Tornado survivors finally get new homes two years later

Saturday, April 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOORE, Okla. (AP) _ Mary Huff held a pillow over her head as her husband and son tried to keep the bathroom doors from being sucked into the roar of a half-mile wide tornado ripping apart their house.

After the May 3, 1999, twister flattened their neighborhood, the biggest chunk of the Huffs' home left intact was a four-step section of stairway. Thousands of homes were in ruins and 44 people were dead.

Two years later, Mary and James Huff are moving into a new home on the same lot.

They received one of 40 Habitat for Humanity houses that have been built so far for tornado survivors. About 20 families who lost their homes in the tornado are still waiting for new ones.

The Huffs had cake and punch near a flower bed of snapdragons in front of their one-story, brick home during a recent Habitat for Humanity dedication ceremony. Three neighbors began moving into to their Habitat homes the same afternoon.

James, 63, let a few tears slip down his cheeks as he thanked the people who helped build his house.

``We're so elated and it looks so pretty,'' he said. ``It's so open and clean and it smells new.''

The neighborhood has planned a block party for the anniversary of the tornado, the most destructive twister on record.

The tornado was an F-5 _ the most intense category recorded _ and ripped across a quarter of the state, starting near Chickasha. It cut through rural Bridge Creek, hit Moore, crossed southwestern Oklahoma City and roared into the suburbs of Midwest City and Del City. A separate tornado that night flattened much of the town of Mulhall, about 40 miles north of Oklahoma City.

The Huffs were buried under boards, bricks and mud after the storm. Mary, 61, could see only her husband's fingers.

``I'm fine, I just can't move,'' he told her.

They called for their adult son. ``I'm somewhere in the yard,'' Greg Huff yelled back, just before a board smacked him in the back. ``Don't move. I don't think it's over.''

When the Huffs dug themselves out of the rubble, they hugged.

``We got up and put our arms around each other and said, 'I love you,''' James recalls. ``That's all we had left after 43 years. My wife said be thankful for what we have, not for what we had.''

The Huffs have spent the last two years living with their children.

A Wal-Mart employee, James says he couldn't afford to buy a house on his own and that the insurance money didn't stretch far enough.

Habitat homes come with no-interest loans, making the monthly payments affordable for low-income families, said Ann Felton, chairman of the Habitat board. Habitat has accelerated its building program since 1999 because there were so many applications from victims of the May tornadoes.

Vanessa Nelson, a single mother, has to pay $292 per month for her new Habitat home in Moore.

She and her 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, hid in the bathroom of their apartment during the tornado. Everything they owned was destroyed and they had no insurance.

``We were so thankful that we were alive we didn't think about much else,'' Nelson said.

Nelson strolled through her new home, carpeted in turquoise, after last week's dedication ceremony. Samantha beamed as she stood in her room, which is attached to her own bathroom.

``It's breathtaking,'' Nelson said.

Moore City Manager Steve Eddy said 290 homes have been rebuilt since the tornadoes and 100 more have been repaired. About 50 homes are now under construction.

``It's exciting to see it happen because those neighborhoods were so bleak, lots of dead trees,'' Eddy said. ``There would be a house here and there, but no neighbors. Now that the houses are filling back in, it's good.''

The city held an anniversary ceremony last year, but doesn't plan one next week.

``We're just ready to move on,'' Eddy said.