The sky was a deep shade of cerulean when my father and I arrived in Oklahoma City, a stop on our cross-country trip to my new home in Los Angeles, CA. Golden hour was approaching without a cloud in sight; the setting sun casting brilliant hues of gold and orange upon the Bricktown section of the city. I was transfixed. While there wasn’t anything extraordinary about that sunset in Oklahoma on May 22, 2013, I still remember the colors to this day. The reasoning is simple: that evening, the sky was clear––two days earlier, the sky had fallen.
Ten miles to the south of Oklahoma City lies the city of Moore, known to many as the “Home of Toby Keith.” It’s hard to miss––the city is landmarked by a white water tower with the word “Moore” painted in bright blue toward the top. A quiet suburban sprawl, Moore provides respite from the crowded high-rises of Oklahoma City. It is a town of tight-knit subdivisions, quiet streets flocked with children at play, full of folks proud to call the city “home.”
The city is also right in the heart of Tornado Alley.
Ask any native of the Great Plains, and they will tell you that spring storms are just a way of life… something residents just deal with; similar to how Californians feel about earthquakes. Thunderstorms occur every spring, but tornadoes are still quite rare. Many residents of the Plains will go their entire lives without ever seeing a tornado.
Moore is the exception to this rule.
Only around 1% of all tornadoes are categorized as “violent” (EF4 or higher on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which measures a tornado based on the damage it leaves behind), yet the city of Moore has been in the path of four violent tornadoes in the last 17 years. The town first came to national attention on May 3, 1999, after a historic F5 tornado tore through the western and northern reaches of the city. Moore was struck again by significant tornadoes (rated F4) on May 8, 2003 and May 10, 2010, the paths of these storms occasionally overlapping the track of the 1999 tornado. Two days prior to my stop in Oklahoma City, it happened again.
On May 20, 2013, at 2:56pm local time, a tornado touched down four miles west of Newcastle, OK. The funnel rapidly intensified to EF4 strength as it crossed Interstate 44, into the Moore city limits. In only 40 minutes, parts of the city were obliterated by a force estimated to have been 600 times more powerful than that of the Hiroshima bomb. Entire two-story homes were swept clean from their foundations; automobiles became twisted balls of metal. Forty minutes is all it took for 24 people to lose their lives––seven of whom were children seeking shelter inside Plaza Towers Elementary School.
Unfamiliar with the geography of central Oklahoma, I expected all of Oklahoma City to be a complete disaster area. Instead, I arrived underneath this piercing blue sky. How can the sky be so terrible one day, and so serene the next? How is it possible there is complete destruction in one place and a mere ten miles up the road nothing touched?
There are no answers when it comes to Mother Nature, and Oklahomans have known this for generations. Instead of waiting in vain for an answer, they simply begin to pick up what remains, and begin the process of re-building their city. They mourn their loss while looking to the future, at the bright blue sky ahead of them. When I continued my journey to California, I did so filled with admiration of the tenacity of Moore.
Nearly three years later, I was back in Oklahoma––purely by chance; my original route from Tucson to Philadelphia had been blocked by the late-January 2016 winter storm (also known as “Jonas”). My father and I had to stop somewhere for the night, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. The following morning, I paid a visit to the part of Moore which had been completely erased by the wind. Exiting Interstate 35, I had trouble figuring out the damage path of the tornado. I couldn’t help but smile at what was in front of me. I saw new businesses, new homes––new subdivisions with those children at play. In less than three years, the suburban sprawl had re-emerged, undeterred by the hand Mother Nature had dealt them so recently.
Though Behind the Bear’s Cage focuses on the lives of the men and women who chase the storm, the impetus for the project is the town the storms cannot defeat. This project has been sitting dormant in my brain for years. It is something I’ve always talked about but I was too unsure of how to build it from the ground up. Moore has taught me to stop fearing the unknown, and just aim for greatness. When I’m knocked down, to get back up and start again.
And so it begins.