An overpowering storm of fear

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The tornadoes that hit Moore, Okla., made us want to hold our children that much tighter and to think what we might have done.

By Steve Doyle

Tell the truth: If you are a parent, you thought twice about sending your child to school on Tuesday morning.

You looked at the satellite images of the approaching weather system that had laid waste to miles and miles of homes in Oklahoma. You looked at the darkening skies in the west. You thought about families whose children were huddled in a school not built to withstand the right cross from nature’s most fearsome force.

You, rightfully, had second thoughts. You wanted to sweep your children into your arms and huddle in a basement somewhere, letting the world and its serendipity of unknown horrors fly by as a leaf in a gale. A day in the darkness seemed far less scary than a day with runaway isobars and storm warning boxes dancing across your consciousness.

There is no shame. I certainly felt that way.

On Monday afternoon and evening, there was a horror show playing on our TV screens. We watched a mile-wide system of tornados prance across a 17-mile strip of Moore, Okla., as if it were Godzilla trampling paper houses in an old science-fiction film.

When that march was done and the skies began to clear, we saw neighborhoods, businesses and lives left in a never-ending pile of sticks, as if it were Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1945.

We heard stories of horses destroyed, of humans buried and lost and then of the children at two elementary schools, some of whom escaped the danger with barely a scratch and others who were gone with the wind.

Have you ever seen a TV reporter cry while reporting from the field? On Monday, you saw a man from KFOR in Oklahoma City telling us that search-and-rescue missions at one of the schools were now search-and-recovery. The nuance brought him to such tears he had to turn way from the camera.

Have you ever seen children hugged tighter? Didn’t you reach for yours? This story took us back to Louisville in the 1970s, to Joplin, Mo., in 2011, to Henryville, Ind., in 2012.

For the people in Moore, it took them back to, well, Moore, in 1999, when it all happened before, when people died because a fickle finger of fury stuck itself into the heart of a community and pulled life right back into the sky.

How do we understand? How do we explain?

It was all-consuming. I watched and talked about this story for hours on Monday. My children were privy to some of that, but they didn’t ask many questions. Still, they are intelligent. They have ears. Surely they know. What must they think? We could have storms today....My school could fall down....Will I be OK?

Schools always seemed to be sanctuaries, sort of like churches, precious places on God’s list of most-protected. We prayed those buildings would provide comfort and refuge.

But storms often have struck schools. A mad man with a gun struck one like a storm. Now we don’t feel comfortable with our children being anywhere but in our arms, even as fragile as that shelter can be in the face of true danger.

No one can protect like we can. We love and respect the educators who oversee our children’s growth and development. We know their hearts are pure and their souls clear. We understand that they teach for the kids, not for themselves, and that they would, as we, lay down their very lives – as too many have had to do – to protect our children.

But we find no comfort in that knowledge.

We see those crumpled elementary schools in Moore and feel there is no protection from what happened there.

Those children had, experts said, 8 to 12 minutes to respond to the most dire warnings of eminent danger.

This is Oklahoma, where residents had seen this happen too often, as recently as the day before in nearby Shawnee. Parents went to the schools to retrieve their children to take them to a basement, a safe room, a root cellar, the most secure places available. Many of them were out of the storm’s way.

And that makes us think. What happens when those funnels are headed for us? How quickly could I get to my child’s school, and how close would I be to the nearest sanctuary? Do I have 15 minutes or 5 minutes? Will jammed traffic throttle that effort?

Will my children know what to do? Believe they are safe? Will fear invade their hearts and shout to them until they are in tears?

As I type this, I’m in tears. There is absolutely nothing that can overpower me more with senseless worry than the thought of my children being in harm’s way. That goes from my 6-year-old to my 30-plus-year-old. Their pain is my pain. Their anguish and fears are mine. Their insecurity is my burden.

So that’s why on Tuesday I had second thoughts.

As I drove up to the school to drop off the young ones, I looked at their school on a hilltop and wished that it were stronger, lower, heavier. I know the people who work inside have courage and strength like the greatest fortress, but the building and the location make me know one thing:

If I had 8 to 12 minutes to get to my children, I would be headed there on a dead sprint. No speed limit, stop light, traffic snarl or physical impediment would delay me.

I would dash there, even if I arrived along with the fearsome winds, to cradle my children beneath the safest cover I could find, to lay down my body on theirs, to cloak them in as much safety as I could manage.

There is nothing else. That’s what must be done.

What would you do?