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The magnitude of the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20th became clear as people Tweeted and posted Facebook images of the destruction around them. Parts of the city were obliterated and people, including children, remained trapped under rubble in collapsed buildings where they sheltered in place.
I followed the story as it unfolded online and on television, feeling a bit like a voyeur watching disaster porn. A headline on the Huffington Post questioning if climate change is linked to killer tornadoes, registered with me.
Did climate change play a role in what the National Weather Service termed an EF5 and the widest tornado ever? With that question in mind I gathered my gear together and got ready to drive to Oklahoma from New Orleans the following morning. Watching from afar is not for me.
The ride to Moore was eerie. New tornado warnings were issued for the area I had to drive through to get to Moore.
In Mt. Pleasant, Texas, I stopped in my tracks rather than drive into an ominous storm cloud hovering over the road ahead. The cloud mass was rushing towards me. I turned around and drove in the opposite direction, toward clearer skies for a while, then stopped to fill up my tank and asked a man if he had information on the storm. He said if I kept going toward Oklahoma I'd be going right into it, but that it would pass in less then an hour. Take a driving break, he advised.
I opted to take shelter in a Mexican restaurant. I ordered tacos and waited out the storm. The sky remained ominous for the remainder of my drive. I drove through rain and hail and clouds that never completely broke up. They loomed low over the road, only letting light in at the horizon.
I stayed in a hotel close to Moore that wasn't completely booked because it had had no water after the tornado struck. Lucky for me, the water service was restored by the time I arrived.
I woke early and headed into the disaster zone, parking on the perimeter in a Target parking lot where a command center was set up.
I walked toward Telephone Road, where many of the landmark structures, including the hospital, had been destroyed. Residents were digging through piles of debris, salvaging what they could. Most of those I spoke to were taking things in stride, thankful to be alive.
The next morning it poured, the rain making the recovery process that much more dangerous. Now people had to walk through slippery mud as well as debris bristling with exposed nails in order to find and protect what remained of their stuff.
I made my way to what remains of the Twin Towers Elementary School, cutting across the backyard of a home that was no longer standing next to the school. Teachers were going through what was left of their supplies and taking cell phone shots. I stopped at the wreckage of a supply closet marked "teachers only" and photographed it.
Next I came upon pet owner Caroline Orr, who moments before had been reunited with her dog Rose. The police involved in the rescue were exuberant in the midst of the apocalyptic mess. Rose had gone to her safe spot under her owner's bed when the sirens went off and hadn't made a sound since. She was freed when an officer removed a piece of dry wall that was on top of her. She bounded out, startling her rescue crew. Rose looked dazed and exhausted in her owner's arms until one of the officers started feeding her some jerky.
I met people who told me miraculous survival stories, pointing out their good luck.
One minister from out of town who came to counsel those who lost everything told me he couldn't find people who needed cheering up so he joined in the cleanup.
Nate Mallette pointed to his red Ford pickup truck where he'd placed an American flag. The Ford had been thrown from the driveway to his family's designated safe spot -- the bathtub. His wife decided minutes before the storm to go to a friend's storm shelter instead.
Nate Mallete on the site where his home used to be. The American flag flying over his families designated safe spot. Photo by Julie Dermansky.
Others found themselves trapped under debris in their safe rooms, reliant on neighbors to dig them out.
Yvonne Barragar spoke to me as her family rummaged through the remains of her home. Despite the risk of another tornado she told me she would rebuild in the same spot since she had too many memories there to move on. She had spent 20 years in her now-destroyed home, and she had buried numerous pets in her backyard. She has no intention of deserting them.
Ever since I returned to New Orleans I have been reading articles, trying to find a scientific answer to whether the strength of recent tornadoes was exacerbated by climate change or not.
The information I've found is not definitive. The mainstream media seem to suggest that climate change is not a factor. But no report I read said so conclusively.
People in Moore I spoke to don't doubt climate change is part of the explanation since they had never before experienced such a powerful storm. Their concerns at the moment focus on what's going to come next rather than what created the EF5 that hit them. Warmer temperatures are a factor in unstable weather conditions, but as for proving that warmer weather is a factor in strengthening tornadoes, the science isn't there just yet. A story in the New York Times offers many points of view but no answers.
And Andrew Freedman's story offers more inconclusive science. His summary seems spot on: "The bottom line? So far, there's simply not enough information to say anything definitive about the future of tornadoes under climate change. But every thunderstorm and every tornado now takes place in a warmer, wetter atmosphere due to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."
When the next round of tornadoes hit less than two weeks later, the media compared the tornado-ravaged parts of Oklahoma to a war zone. Among the casualties was a respected veteran storm chaser, Tim Samaras, and his crew.
Many of the areas I photographed did look as though bombs had hit them: eerie landscapes that make one confront one's own vulnerability.
Flags draped over nature's crime scene made the landscape uniquely American. Tornadoes are an American weather phenomenon. Are we as a nation prepared for storms super sized by climate change, like Sandy along with EF5 tornadoes that may or may not be connected?
Do we assume the destruction they wreak on us is simply bad luck? Is it up to God these days to help us through extreme weather events or do we have some control?
In 2011 at the peak of the drought, Governor Fallin asked her constituents to pray for rain. She has her rain now, but I doubt this is what she had in mind.
Without substantial data, I can't say climate change played a role in the Moore tornado's strength. But my gut feeling is that changes in the atmosphere must play some part in the string of EF4s and 5s that have hit Moore, Joplin, Missouri, and parts of Alabama in the last couple of years.
Circumstances appear to be eerily ripe for mega tornadoes.
Being on the road when a tornado is coming your way is as scary as being in a war zone when IEDs are going off: There is no safe place to go.
I have now been in both situations.
Too bad one cannot pull the plug on bad weather the way we might on wars.
Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. Visit her website at jsdart.com.