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Little things meant a lot after Moore tornado

Westminster student from Oklahoma tells her story

Elyssa Mann didn't feel anything when she saw what remained of her family home in Moore, Okla., after a tornado destroyed much of the area.

Elyssa Mann didn't feel anything when she saw what remained of her family home in Moore, Okla., after a tornado destroyed much of the area.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Elyssa Mann is a senior at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., where she is editor-in-chief of The Columns student newspaper. Mann, whose family has lived in Moore, Okla., the past nine years, interned this past semester at the Fulton Sun.

I didn’t feel anything when I caught my first look at the ruins of my home on May 23, three days after the tornado hit Moore, Okla.

I didn’t feel anything as I threw away the collection of postcards my dad had sent to me from Saudi Arabia when I was little.

I didn’t feel anything when I tossed 90 percent of my books. And I didn’t feel anything when I had to fling a rug, made by my late great-grandfather, on top of a growing pile of wreckage.

In the coming days as my family and I dug through the remains of our home, nothingness and emptiness gave way to despair.

After we’d arrived at the house, I sat in a kitchen chair that was placed either in our driveway or the garage — I couldn’t tell in the wreckage. I simply sat and stared at the ruins around me for what felt like seconds, but what was probably several minutes. I sat unfeeling, unthinking — everything completely blank.

When I first sat down to write, that was what I wanted to convey: that after a tornado there’s nothing — physically or mentally. Everything is gone, and there’s not a single thing you can do about it.

There’s an unspoken rule somewhere that we adhere to — no matter how devastating an event is, journalists also show the bright side: the hope rising from the ashes. But I wanted to be different. There was no positive side, so I didn’t want to talk about the possibility of one.

A few days ago, I had no hope, so I wanted the world to see what I saw, to feel what I felt — despair and emptiness. But how could I describe it? I had read accounts of tornados for years while living in Oklahoma, and all I could ever muster was pity — I had no way to actually comprehend the devastation.

But it was the small things that helped the most. People a few houses down nailed two boards together to form a cross and somehow attached it to what was left of their roof. By the time I had arrived, a few houses proudly displayed American flags, secured onto debris with nails and staples. Our house sported a Hogwarts banner, proudly hung from a surviving tree in the front yard, and an inspirational quote painted onto a sign — though the banner later blew away in a second rainstorm.

True to snarky form, our friends from across the street created a sign that declared “Welcome to Paradise.” People from down the street created a small altar to “Gone with the Wind,” to commemorate the fact that our homes were literally gone with the wind.

At first, signs and flags and crosses didn’t seem important. But then I started looking everywhere for them, to see what each family had chosen to rally around. I started to feel something other than despair — I wouldn’t necessarily call it happiness, but it was something positive.

As my community’s small displays of solidarity and hope rekindled my own, the gift of one book was what made me realize that someday life will be back to normal.

I mentioned before that I had to get rid of most of my books due to water damage. Some buy clothes, keepsakes or music. I buy books. I’ve replaced books from when I was younger with more age appropriate titles. One, though, remained.

“Ella Enchanted” was purchased for me sometime in first grade and remained my favorite until I was about 15. The pages had yellowed and the spine had bite marks from when my dog had tried to claim it as her own. A few of the pages were on the verge of falling out. The edges of the pages had been made soft by countless readings.

We thought it had been saved, but two days later it rained and ruined more than half of what had been salvaged. I was devastated when I had to throw it away.

It seems silly now. We lost things much more significant than one paperback book. But at that moment, I had to throw away the book I’d kept the longest, and had been my favorite for so long. I tossed it into a pile of debris. In five days, it was the only time I cried because I had lost something.

A couple days later, my best friend’s mother presented me with a new copy. I promptly went out to my car and cried even more. I had my book again.

I don’t know why, but that was the turning point for me. I’m sure it was different for everyone in my family, and I’m sure it was different for everyone else who lost their homes. But receiving that one, practically insignificant gift made me realize that not all was lost, and that my family and I could build a new life from what we’d saved, and from what we have been given.

Without that book and without hope, I’d still be the girl sitting in a chair in the middle of the rubble, not feeling anything at all. But with it, I’m a girl looking at what we saved from the rubble, able to see the possibilities for a new beginning.

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