Glenn and Tim Lewis are true Oklahomans committed to calling the “Sooner State” home. But living in “tornado alley” comes with its share of risks, which the brothers and co-owners of Lewis Jewelers willingly accept.
Even with a deeply-rooted commitment to the land, and an inherent sense of rugged individualism that’s almost genetic in this part of the nation, nothing could have prepared the Lewis family, friends and members of the Moore, Oklahoma community for two major tornadoes in 11 days in May.
The first hit in mid-afternoon on May 20. Like many Oklahomans Tim and his brother Glenn are “junior meteorologists,” as Tim likes to say. “When you live in a place where extreme weather conditions are the norm it’s something you pay attention to.”
Like many Okies that day, Glenn and Tim heard TV and radio news announcements that severe weather was in the forecast. Undeterred and ever vigilant, the two brothers and their families continued on with their day. By early afternoon weather forecasters were concerned over cold air masses moving in, breaking the hold of unseasonably warm temperatures that day.
“You’ve always got to keep an eye out when that cold air comes in,” says Tim.
Experience, inklings, and just plain intuition proved correct. At 2:00 PM that afternoon Tim received a call from his wife on her cell phone in a neighboring county that a severe storm was moving eastward toward Moore. One hour later a twister touched down – a big one. By 3:15 PM Tim, Glenn and their staff learned they were in the path of a category E-F5 tornado.
“We quickly moved everyone to the store’s vault,” says Tim. “We huddled together and prayed for peace and asked God to spare us.”
Prayers were soon answered when follow-up text messages from Tim’s wife gave him and his staff the all-clear. Of the store’s 12 staff members that reported to work that day five lived in Moore. After emerging from the vault, they were told to go directly home to look after their families. Thankfully, all five Moore-based employees reported in later that no family members were hurt or killed by the tornado and that their homes sustained light to minor damage.
Not all residents of Moore were so lucky. The May 20 tornado claimed 24 lives and left many families with damaged homes or homeless. As the mayor of Moore, Glenn’s hands were full leaving Tim and the staff to tend to the store the following day.
“The store was fine,” says Tim. “Most of the work after the tornado was cleaning up tornado debris. Cleaning up little two-inch squares of mostly ground-up building materials, usually fiberglass insulation mixed with dirt, was the bulk of the work. The stuff was everywhere and dropped 2.5 miles on either side of the tornado.”
By day three electricity had been restored. And, the following day phone service returned. On day four the roads were clear so the brothers could check out their 3,200-square-foot jewelry production warehouse near their store. Half of the metal structure served as storage space for the Lewis brothers’ jewelry manufacturing machinery while the other 1,600 square feet of space was rented out by a local t-shirt maker.
The storm spared their jewelry store but the warehouse was a twisted and tangled heap of metal and building materials when Tim and Glenn finally had a chance to inspect the building on May 24. The renters were in the warehouse when the tornado tore through Moore.
“Thankfully they lived through the experience – miraculously without even a scratch,” says Tim. “Three people rode out the storm between a piece of heavy machinery and the front of a pickup truck that had slammed into the warehouse. If not for those protections they most likely would have been killed in the tornado. A coining machine [inside the warehouse] was moved 12 feet and pushed over on its side. That was the power of this tornado.”
With insurance companies contacted, and FEMA responding, Glenn and Tim needed to get their minds back on their jewelry store. Tim would soon be departing for Las Vegas to do some buying at the JCK Las Vegas Luxury Show.
Tim and his group attended the show starting May 27 and were scheduled to fly home on May 31. But Mother Nature had other plans. While at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas Tim received a call from Glenn stating that another severe tornado landed near Moore. “It actually hit the airport in Oklahoma City,” says Tim.
The May 31 tornado claimed another 24 lives and caused incredible damage to the community. The tornado was 2.6 miles wide with winds reaching 295 mph – another E-F5. “The path of destruction of the May 31 tornado was the widest in history,” says Tim. “But the winds were not as severe as the twister that hit this area in 1999 that packed 317 mph winds.”
In the 37 years Lewis Jewelers has been selling jewelry in Oklahoma, Glenn, Tim and staff members have been incredibly fortunate. With the exception of the destruction of their jewelry making machines and the warehouse in May, the Lewis brothers have had good fortune and blessings on their side.
In the nearly four decades of selling jewelry, the brothers started out in Moore but moved their business eight miles south to Norman, OK in 1993. They spent 16 years there and moved back to Moore in 2009 when they built a new 6,000-square-foot freestanding store with a reinforced vault. In May that vault became the staff’s storm shelter.
“It really doesn’t matter where you go in this state,” says Tim. “You can’t get away from severe weather.”
The Lewis brothers learned much from the two tornadoes, including the level of kindness from industry colleagues. CBS and ABC news affiliates named Lewis Jewelers in their tornado coverage given the tornado was moving across I-35 in Moore close to the store. “Many fellow retailers and vendors heard about us on the news and contacted us to see if everything was alright,” says Tim.
Some of those industry members even contributed to the store’s disaster relief fund, which raised $11,000 to help local residents impacted by the tornadoes. They’ve even set up a fundraising website at TornadoFund.org. (Donations are still welcome.)
Having lived through many tornadoes as Moore residents and business owners, Tim and Glenn know that there’s a hierarchy of needs as people get their lives back together in the wake of severe tornadoes.
“Business is slow for now,” says Tim. “But in a few months there will be a spike in business when people are ready to repair or replace their jewelry. After that things will get back to normal. Oil, gas, agriculture and the medical industry have made this a thriving area. Moore will definitely bounce back from this in coming years.”