Back for more in Moore

May 27, 2013

Moore, Oklahoma

By Rick Wilking

My wife and I were just about to open some little gifts celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary on May 20th when my cellphone rang.

I said “that’s going to be the Oklahoma call” without even seeing it was Bob Strong, North America Editor in Charge, on the other end. The presents went on hold and the packing began.

The next day I was back in Moore, Oklahoma, waiting for the weather to clear enough to fly in a Cessna 172 over the path of the storm. I say “back in Moore” because I covered the massive tornado that hit the same place in 1999 and again in 2003. The locals call the 1999 version “the May 3rd storm.” That F-5 storm killed 44 people and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Despite that devastation in 1999 it would be much worse this time. Much of the area covered by the ’99 storm was just open fields. Seeing grassy fields turned into mud with the grass torn out by the roots was eye-opening back then but this time the grassy fields were covered by new housing developments and the schools, stores and hospitals that go with it. The 2013 storm, also an F-5, killed 24, injured 377 people and destroyed 1,200 homes – four times the number of houses damaged in 1999.

With this tornado, Moore suffered its fifth massive storm in 15 years. The paths of the ’99 and ’13 storms were near-identical, even overlapping in some places. So, what is it about this place that makes it such a target? Geography. The low-pressure systems that flow down from the Rocky Mountains where I live collide with warm moist air from the gulf that form thunderstorms – huge thunderstorms, that often spawn tornadoes, lots of tornadoes, right over central Oklahoma. They don’t call it “tornado alley” for nothing.

In covering storms like these we have many ways to try to tell the story. The photo flight over the affected area is top of the list. Often it’s hard to get in on the ground right away with roads closed either by authorities or debris. Next on the list, of course, is getting in on foot, often hiking long distances to get to the hardest hit area. Photographer/EIC Adrees Latif and I split up and probed the perimeter to find a way to walk in with success on the first day. To their credit the authorities had let residents in almost immediately to try to recover what they could from their destroyed homes before more rain came in. As the sun went down people were finding photographs and jewelry and even some salvageable clothes.

It’s tricky to photograph scenes like this. You have to be very, very sensitive showing up in the front yard of someone’s destroyed home with a camera. Not everyone understands the good we do with showing the world what has happened. For one thing if you just climb over their possessions, that’s disrespectful at a minimum, even if it is all trash. Secondly, you technically trespassed to get to that spot. So I don’t shoot first and ask questions later. I introduce myself, ask permission and 99% of the time it’s granted to me. Only once did a woman not understand. She kept saying “I’ve lost enough, I’ve lost enough” and so I moved on.

Building rapport with people can lead to other things too. I was working around one of the destroyed elementary schools shooting pictures of parents trying to get their kid’s backpacks out of the school when a woman mentioned that the next day would be the last day of school with the kids from the destroyed school being sent to another location. I found out where and when, and was there the next day when 6-year-old Kaden Shippers came out with his dad. His arm was bandaged, forty stitches were in his back, staples in his head and he was wearing a t-shirt with the name of his destroyed school on the front. Bingo, I made a nice story telling picture without another competing photographer in sight.

While filing my pictures after school was let out, a woman approached her car and parked next to mine with her three kids while talking on her cellphone. “Yes, I am going to come over there with the kids. They really want to see it and I think it will bring them closure,” she was saying. My journalist radar went off again and I introduced myself. As I guessed, Tracy Stephan was talking about taking her children to see their destroyed house for the first time since the storm. And yes, she was OK with me following along carrying cameras to shoot the moment. While there I shot a picture of her three-year-old son Timmy looking for his bed. A photographer colleague described the image as “absolutely haunting.”

While cruising a neighborhood one day I came across Sarah Dick reading a Doctor Seuss book to her three-year-old daughter Jadyn in the driveway of her tornado-destroyed house – another moment you just can’t plan for. That picture was chosen as “picture of the week” by a prestigious French magazine and website. I figure since many think France is where photojournalism was born, that’s a good thing.

Next to Sarah’s house was Charles Taber’s place. Charles was keen to show me how he survived the storm in a newly built shelter nearby. It was another story-telling picture, as the shelters turned out to be a hot topic.

Another thing this place is known for – it’s the “Bible Belt.” There’s seemingly a church on every corner and these are indeed people of faith. Over and over I heard “God will take care of us, he will provide.” In the ’99 storm a destroyed church held services in a tent in the parking lot praising God and looking forward. And was the same today.

And so it went, one thing leading to another. Covering the storms wasn’t all that different once on the ground, but I did add an element to my own photography.

I flew a small radio controlled quad-copter with a camera slung underneath to get some low-level aerial photos. These were very different from the images I got the first day from the airplane restricted to fly at 3,500 feet or above. Some of the copter images were only 40 feet off the ground; just enough to give a different view and to tell the story yet another way.

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