Pittsburgh resident who survived 1999 tornado returns to Oklahoma to help

Powerful twister's devastation hits home

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The power of a tornado, its ability to tear a place apart, is what drove John Jones from his Oklahoma home, eventually landing him in Pittsburgh.

More than a decade later, another powerful and deadly tornado is pulling him back.

Mr. Jones, 57, a North Side resident who works on a Marcellus Shale drilling site, was on the job Monday when a tornado pummeled Moore, Okla., killing at least 24 people. The town, a suburb of Oklahoma City with a population of about 56,000, was where Mr. Jones lived until a deadly 1999 tornado convinced him he had to stop living in a place that could be destroyed in an instant.

He left Oklahoma, moved around and eventually ending up in Pittsburgh six months ago. But many of his family members, about 15 cousins in all, stayed put, rooted to a place where so much was uprooted Monday.

Mr. Jones said he heard on the news that this tornado was much worse than the 1999 one he survived, but he was unable to imagine what could be worse than that. He got in his car Tuesday morning and headed west toward Moore, not sure what he would find, but hoping to discover his family and a way he can help.

Authorities initially said as many as 51 people were dead, including 20 children. Updated reports say the storm killed at least nine children.

"If you've ever gone through something like this, you know that people can use all the help they can get," he said.

Cleveland County, the portion of Oklahoma that contains Moore, has gone through something like this before, many times over. According to an Internet database of tornado events maintained by the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., Cleveland County has experienced 15 tornadoes in the past decade.

People stay in the area known as "tornado alley" because it's their home, it's where their family is and because it's hard to pick up and leave, Mr. Jones said.

"People love that area," he said. "It's a beautiful place. The people are beautiful."

Mr. Jones also loved the area, but after the May 3, 1999, tornado, he decided he had to leave. That tornado, the first tornado designated at the EF5 damage level to hit the Oklahoma City metro area, killed 36 people and caused an estimated $1 billion worth of damage, according to the National Weather Service's Norman, Okla., database.

That tornado, 14 years ago, made his house unlivable. It was hard to find food. When he did find it, he had to cook outside. Cell phone service broke down. He had no way to contact his family, and his family had no way to contact him.

It was about a year before everything was back where it should be and by then, Mr. Jones had had enough.

"I decided to sell the property and leave, and just be done with it," he said. "I love the area and the people who live there, but I couldn't go through it again. It just seems like that area is jinxed or something."

The jinx returned, his town wiped away on another day in May.

"I'm telling you, they need to print calendars in Oklahoma that don't have May in them," he said.

It has been hard for him to follow the early news, because it brings back the memories of what he lived through, how the first thing that goes is the sense that you can take care of yourself.

So he set off from Pittsburgh on Tuesday morning, bound for Moore, to take care of those who stayed. He urged people to donate to the Red Cross, an organization that was among the first to respond when he was in need.

He estimated it will take about a day and a half to get there from here. He has seen what a tornado can do to Moore. But he said it's hard to imagine what he'll see when he arrives.

"Something like this, you don't know what you're going to see," he said.

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Associated Press contributed. Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published May 21, 2013 7:45 PM


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