They are the lucky ones along Telephone Road close to Main St in Moore, Oklahoma. Their homes are spattered all over as if by a giant muck spreader, but they are still standing. Two more blocks, however, at SW 4th Street, you cross the boundary that divides the spared from the destroyed, the still living from the dead or missing.
I saw that line earlier from the sky, even on an open field close to where the tornado first touched down on Monday afternoon. It is the edge of the funnel’s fist. One corner of the pasture is strafed a darker green than the rest, like the turned corner of a hanky. Suddenly all the twister’s path through the subdivisions of Moore comes into view. From above, it resembles the scar of catastrophic plane crash, but this plane had kept crashing, on and on for 17 miles.
It helps to see this from the sky, if only to understand the capriciousness of these monsters. Did it have to dig through crowded Moore which only in 1999 suffered another massive twister with winds of 300mph, the fastest ever recorded on the planet? Oklahoma is mostly wide open space. “Our hearts are broken,” Mary Fallin, the Oklahoma Governor, said. She also spent part of today aloft, trying to get to grips with the scale of the tragedy from behind the glass of a helicopter. “This is bigger than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely huge. It’s horrific.”
America knows the savagery of nature. But only when you step into the scar, at ground level, do you grasp it fully. There was a Seven-Eleven petrol station and mart here on SW 4th. So they say. You would barely know it now, but for the single pump that still stands. It looks like it has been side-swiped by an eighteen-wheeler, a blackened, listing stump. The rest is a tangle of metal beams from which at least one body has so far been removed.
Look up and walk a little further. It doesn’t matter very much that last night the storm was upgraded from an EF4 to an EF5, the highest possible mark. Not now and certainly not to those who are here. There are the usual crushed and far-flung cars, but here on 6th Street there is an axle. Two wheels, a piece of the drive shaft and the suspension springs, all still connected together but ripped clean from whatever vehicle they once belonged to. Tornadoes like Monday’s can flatten, but they snatch, too.
Worst, of course, they snatch lives. There are few basements here, so to where do you retreat when the roar and the sucking winds arrive? A cheque book torn from someone’s bureau here in Moore dropped from the sky hours later in Missouri, four hours’ drive away. It’s why bark has gone from the trees, those that are still standing, giving the impression everywhere of a First World War battlefield. It’s why some of those trees have sheets of metal wrapped around them. It’s why Amber Anderson, 27, has been removing furniture today from what remains of her house – because it was other people’s. “It all just dropped through my roof,” she says. Most of her furniture had been lifted out, by contrast, except for one item. “My bed is still there, and it’s still made.”
That capriciousness means there are stories of luck here as well as loss. Ms Anderson, who works from home, dashed out on Monday afternoon to fetch a friend and her daughter because their neighbourhood, according to the radio, was in the path of an incoming twister. Leaving was the best thing she could have done because the tornado jagged in a different direction. Minutes later she watched from a distance of about half a mile as it marched into her street and chewed up the home she might otherwise have been cowering in. “It was a crazy-looking thing,” she says, “all wrapped up in debris swirling around it.”
Dana Ulepich, 26, had moved into her home with her husband nine months ago. They used to live close to Joplin, Missouri, which took a direct hit from another mega-twister two years ago today. There, 158 lives were lost. She recalls driving to Joplin to help, handing out fresh water to survivors. And so it was, she says, that on Monday evening local teenagers rushed to help her as she came back from work to find her house stamped, minced and jumbled. “A kid pushed part of a wall from our bed and beneath it found our wedding picture.”
Here, close to the damaged Moore Medical Centre, some homes have been levelled entirely while others have interior walls or even parts of roofs intact, though they number only a very few. Any structure still standing was likely to be marked by spray-painted “X”, signalling that it had been searched for bodies. Any open stretch of land is strewn with sharp shards of timber, some stabbed into the ground like daggers. It is projectiles that can kill in a tornado as much as falling walls.
On the corner of SW 6th St and Heather, Ronnie Vanlandihan and his wife Brandy have painted their own message on the still-standing back wall of their home. “We Survived,” it says, next to Monday’s date. Lucky they are. First, Ronnie sped in his car to the Plaza Tower Elementary School, to pick up two of their four children. The school would be crushed minutes later. Back at home, his two younger children, aged four and two, were lying flat in the bathtub. On top lay their grandfather, Richard Jones, and on top of them all squatted Brandy.
“Of course it was scary,” she says. “It was right overhead and lasted 50 seconds. I counted. But much more frightening was not knowing where Ronnie and the other kids were, if they had got out of the school.” They had, and in fact they were but 300 yards away from getting back home in the car when the twister hit. But 300 yards can be enough with these things. Ronnie and the two children were on the right side of that dividing line.