tornado hit, continue to heal despite the anguish of losing a loved one. Bhonde’s husband, Hemant, was killed as the house came down on top of them. She returned with Lauer to the site of the home she once shared with him. She plans to move to nearby Norman, and has taken up painting since her husband's death.
“I kind of did it as a tribute to my husband,’’ she said, showing Lauer one of her paintings. “It’s kind of a soul painting of my husband, and I will one day be back together (with him). When I fear storms, I just shut my eyes, and I see this (painting).”
Another survivor, Fred Galarza, returned with Lauer to the now-empty site of his destroyed liquor store, which was attached to the town’s 7-Eleven. Both stores were directly hit, and three people in the 7-Eleven died. Galarza’s split-second decision to stay in his liquor store helped save his life.
“Stuff fell on my legs, stuff was...pinning my feet, and then I felt the sink finally fall, and it hit my head and hit my shoulder,’’ Galarza said. “(I thought) that that might be it. That’s how they’re going to find me, like that.”
A simple change in the weather can trigger Galarza's memories.
“When the skies are kind of gray, and the wind's kind of blowing, and everything happens to be just right, I can actually feel a little bit of panic,’’ he said.
Galarza would not consider moving anywhere else.
“It’s the people, really,’’ he said. “It’s really a nice place, and it takes a strong character to actually say, ‘You know what? This is it. I’m gonna stay here, and I’m gonna make it.’’’