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."
Flags are flying on almost every street in the subdivision where Gibson and DeWitt resided, a working-class neighborhood where country-music singer Toby Keith lived in a rented house before hitting it big and moving not too far away. Residents used to picnic in nearby Veterans Memorial Park, where U.S. and Oklahoma state flags with tattered ends fly from two tall poles. A third, shorter pole, holding a black MIA-POW flag, has a large chunk of aluminum roadside rail wrapped around it, as if it were a rigid fourth banner.
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. His Veterans of Foreign Wars post, 8706, is sending him $500 to get back on his feet, but he plans to endorse the check over to another neighbor, who wasn't insured for anything but a car.
"It's what we do as Americans," he said as friends and relatives carted away debris. "The American flags here are what we do. It's times like this when people pull together."
Some of the flags on display were among the homeowners' most valued possessions.
Ed Steiner, a retired city building official, had two flags in front of his house Thursday. One, flying from a pole outside the garage, flew every Fourth of July and Memorial Day. The other, draped over his car to dry, covered his father-in-law's coffin. It was presented to Steiner's wife, who displayed it in a triangular, glass-front box on a cedar chest by their home's front door, so that it was the first thing people saw upon walking inside.
"The day I came out after the tornado, I went in to get the flag, and I put it up," he said of the smaller flag he flew on holidays. "It made me feel better. We had a lot of people asking us if we needed help. That's why I put it up. I bought it 30 years ago and flew it from three houses. My wife and I are patriotic folks. I can't talk about it without choking up."
Other flags blew into homeowners' yards from who knows where. Deborah Martin's son, Caleb, found a torn and dirty flag, covered with bits of insulation, on the roof of his mother's house. He retrieved it and folded it, and is now driving around in the car with it until they can take it to a Boy Scout troop for a ceremony that involves cutting the flag into four parts and respectfully burning it.
After Martin found a small flag in the rubble and stuck it in a post before Woods' house, she said that she considers the flag a symbol of what is most needed in Oklahoma these days.