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Hope grows from tree at tornado-stricken school in Oklahoma

The principal and teachers find solace in new leaves, 'the only sign of life' at Plaza Towers, where seven children were killed in the massive tornado.

July 17, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts
  • The appearance of leaves on a heavily damaged tree has comforted staff members at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was leveled by a tornado in May. The once magnificent thornless honeylocust had long been a gathering place on the campus in Moore, Okla.
The appearance of leaves on a heavily damaged tree has comforted staff members… (Kimberly Martinez )

MOORE, Okla. — The tree at Plaza Towers Elementary School has leaves again.

They jut out in all the wrong places, sprouting from spindly shoots on the disfigured skeleton of what was once a magnificent thornless honeylocust tree.

But the leaves are there, green and alive — and for the teachers at this school, that's enough.

It's been two months since a massive tornado leveled the Plaza Towers campus, killing seven third-graders as students and teachers sought shelter in hallways and restrooms.

Like so much of Oklahoma, the school grounds at Plaza Towers are flat, and strikingly more so now. Construction workers demolished what remained of the school building and nearby Briarwood Elementary, which was also destroyed in the May 20 tornado.

The grounds are practically empty, but for a concrete slab and eight wooden crosses, seven bearing the names of the children who died and one with the number 7 on a red heart.

And then there's the tree, standing by itself in a far corner of the yard.

After the tornado passed, large sheets of metal wrapped around the tree's trunk and branches. The powerful winds stripped away the leaves, cracked branches, peeled off bark.

Kimberly Martinez, a fourth-grade teacher who had sheltered with her students in a restroom during the tornado, first noticed the tree's new leaves when she returned to the campus in June.

"It brought tears to my eyes, and I just started running toward it," Martinez said. "It was the only sign of life in the area."

The tree had long been a gathering place on campus. On hot days, of which there are many here, Martinez and other teachers on recess duty stood under it for shade.

Children played under the tree, scratching pictures in the dirt and catching little turtles that they tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade their teachers to keep as classroom pets.

Martinez suggested that the honeylocust be named the Hope Tree. Now that's what many people call it.

The neighborhoods around Plaza Towers — in Moore and neighboring Oklahoma City — are some of the most heavily damaged in this wounded region. The tornado killed two dozen people.

In Moore, 1,010 homes were destroyed, said Jayme Shelton, a city spokesman. Hundreds more were destroyed in Oklahoma City. More than 100,000 tons of debris has been cleared from Moore alone, Shelton said.

The desire to clean up the city is clear. Illuminated traffic signs urge residents to move their debris, including the walls of their destroyed homes and the slabs under them, to the curb for pickup.

Soon, Shelton said, city officials will be able to condemn debris that wasn't removed on private property so they can legally clear it. The city has to move on, he said.

On a recent day, Al Cardwell, a disaster relief coordinator with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, directed a group of volunteers from two states as they pulled debris to the curb. They worked around the remains of a rental home that had been occupied by a military family.

"Some people just left," Cardwell said. "They just never want to see this again."

Other residents are planning to rebuild.

Both Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary will be rebuilt on their original sites by August 2014, said Amy Simpson, Plaza Towers' principal. Construction plans call for tornado shelters in both schools, she said.

Construction workers have already saved a special piece of Plaza Towers, Simpson said. A brick interior wall with a large painting of a black panther, the school's mascot, was left intact. Workers framed the Panther Wall, as it is called, in steel and saved the wall, to be incorporated into the new building.

Simpson said teachers would like for the tree to be saved as well.

Even with its new leaves, the Plaza Towers tree is still badly damaged, said Tracey Payton Miller, a horticulturist with the Cleveland County Cooperative Extension Service. For most trees, when a large portion of the canopy is lost, broken or damaged, recovery isn't likely. Tornadoes also kill trees by ripping off all their bark.

The Hope Tree could be aided by correct pruning and good access to water, Miller said. Still, the tree's new leaves might be a "last ditch effort" at life, she said.

"Time will tell," she said. "It could be another Survivor Tree."

In Oklahoma, "survivor tree" already has a special meaning. An American elm in downtown Oklahoma City survived the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and is called the Survivor Tree. It is now part of a memorial.

Classes for the upcoming school year will begin in August. Plaza Towers and Briarwood will operate in temporary buildings elsewhere in the city.

Nikki McCurtain, a Plaza Towers fourth-grade teacher, said the year will be a challenge. She and Martinez will have last year's third-graders who lost their classmates in the storm. Both teachers have returned to the school site several times to reflect and to sign the slab where their classroom floors used to be.

The new leaves on the Hope Tree, McCurtain said, give her a reason to smile.

"It's like a promise that out of all this destruction, there's still hope," she said.

Simpson recalls that the Hope Tree's roots, now largely buried, stuck out of the ground so high that the youngest children could sit on them and dangle their feet above the dirt.

Simpson grew up in Moore, and seeing kids sitting on those roots brought back memories of doing the same when she was a child.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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