MOORE, Okla. — One young girl is so afraid of the wind that she carries headphones to block out the sound. Other kids are traumatized by the memory of their narrow escape from the storm and the friends who died just a few feet away from them.
Nearly three months after a twister blasted through Moore and destroyed two elementary schools, students are preparing to go back to class. Although many families are ready to return to a familiar routine, parents and teachers say the town's children have fears that are still fresh and a lot more healing to do.
Both schools — Plaza Towers Elementary and Briarwood Elementary — have been razed to concrete slabs, as have most of the surrounding homes. Students will attend class in temporary buildings starting Friday.
District officials hope the new school year marks a fresh start in the lives of children who survived the May 20 tornado, which killed 24 people and wrecked scores of homes and businesses along a 17-mile path through the heart of this Oklahoma City suburb.
"I'm not going to act as though those first couple of weeks (after the storm) weren't so terribly difficult, because they were," said Superintendent Robert Romines, a longtime Moore resident who took the district's top post over the summer. "But since that day, we have turned a lot of corners. After our last funeral, we turned a corner."
Parents of some of the children who attended Plaza Towers, where seven third-graders were crushed by a collapsing wall, say their kids frighten easily, especially during severe weather, and are often haunted by thoughts of their friends who died.
"There was screaming and crying," recalled 9-year-old Ruby Macias, who was trapped under the same wall.
Now Ruby gets scared whenever the weather turns bad and remains troubled by the death of her close friend, Sydney Angle, who was also 9.
"She says she dreams about her friend," said Ruby's mother, Veronica Macias. "I don't know what to tell her."
Another Plaza Towers student trapped beneath the wall, 10-year-old Xavier Delgado, said he doesn't like to think or talk about the day of the tornado, but he's not afraid to go back to class.
"I'm not nervous. I'm kind of excited about seeing my friends," said Xavier, who acknowledged that heavy weather still disturbs him. "I only get scared when there's loud thunder."
Xavier's 8-year-old sister, Haley, a second-grader at Plaza Towers, often carries a pair of headphones to block out the sound of the wind, which reminds her of the day the twister reduced her school to pile of rubble.
"She remembers the noise," said the children's mother, Athena Delgado. "If it's going to be windy or severe weather outside, she'll carry them with her."
The site where the Plaza Towers school once stood, in the heart of a neighborhood decimated by the tornado, has become a makeshift memorial for the dead and a meeting spot for volunteers. A handful of wind-battered trees are beginning to grow new leaves and branches again.
A chain-link fence that ringed the school property was covered with hundreds of autographed T-shirts from across the country, many from the volunteers who poured into the community to help. The fence has been removed so workers can begin digging out the slab, but seven wooden crosses remain, each adorned with the name of a child who died. An eighth cross, taller than the rest, simply has a black number 7 inside a red heart.
Jennifer Doan, the third-grade teacher of six of the seven kids who died at Plaza Towers, suffered fractures in her spine and sternum when the wall fell in one piece on top of her and her students who had taken cover in a school hallway.
Doan, 30, managed to shield two students who were closest to her from the full weight of the wall, but she says she's still disturbed by memories of the ones she couldn't protect, especially when she reunites with her students who survived.
"I've been told over and over I couldn't have done anything else, and I know I did help save the ones that were right there under me. But of course, it reminds me of my other ones that I couldn't save," Doan said.
Doan, who was trapped under the wall for about an hour, said she was looking forward to the normalcy of school, but doctors haven't cleared her to return to work.
"I think it is partly healing to be back and to be back with everyone, and back with our kids that have gone through the same thing," said Doan, who is now about five months' pregnant. "But for me, in particular, I know obviously I'm not healed."
Brand new schools are being constructed at both the Plaza Towers and Briarwood sites, with plans to include reinforced safe rooms that can withstand the most menacing storms. School officials hope both buildings will be open for the start of the 2014 school year.
This year, Briarwood students will attend classes at a local Baptist church while those from Plaza Towers go to a renovated building on the junior high campus. The transition to new buildings adds extra stress to the start of classes.
"I'm a little nervous about the beginning of school because I want the kids so badly to feel good and comfortable at school," said Plaza Towers Principal Amy Simpson, who took cover from the storm in a 4-by-5-foot bathroom with her office staff and emerged to find a mangled car on a coworker's desk.
Simpson kept in touch with many of her students over the summer and knows that they are still healing.
"Last night it rained and some of the kids started to cry. They're still trying to process it all," Simpson said. "This summer has been anything but normal, but school is a norm. It's a constant, where they see the same people."