At Moore High School, volunteers help unload goods donated by IC Bus. | Photos: Brett Deering
As a terrifying EF5-strength twister barreled through the heart of Moore, Oklahoma on Monday, May 20, 2013, the employees of the IC Bus plant in Tulsa were riveted to their televisions and computer screens. They watched as the nearby city was destroyed, and concern for the people of Moore weighed heavily on their minds. Community landmarks, including the Moore Medical Center and the Moore Warren Theatre, were damaged beyond recognition. Like everyone across the country, they felt helpless.
“There was this sense of not being able to do anything,” says Mike Gentry, the assistant team leader of the plant’s lettering department. “We have more than 1,000 workers. We knew we could make a difference. We all wanted to know: How can we help the people of Moore?”
Located just 100 miles down I-44 and equally vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature, the Tulsa residents were all too familiar with the sound of storm sirens. They knew it could easily have been themselves running for the shelters, praying their homes didn’t get ripped from their foundations.
In total, more than 1,000 buildings in Oklahoma were destroyed and 25 people perished on that horrible day. And the worst news: Seven Plaza Towers Elementary School students, and one teacher who sought refuge at a nearby convenience store, had died.
“Being a father of two, that was hard to hear,” says Gentry. “Working in the school bus industry, for us, it always comes back to the children.”
The next day, Gentry and his fellow IC Bus employees began collecting supplies. Workers, their families, and others in the Tulsa community donated cases of water, canned goods, clothing, toothpaste, sunscreen, bug repellent—those everyday household goods you take for granted until you don’t have them.
Before long, a large storage room at the IC Bus assembly plant was so packed with provisions that it resembled a makeshift convenience store. Then they decided to go a step further. “Someone had the idea, why not deliver the supplies in a school bus?” recalls Suk Singh, director of manufacturing at IC Bus.
Adding a new bus to the district’s fleet could go a long way toward helping them start the coming school year on the right foot. But more important, the bus could serve as a much-needed symbol to the town of Moore that their neighbors in Tulsa had their back.
“We wanted to make sure that in Moore’s hour of need, our people were here,” says Singh.
One blustery June day in Moore—less than three weeks after the tornado’s 200-mph winds caused an estimated $2 billion in damage—a yellow dot emerges on the horizon. Heading down Eastern Street, the RE Series school bus turns into the driveway of Moore High School and pulls to a stop as a 100-person crowd breaks into thunderous applause. Across the way a tattered Moore Lions flag blows in the wind, hanging from the school’s badly damaged marquee.
The day before, Tulsa’s Mayor Dewey Bartlett had visited the IC Bus plant to assist in the efforts. It was announced that in addition to the bus and supplies, the IC Bus parent company, Navistar, would contribute $10,000 to the Moore recovery efforts.
Upon arrival in Moore, a half-dozen IC Bus employees emerge from the bus and begin unloading the 600-plus pounds of supplies, which are placed in trucks to be transported to the Oklahoma City Salvation Army.
I know this is a little thing that we have done and it does not replace what was lost in the tragedy that has happened and all the lives that have to be built back,” says Singh, during a quick ceremony in front of the high school. “But maybe it can help our fellow Oklahomans bring their community back.”
Susie Pierce, Moore High School’s outgoing superintendent, is delighted as she steps into the district’s sparkling new bus. “It’s just amazing,” she says. “We are just honored that they would think of us this way. This is a huge gift.
“We try to renew our fleet every year and retire our oldest buses,” she adds. “I don’t think we have a bus with this kind of capacity and with these bells and whistles. This is such a practical gift. We just can’t thank them enough.”
As the assembled locals work side by side with the Tulsa plant employees, there’s a feeling of calm in the air. If anyone wondered why these residents continue to live in this area right in the middle of Tornado Alley, in a town battered by storms, the scene today at Moore High School provides the answer.
“This is why we stay here. Because of how people pull together,” says the incoming superintendent, Robert Romines. “Once people plant here, they don’t leave.”
TIME FOR RENEWAL
In the months since the tornado, there have been signs of hope. Nearly 90% of the storm debris has been cleared. The school year began just like every other year, the difference being that most Plaza Towers students are attending classes at the junior high school, while other elementary students are at a nearby church.
Officials estimate that it will take two to three years for the city to rebuild. But to hear the confident voices of Moore residents and school officials, it’s not a matter of if, but when Moore will come back. In the meantime, Singh says IC Bus is just happy to be a part of the healing effort.
“We don’t like to see these things happen, but we realized [the storm was] an opportunity for us to come together,” he says. “Hopefully, years from now we can look back and say we helped this community rebuild. We just wanted to help any way we could.”