Angie Tennyson and her teenage daughter Taylor were sitting in folding chairs in front of the ruins of Tennyson’s sister-in-law’s home on the corner of Seventh Street West and Telephone Road. Little remained of the home after Monday’s tornado tore through the Oklahoma City suburb, but the Tennysons were occupying prime media real estate.
The Tennyson’s block — a few dozen homes, most of them devastated, halfway between city hall and the press center set up in front of Dick’s Sporting Goods — lent itself to media attention. And a destroyed hospital and bowling alley across the street from the family offered a dramatic backdrop for the television cameras — all the more so after police restricted access to the Plaza Towers Elementary School across town, where seven children died after the building was torn down by the cyclone.
So for hours the family sat patiently as reporter after reporter approached them, asked for their story, then moved on.
“I’m sorry,” said one Good Morning America producer to the family, “do you mind our cameras pointed right at you?”
“Not at all,” replied Angie Tennyson.
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At least 200 journalists swarmed the two-square-block area, accompanied by two dozen satellite trucks. Japanese radio competed with British tabloids, German television and American networks. The families attempting to recover anything from their ruined homes found themselves hosting television satellite trucks in their driveways and replying to reporters’ questions as they dug through the remnants of their damaged homes. And yet, like the Tennysons, most were remarkably gracious about fielding questions while salvaging their lives.
This became a greater challenge when Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and the state’s entire congressional delegation arrived, further swelling the crowd. The politicians could hardly get to the victims for a photo op because of the mass of photographers, video cameras and gawkers. Some were asked serious questions about how to prevent this again in the future: Would the state or federal government subsidize or incentivize building shelters in “tornado corridor,” as residents were now calling Moore? “I plan a survey,” said Republican Senator James Inhofe, “on how many lives these safe rooms have saved as evidence of the need to build more.”
His junior counterpart, Tom Coburn, was far more decisive. “It’s up to local authorities,” he barked. Should the federal government subsidize these safe rooms? “Absolutely not,” the fiscal conservative said, looking appalled by the suggestion.
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Across the street, utility workers struggled to navigate around the throngs as they strung new power cables. Another work crew assessing the damage to the Warren IMAX Theater ignored the media stars like Scott Pelley and Wolf Blitzer talking live nearby, focusing instead on their work on the largest theater in the Oklahoma City area. The sun came out and a few journalists and passersby even stopped to enjoy the weather, leaning on bulldozers and satellite trucks.
Throughout it all, the families whose homes were reduced to rubble worked diligently to salvage what they could, all the while not particularly minding the carnival around them. Why were these residents so patient with the crowds that descended on them after so many of them had lost so much? Partly, residents said, they are willing to tell their stories because they know that each time tragedy strikes, the power of the media spotlight also brings increased early-warning systems and an emphasis on the importance of preparedness.
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“If you saw the scene, you would be convinced that hundreds of people had died,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett told TIME. “And then just seeing a relatively small number of deaths is quite remarkable. And I think in large part that is attributable to the science and the media.”
Angie Tennyson hopes the attention leads to a push to require specially built shelters in schools.
“What’s the point in suffering,” Tennyson asked, “if something good doesn’t come out of it?”
— With reporting by Josh Sanburn / New York
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