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Originally published May 23, 2013 at 11:32 AM | Page modified May 23, 2013 at 2:17 PM

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Latest deadly tornado tests Oklahoma town's mettle

Having lived most of her life in this Oklahoma City suburb, Barbara Bryen never feared twisters. They were just part of life in a particularly deadly stretch of Tornado Alley.

Associated Press

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MOORE, Okla. —

Having lived most of her life in this Oklahoma City suburb, Barbara Bryen never feared twisters. They were just part of life in a particularly deadly stretch of Tornado Alley.

She always thought the closet just inside her front door was good enough for shelter, and on Monday it was again. But after an EF5 twister barreled through town, killing 24 people, Bryen and others in this disaster-prone community say they would never build a house without a storm cellar.

Monday's twister "changed my thinking," she said, looking at her house, which lost its roof. "I never want to live through that again. That was just terrible, terrible. Hearing the crashing and the banging and the wind and everything."

Oklahoma natives know tornadoes. They've been carried into storm cellars as children and huddled in closets with their own kids. But this week's storm stands out, even in a town where violent weather is common. Living through a monster twister that dismantles your house - smelling the cracking lumber as the roof is ripped off, feeling the whoosh of air that indicates you're now exposed - highlights an old danger in a new way.

Moore has been through this before. Four tornadoes have hit the town since 1998, including one in 1999 that everyone just calls the "May 3 tornado," which had 300 mph winds and killed more than 40 people.

Locals point proudly to how Moore rebounded from that storm, and two more, before this week's twister obliterated entire city blocks and caused damage that's expected to top $2 billion.

City officials say the 1999 tornado led more people to install storm shelters in their homes. More than 3,000 shelters are now registered with the city.

"We have a ton of people now. It's just like buying a refrigerator or a stove for your house. You put in a storm shelter," said Elizabeth Jones, the city's community development director.

Moore has been one of the fastest-growing suburbs of Oklahoma City, attracting middle-income families and young couples looking for stable schools and affordable housing.

The town's population grew by 35 percent between 2000 and 2010, to about 51,000, as developers built subdivisions for people who wanted to avoid the urban problems and schools of Oklahoma City but couldn't afford pricier college-town Norman next door.

Though sprawling, Moore has retained a semi-rural flavor. Pickup trucks are parked in many driveways, and many neighborhoods are surrounded by open land and horse pastures. Residents commute to jobs in Oklahoma City or to Tinker Air Force Base, which is about a 20-minute drive away.

Moore's unenviable position in Tornado Alley has prompted changes to the way residents protect themselves and fortify their properties.

Some builders use tornado straps or other devices that give added strength to the connections between roof and frame or frame and foundation. But storm shelters remain the best protection. Increasingly, they're cut right into the floor of garages with heavy sliding steel doors.

In the minds of some homeowners, a shelter is like any other premium feature that costs a few thousand dollars. For others like Bryen, it's a significant investment. She said she and her husband both live on disability payments.

Because many families can't afford shelters and many elected leaders have a philosophy of low regulation, there isn't talk of mandating them.

"We enforce minimum codes, and then it's up to the residents to determine what level of comfort they have with other safety options that may be available to them," Jones said.

Sarah Torrey said she and her husband had talked about saving for a storm cellar, but never followed through. On Monday, she rolled herself and her dog inside a mattress topper and laid down in the hallway of her house.

"I can't tell you how many tornadoes we've had since we lived in this house," Torrey said. "I mean maybe that's the downside of being an Okie. You stand on your front porch and watch it is the joke."

She said she would "absolutely never" again own a house without a storm shelter.

"Wouldn't even dream of it," she said Tuesday as her family helped salvage items from the remnants of her house. "Like we had talked about it here and there ... but then you just don't. You find other things, `We'll do it later. We'll do it later.' Here's later."

Across town in another neighborhood trashed by the storm, Damon Mabry marveled at a sheet of plywood sunk perpendicularly deep into his front yard. The former prison guard, and veteran of inmate riots, confided that he had cried like a child until he and his wife found their little dog cowering in a closet.

Mabry lives in a neighborhood built shortly after the 1999 tornado. He counts four storm shelters at homes on his block, more than some older Moore neighborhoods.

There's one cut through the deck on the back of his house. Beneath a sliding red door is a deep, dark hole where a family of four could safely spend a few terrifying minutes. He said his wife, who was home alone when the storm hit Monday, had refused to use the shelter because a frog lives inside. She took her chances and fled elsewhere.

Looking inside, he said, "it's a coffin vault."

For Mabry, Moore's recent run of bad luck may just be too much.

"I don't know if we'll rebuild in Moore," he said. "I'll be honest with you."

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