Science & Tech

Student Who Lost Two Sisters To A Tornado Dedicates Her Future To Meteorology

Aria Vargyas has turned tragedy into passion more than a decade after a devastating tornado hit her hometown of Moore, Oklahoma.
Story by Emily Chan/Video by Chris Jarvis, Texas A&M University College of Arts and Sciences May 9, 2024

Texas A&M freshman meteorology major Aria Vargyas '27 looks out across the horizon from the observatory deck of Texas A&M's Eller Oceanography and Meteorology (O&M) Building.
Texas A&M first-year meteorology major Aria Vargyas ’27 looks out across the horizon from the observatory deck of Texas A&M’s Eller Oceanography and Meteorology (O&M) Building.

Chris Jarvis/Texas A&M University College of Arts and Sciences

 

On the afternoon of May 20, 2013, in the town of Moore, Oklahoma, more than 57,000 people crouched in classrooms, businesses and homes in preparation for a large and potentially violent tornado reportedly on the ground and projected to strike a heavily populated section of the city at any moment.

Eight-year-old Aria Vargyas, a student at Briarwood Elementary School, was among them.

“It was a blur,” Vargyas recalled. “All I really remember is that my knees were to my chest, and I had a textbook on my head, and then, there was dead silence. Next thing I know, I’m getting carried out of the rubble.”

Vargyas (right), being carried away from what remains of Briarwood Elementary School, which was completely destroyed by the EF5 tornado that swept through Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013.
Vargyas (right), being carried away from what remains of Briarwood Elementary School, which was completely destroyed by the EF5 tornado that swept through Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013.

Associated Press

 

The tornado tore through more than 14 miles of the city and featured winds exceeding 200 mph, according to Preparedness Ambassadors. The record-breaking disaster accounted for 24 fatalities, 212 injured and 12,000-plus demolished homes — crushing losses that required several years for the city to fully recover.

Loss Beyond Measure

Beyond ranking as one of the most destructive in Oklahoma’s history and the most recent in the United States to be rated as an EF5, the Moore tornado was the source of immense loss for Vargyas and her family, whose two youngest members, Karrina, 4, and Sydnee, 7 months, were among the 24 fatalities.

“It was very tough to navigate through that loss,” Vargyas said. “I realized that birthdays were going to be different, Christmases were going to be different… I had to learn to live life without my sisters.”

 

In dealing with the loss of her sisters as she grew up, Vargyas found herself increasingly obsessed with meteorology and the mechanisms behind storm formation. She eventually made it her goal to pursue an education that would enable her to become a meteorologist and work toward preventing weather disasters and their devastating impact on other families and communities.

Driven To Save Lives

“My passion for meteorology fully stems from my sisters,” Vargyas said. “I am doing this for them. I want to do research to help find a way to dissipate storms, but it was because of my sisters that I wanted to do that. I wanted to make sure no one went through what I went through at such a young age.”

In her search for a program that would provide her with the high-quality education that she desired, Vargyas discovered the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, housed in the College of Arts and Sciences. The more she learned about the department’s strong academic reputation, expert faculty and hands-on learning opportunities, the more convinced Vargyas became that it was the ideal place for her to pursue her studies.

“I did a lot of research and found that Texas A&M is ranked as the top school for meteorology,” Vargyas said. “I had to come to the best because I don’t have any other plan. This is what I want to do, and the College of Arts and Sciences is my only way to achieve it.”

Vargyas, pictured on a sunny afternoon on March 30, 2024, outside her former elementary school, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the 2013 tornado.
Vargyas, pictured on a sunny afternoon on March 30, 2024, outside her former elementary school, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the 2013 tornado.

Chris Jarvis/Texas A&M University College of Arts and Sciences

 

As a first-year student, Vargyas is already setting ambitious goals for her future, including studying major storms as a storm chaser.

“It’s fascinating to delve deeper into the dynamics of weather systems,” Vargyas said. “Understanding the intricacies of atmospheric processes is crucial in my quest to improve storm prediction and response. Ultimately, I do want to storm chase, looking at the radar, taking pictures and mapping.”

Navigating the grief that comes with losing her sisters has proven far less predictable for Vargyas, who says she had to learn to take the time to understand her emotions that ebb and flow every day, especially through life’s milestones.

“I started writing, journaling and trying to write my feelings down, and that’s what gets me through the rough patches,” Vargyas said. “Somewhere along the road, it got easier. I didn’t cry as much when I talked about them… When I would think of them, it would be as a good memory instead of a sad one.”

Vargyas, holding framed photographs of her younger sisters and career inspirations Karrina (left) and Sydnee (right), who were among the 24 fatalities in the 2013 Moore tornado.
Vargyas, holding framed photographs of her younger sisters and career inspirations Karrina (left) and Sydnee (right), who were among the 24 fatalities in the 2013 Moore tornado.

Chris Jarvis/Texas A&M University College of Arts and Sciences

 

As Vargyas continues her educational journey to becoming a meteorologist, her experience as a young girl fuels her desire for academic success while also providing a way for her to honor her sisters as she works to improve the future of storm response.

“I have had to push through my days and grind for what I want,” Vargyas said. “I’m in my environment, I’m happy. I’m in a positive place.”

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