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Local News

May 24, 2013

Velma native runs only to discover home annihilated

MOORE — Stuck in traffic trying to get to his home, Roger Graham decided he might as well park the car and run. A Moore resident, the accountant, dressed in casual business attire, didn’t think twice about the distance.

“It was two miles,” he said. “I just took off.” His wife, Kalissa, a school teacher, was right behind him.

Graham, an avid runner, has been running since he was a track member in high school. The 1999 Velma-Alma graduate, had chased storms in high school. He even attended University of Central Oklahoma to become a meteorologist and he’s chased a few with fellow V-A native, Chris Sanner, who continues to chase them.

Ironically, a photograph snapped of Graham on the rubble that was once his home, has gone viral on the Internet. It features Graham holding up a DVD of the movie Twister.

“It’s kind of ironic that a tornado hit my house,” he said Thursday. “That thing has gone viral, it was on page 1 of Reddit. I guess I can chalk that off the accomplishment list.”

But on Monday, May 20, Graham wasn’t chasing. He was fairly certain his neighborhood had been level, and there were other motorists trying to get to Briarwood Elementary to reach their children. Parking the car was just common sense. Both work in Norman and his wife was named Teacher of the Year for Jefferson Elementary. They already knew that their area had taken a direct hit, including schools.

While at work, he was watching the livestream of Channel 9 and also Gary England on his laptop. He had told his wife to stay at work until she heard from him. Then his boss came in and asked everyone to move into the stairwell in his building.

“It was close enough he wasn’t comfortable with us hanging in the office,” Graham said about the F-5 tearing through the region.

Graham was tracking the tornado’s path and knew when it had gotten to his neighborhood, 220 SW 146th Street. He lived 200 yards due east of Briarwood Elementary. Because of the violence of the storm, cellphone service wasn’t good, including texts. Kalissa didn’t know if he had gone home early or what, he said. It was two hours before they heard from each other. Then he realized that by posting to Facebook, he could get a message out instantly.

After the two reconnected and headed toward their home, which he bought in September 2009, they got a call from a friend who confirmed their worst thoughts.

“I had to tell my wife where we were. Our cul-de-sac was completely annihilated. Our house was completely unrecognizable. There were no walls standing. Here’s something else ironic. I just had an underground shelter installed about a month and half ago.”

The entire week though has been one of endurance and ironies for the Grahams.

“We’ve been so positive. My wife has been really strong in this. We’re just upbeat.”

And so far, even though they don’t have a home, they have found many positive moments these last few days.

“At 2 p.m. the next day, Tuesday, we helped rescue our neighbor’s Golden Retriever, Ginger. We found her in the house. She had gotten inside under the kitchen table. She’s an outside dog, so the wind must have blown open the door and she ran inside. I got a picture of my buddy, Derick Colwell, pulling her out. I was excited for them. She’s a really sweet dog,” he said.

And, because of the viral photograph, OKC’s Thunder Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton, traveled to see them.

“We got to shake their hand and have our picture taken with them. I haven’t been able to have time to digest all the attention that picture has got (the Twister DVD image). We’ve just been digging out and we just want to get as many people in this area to get help.”

They found a 20x24 canvas image from their wedding day — unscratched, and some family heirlooms. And they’ve found compassion from complete strangers.

“Every day, we’ve been out there digging. My brother, David and his wife, Roni Graham, both from Velma, have been helping. I know I’m from Stephens County and it’s shocking, but I don’t have a pickup. We have commuter cars,” he said. “This guy, he came with a bobcat and cleared my foundation. In 45 minutes he did more than I could have ever done.”

He said he’s had plenty of interviews with photographers, FEMA and Red Cross volunteers. It’s made him proud to be in Oklahoma and represent his state.

“I don’t want people thinking people from Oklahoma are a bunch of dumb hillbillies. I’m trying to be articulate,” he said. Graham holds a degree from the University of Oklahoma. Everything he has done this week has been with a careful approach, including contacting all the utility companies on day one to make sure everything was disconnected.

One would think that a company would just look and know that all the homes in that area would know there’d be a need to suspend “services.”

“I don’t think any one company or organization could have been prepared for this,” he said. Graham said they are considering moving to Norman since they both work there.

Graham doesn’t get a chance to return home to Stephens County much, but had already anticipated a 5K race in Velma in July. Except there’s only one problem.

“My (business) shoes, a $200 pair, I ruined them. I’ve had a few people drop me off some black shoes,” he said. But he’s missing running shoes. He had participated in the OKC Memorial Marathon.

Does he plan to chase tornados again?

“I haven’t chased storms in a few years. It’s all fun and games until it blows your house away. I’m kind of over them. Done with it.”

Another irony, he said was finding the game Twister in his house rubble on Thursday.

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