By GREG FOX
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Fate can sometimes throw people into situations of tragic consequences, as Chautauqua County natives Kristen Ortendahl Hoadley and Tyler Mathews recently witnessed.
Westfield native Tyler Mathews, who is stationed at Tinker Air Force Base near Moore, Okla., helped clean up debris with other soldiers, such as at the Veterans Memorial Park in Moore, seen here.
Hoadley and Mathews today both live separate lives in Moore, Okla. The city of Moore, which has about 56,000 people and is a suburb of Oklahoma City, suffered a devastating blow on May 20 when a tornado tore through the area for an astounding 40 minutes, crossing the Interstate 35 highway at one point. At least 24 people lost their lives and over 300 were injured in the EF5 tornado, which topped wind speeds of over 200 mph. EF5 is the highest possible classification of a tornado on the Fujita scale.
Hoadley is a native of Fredonia. She grew up here and graduated from Fredonia High School in 2003. She moved to Moore last September because her husband, Ben, is an officer in the Navy. She is a communications specialist for the University of Oklahoma, while Ben is stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, about 15 miles away from Moore.
"I was actually on a flight from Boston to Dallas that day with my husband," Hoadley said. "I actually watched the tornado hit. I was flying JetBlue, and they have televisions in every seat. I watched the entire thing in the air. It was extremely nerve-wracking for me and my husband because the street names they were saying were our neighborhood."
The couple's home was just a half mile from the debris zone, where the tornado wreaked the most havoc. While their home came out of the storm with minimal damage to the roof, other people's homes were not as lucky.
"We didn't know until we landed, when our neighbors called us, what the state of our house was," Hoadley said. "We had a couple hours of panic, just not knowing our fate. We were glad to be away from Moore for our safety, but we've never been so glad to make it home, too."
Hoadley said what usually takes a three hour drive to get home from the airport actually took six hours. There were other storms along the way back to Moore, which also produced tornadoes. About 10 miles south of Moore, Hoadley found traffic to be a standstill.
"I think people were trying to get there," she said. "People are just fascinated by tornadoes, so there were a lot of people trying to go and see what had happened. There were also plenty of people trying to leave, as well."
Mathews is formerly from Westfield and moved to Moore two years ago with his wife, Karah. The couple is expecting their first child in about a month. Like Hoadley's husband, he is also stationed at Tinker Air Force Base on active duty.
"A few of my friends lost houses, but everyone was OK," Mathews said. His home was also spared from the storm, even though he lives just a mile south of where the tornado hit.
Unlike Hoadley, Mathews was in his home right before the tornado hit. He was watching the news talk about the storm when the electricity went out.
"I had seen it was coming right towards Moore, so I went upstairs to the bathtub, surrounded myself with pillows, and put a mattress over me and my two dogs," Mathews said. "My wife wasn't in the house, she was 10 miles away. I called her and told her to stay there."
Mathews continued to livestream the newscast on his cell phone while he waited for the storm to subside.
In the aftermath of the storm, Hoadley recalls seeing cars mangled to the point where she couldn't even tell how they could have been damaged.
"Debris, pieces of a roof, insulation, clothing, toys, anything you could think of that would be in a person's home, it was along the side of the road," she said.
"It was chaos," Mathews said. "They were livestreaming it on the TV from a helicopter and I noticed places, restaurants and stores that we frequently go to were just all demolished. I stayed put until my wife got home."
Two images stand out in Hoadley's mind as she saw the damage for the first time in the debris zone on that Saturday, when they had finally opened up roads in the town for people to drive:
"I remember this family with two young girls. They were both clinging to what looked like stuffed animals that were obviously dirty," she said. "I also saw people taking advantage of the situation and taking pictures and being insensitive about what had just happened to these people."
While the tornado did destroy or damage about 13,000 homes, both Hoadley and Mathews agreed on one thing: the community is resilient, and the people have no intention on giving up that easily.
"I think people have just demonstrated their strength in this moment of complete chaos," Hoadley said. "You really see people bonding together and helping each other. It's a beautiful thing."
"You just had hundreds and hundreds of people helping," Mathews said. "They were actually turning away volunteers because too many people were trying to come down and help. As we were sifting through stuff, there was random people just coming up asking 'What can we do?' There was trucks going around with water and Gatorade and free hot meals for anybody. It was cool to see everybody coming out of the woodwork just to help out."
The day after the tornado struck Moore, Mathews went into work, where he was sent to help clean up the downtown area.
"My two friends who lost their houses, we went there and tried to help collect their valuables," he said. "You could see cars flipped over. I saw a boat trailer in the attic of a house. There was wood just flown through the sides of houses. So much was completely leveled, trees down everywhere, power lines down everywhere."
Over the weekend of that week, when the debris zone finally opened up, Hoadley helped with the cleanup effort in cleaning up the damage. She is also planning to do more work with areas around Moore that are organizing relief efforts.
"This isn't where I grew up, but it is my adopted hometown for the time being," Hoadley said. "I am committed to the rebuilding efforts. I want to see people have homes again."
"I think everybody will rebuild," Mathews said. "Only thing you can do is pick up and rebuild."
Both Hoadley and Mathews plan on staying in Moore. However, Mathews joked he would probably install a storm shelter now, just in case something like that happens again. Hoadley, who lived in Florida for a while, said she would take a hurricane over a tornado any day, herself.
"At least you know where they're coming," Hoadley joked. "I'm not a big fan of living in a tornado."
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