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Wendy Reuer, Published May 21 2013

Moorhead man witnesses Okla. tornado

MOORE, Okla. – Steve Marts was stuck in northbound traffic here on Interstate 35 on Monday, inching his loaded semi-trailer forward about a car length at a time. To the east, all he could see was a wall of black, swirling with dust and debris as it moved.

The Moorhead trucker arrived about 30 minutes after the tornado first touched down. The twister wrapped its way through the city of 55,000 while it was on the ground for 40 minutes.

“There’s no place to go, out on the highway,” Marts said by phone Tuesday.

By Tuesday afternoon, Marts had already made it to York, Neb., en route to Williston, N.D., where he hoped to arrive today to deliver oil field supplies before heading home later this week.

But the devastation and catastrophic damage he saw before leaving Oklahoma was still with him. So was a sense that Oklahomans reacted to natural disaster in a way that reminded him of people back home in Fargo-Moorhead.

As the tornado ravaged the city, Marts and his semi were diverted along with other drivers to a nearby mall parking lot where he spent Monday night.

The parking lot was near an incident command center where lights of emergency vehicles lit up the night sky darkened by a massive power outage due to the storm, Marts said.

“When it got dark all you could see was the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles and people getting to and from the scene,” Marts said.

Marts explained his proximity to the scene of destruction saying it was as if he had gotten off Interstate 29 at 13th Avenue in Fargo and parked in the Holiday Inn parking lot to see the destruction of the West Acres Shopping Center.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, anywhere in the country, what happened there in Moore. If you picture a place that has just been squashed, that’s what it looked like,” Marts said. “You could see nothing but ruin as far as you could see.”

Marts called the path left behind by the tornado a “mushy mass.” He said the strength of the storm’s winds ground vegetation into cement, leaving behind a sticky, compacted mess.

One of the most poignant moments for Marts came Tuesday when radio personalities kept their composure as they announced the rescue mission had become recovery.

“How do you say that over the air without chocking up,” he said.

Marts said “that Midwestern work ethic” he’s come to know in Minnesota and North Dakota showed in Oklahomans immediately following the storm.

“They rolled up their sleeves and they calmly went to work, efficiently, swiftly, everything that they were supposed to do,” Marts said. “They were exemplary.”

The city of Moore is no stranger to tornadoes: the wind speed record of 318 mph was set by a tornado there May 3, 1999. Marts said it is clear the city was versed in how to react.

“There was no nervousness or excitedness, There was no loss of control by anybody that I saw,” he said. “There were some people that were obviously a little bit in shock because this was an incredible storm but even then, it was not much.”

Marts said he watched the people of Moore coming and going from the incident command center to areas in need of help in amazement, wondering what he would do if his children or grandchildren had been in the path of destruction.

“Police always had a ready smile and an answer. There was no panic in the people,” Marts said. “It’s like when they need sandbags for when the Red (River) comes up, people show up and they do, what they have to do. (Moore residents) just did what needed to be done.”

Though it was the closest he has ever been to a tornado, Marts said the severe Midwestern weather will not stop him from trucking. He passes through the Oklahoma City area six times per month. But it does reinforce his pride in the people of the Midwest.

“I can’t emphasize enough the emergency responders and the people in these schools, those teachers that went above and beyond the call of duty. I attribute a lot of that to hard working Midwestern people,” Marts said. “I really feel we’re something special in this country.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530