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Recovery continues one year after deadly tornadoes

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- One year ago, Sara Ruiz was huddling with her two grandchildren under a mattress when the screaming sky attacked, peeling away the roof, sucking up the walls and chewing it all to pieces.

Today, Ruiz will look to the sky and thank God for what remains.

"My tragedy has been made into a miracle," said Ruiz, who is returning to a new home near Tuttle that was paid for by donations and built by volunteers after the great tornado of '99.

Across the state, Oklahomans are celebrating the survival and remembering the victims of May, 3, 1999, when a tornado up to a mile wide went on a 60-mile destruction path, leaving 44 people dead, almost 800 injured and more than 8,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

The F5 twister, the strongest on the Fujita Tornado Scale, took hours as it tore through a quarter of the state, starting about 5:30 that afternoon near Chickasha. It cut through rural Bridge Creek, hit Moore, crossed southwestern Oklahoma City and into the suburbs of Midwest City and Del City.

It was the most costly tornado in U.S. history, causing about a billion dollars in damage. Mail boxes still stand in front of vacant lots and scrunched cars sit in driveways.

At tiny Bridge Creek, where 12 people died, trees look like splinted toothpicks and debris still stirs across the red-clay horizon.

But the one-year anniversary is a time to celebrate a community that rebuilt together, said Kay Norman, principal of the elementary school.

The school, one of the only things in Bridge Creek that withstood the 318 mph winds, planned a carnival today with games and inflatable jumping toys. Many parents took off work to join.Counselors also were to be available.

"We're going to have fun," Norman said. "We don't want to forget what happened, but we do want to recognize the community spirit around here. We're building. We're back. We're stronger."

This evening, there will be a moment of silence and the reading of the victims' names during a memorial service at Bridge Creek High School.

Throughout the day, counselors will be at the Del City community center and hold children's activities to teach about storm preparedness and recovering throughout the day.

The mental recovery has just begun for many, said Gwen Allen, director of Project Heartland, a mental health program created after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

"It's after the rebuilding and getting back into a new home that people may realize the impact of the tornado," Allen said. Since the storms and through March 31, the agency has provided services to 82,740 people in the 19 Oklahoma counties the storms hit.

Officially, the removal of debris is done and about 75 percent of rebuilding is finished, state officials said. At 7 tonight, Rose State College will hold a "Hope and Remembrance" public ceremony.

And in Moore, the congregation of Beth Haven Independent Baptist Church is meeting in the parking lot to worship. Nearby, the new, almost-finished sanctuary stands in replace of the old church the tornado destroyed.

"We really haven't lost anything when you look at it, the Lord has returned it all," Pastor Ivan Casteel said. The church has received donations and prayers from Minnesota to Virginia. Country music singer and Moore native Toby Keith gave $10,000 for new pews.

"We're still moving strong," Casteel said.

Gov. Frank Keating was expected in Mulhall for the presentation of a federal grant to the Orlando school district to rebuild an agriculture building the twister destroyed. Later, Keating plans to attend a 7 p.m. service at the First Baptist Church of Moore.

"Although there is still much work and healing to be done, this one-year anniversary of the May 3rd tornadoes gives us an opportunity to reflect on all that we have accomplished in the face of that ordeal," Keating said.

In Stroud, ground will be broken for a new hospital this afternoon. Residents have been driving 25 miles to the nearest medical facility since the twister destroyed the old hospital.

Today is another day of cleaning for Bennie Rogers. He has yet to see the end of his losses from the twister that hit his farm near Perry.

Toppled trees, plywood, tin, shingles and other rubbish blown from community more than 20 miles away has kept a small group of men cleaning his yard busy.

But the most challenging part has been living in a mobile home until their homestead is rebuilt. Rogers boasted of recently cooking enough chicken, potatoes and pecan pie to feed the 25 worker who helped one day.

"You just do what you have to do," he said. "God is still smiling down on us and that's about all you can ask for."

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On the Net:

Project Heartland: http://www.odmhsas.org

Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management
http://www.onenet.net/7/8odcem/
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