MOORE, Okla. – The first thing Kevin Gibson did after returning to his house, torn apart by a powerful tornado Monday, was pull an American flag and a temporary flagpole from the corner of his partially standing garage.
Neighbors forlornly picking through the rubbish of their lives stopped to watch Gibson’s nephew, Sean Pontius, stick the pole into the ground and hoist the Stars and Stripes.
The flag-raising seemed to hearten the neighbors, as if to assure them they would emerge triumphant from this disaster.
With the remnants of their lives lying around them, Gibson recalled, the neighbors began applauding and chanting: “Yes, sir! Raise that flag!”
“It means we are still united, whatever happens,” he said, the flag flapping in the wind as his family helped him pore through the wreckage for salvageable possessions.
In many ravaged neighborhoods in this Oklahoma City suburb, where Monday’s tornado was its fiercest, American flags have been popping up amid the ruins. They are hung from skeletal trees denuded of leaves and bark, stuck in the doors of cars turned upside down and draped over pieces of twisted metal embedded in the ground.
The shot of red, white and blue flying in a landscape of ashen brown is startling and powerfully defiant, seeming to embody the mettle of the national anthem. Pontius said the flag in front of his uncle’s house reminds him of photos he has seen of the flag over the collapsed World Trade Center, or Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
“It represents our spirit as Oklahomans and Americans,” said Chris DeWitt, pointing to a flag a neighbor had planted on a basketball frame. “We’re here, we’re proud and we’ll be back.”
No one seems to feel they are in this alone. Police cars stand guard against looting. Every few minutes, a truck from the American Red Cross, a local restaurant, a church group or a battery company passes along and pauses to offer food, water and provisions.
Young men wearing fraternity T-shirts help clear debris. Insurance adjusters take pictures. Several residents, unbidden, express gratitude for the assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
For some residents, planting the flag is a way to show their thanks for the outpouring of help.
Someone planted 13 small American flags before the splintered house of Jerry Woods and near the one remaining brick wall, where a neighbor wrote in black paint, “Thank You Jerry U Saved My Family Lives.” Woods, a disabled Vietnam veteran, sheltered 22 people and three dogs in his small underground storm shelter designed for 12 people. “It’s what we do as Americans,” he said.