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Tornado-ravaged Oklahoma community holds high school graduations

May 25, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts
  • A picture book is seen in debris near a makeshift memorial on the grounds of the Plaza Towers elementary school in Moore, Okla.
A picture book is seen in debris near a makeshift memorial on the grounds… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- This tornado-torn region is celebrating new beginnings Saturday, going through with graduation ceremonies for three high schools, a bittersweet milestone for a community that has lost so much.

"I think graduation's a good thing to get everyone's mind off" the storm, said senior Brandi Johnson, one of about 450 Westmoore graduates. "It didn't hit me until a few days after the storm that we wouldn't be going back to school."

Three highs schools in tornado-ravaged Moore and South Oklahoma City -- Westmoore, Southmoore and Moore high schools -- were holding back-to-back ceremonies at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, a large venue often used by the high schools for its size.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

Free caps and gowns were distributed to students who lost their homes. The celebrations were tempered by the disaster's continuing aftermath of as funerals for two 9-year-old children -- Emily Conatzer and Christopher Legg -- also were taking place. Christopher's funeral was to occur at the same time as the Southmoore graduation.

The Monday afternoon tornado ripped a path of destruction that killed 24 people, including 10 children. At least 33,000 people have been directly affected by the twister.

"We gather today to celebrate under unique and trying circumstances," Terry Tamage, a Westmoore teacher, told the crowd. "We are acutely aware of the events of this week."

Tamage said his family lost their home in the May 3, 1999, tornado that tore through the city. Years from now, he said, Moore schools will be graduating classes that lost students this week.

"I and we hurt for them," he said of the families of the children who died and of others affected by the storm.

He told the crowd to "celebrate the class of 2013 in a way that is joyful but respectful of our seniors and our community."

There was a moment of silence for the hurting community.

The Westmoore principal, Mark Hunt, recognized first responders for their courage and sacrifice this week. He said that amid the tragedy, the accomplishments of the class shouldn't be forgotten. "They deserve to be honored," he said.

Brandi Johnson and her friends Breanna Butcher and Meredith Gibson, all 18, walked into the convention center together, adjusting their graduation gowns as they walked. After a week of consoling each other, families and friends hugged their red-robed graduates in joy and posed for photos, a new chapter in family snapshots.

Butcher wore a pink dress and pink heels. "Monday was our last day, and we didn't know it was our last day," she said.

Gibson said she and other students at Westmoore High School in South Oklahoma City took shelter in a safe room. The school was badly damaged in the May 3, 1999, tornado, but largely escaped damage Monday.

Gibson said that, at first, she didn't realize how bad the storm was that passed. But then she saw fires down the street.

Amid the sadness, graduates reflected on their high school years with funny teenage stories.

"I remember when I wore pants so tight around my calves that I walked with a limp," valedictorian Quan Pham said, laughing. "I will never forget the magic time of puberty when girls [and] cars ... were more important than homework."

Superintendent Susan Pierce said the community wanted to celebrate the accomplishment of it youth even though "our world has been turned upside down, literally."

Pierce said she's been asked repeatedly this week why she lives in Oklahoma, especially in Moore.

"I thought to myself, 'That's a silly question.' Why wouldn't I live here? Why wouldn't I live in Oklahoma?"

The crowd applauded.

"The reason I stay, why I don't go anywhere else? The students I see before me."

ALSO:

Family returns to their wrecked house: 'Hey, it's Oklahoma'

Teacher's recording captures harrowing moments during tornado

Tornado aftermath: A picture saved is worth a thousand memories

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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