“We just want you to stay aware.”
These were the words of our local news weathermen in the days and hours leading up to Friday night.
(This is a long post. Longer than I would ever normally put here, but I think the story is important to read as a whole.)
Friday had been a disappointing day. The wounds of the disaster only a week before in Moore and the east side of Oklahoma City were still raw and bad news on a project left me feeling frustrated and wondering if anything was going to work out like it was supposed to. There can only be one catastrophe a year, right?
My husband came home after dropping someone off at Will Rogers Airport and the sky began to grow ominous. In Oklahoma, ominous is not a good enough reason to be concerned. He mentioned to me that as he was leaving El Reno he was being passed by several storm chasers, racing west. Perhaps that was a better reason to be concerned.
The expression “wall to wall” coverage means the weather takes over the radio and television stations to cover severe weather. No other news, no programming and no commercials. While trying to compose a last ditch pitch full of words of desperation, the events on television began to seep into my consciousness. The moderate risk for severe weather had ramped up early in the morning placing Oklahoma City, once again, in the bulls eye of tornadic storms. This particular tornado watch was what they call a PDS. Particularly Dangerous Situation.
Michael Armstrong and Gary England of News 9 were on television, tracking the storms that were beginning to fire up to the west. They were due west. Tornadoes tend to track NE or ENE. I wasn’t too worried. Yet.
The grill fired up to cook dinner, my husband went about the end of his day as usual. My appetite was spoiled by my news and I sat and watched the coverage.
Then, very quickly, things began to explode. Within an hour, a storm of note began to rotate and then that rotation on the radar began to take on the eerie appearance the one from a little more than a week ago in Moore. (see the radar image below) It was headed straight for El Reno. But it was going in a strange direction.
Listening to the storm chasers call out the location of a ‘tornado on the ground’, we began to wonder about whether or not it would hit my husband’s workplace. As it gained speed to the southeast, we began to worry about the few people we knew down here and if they were anywhere near it. Then things got confusing. It was like nobody on the ground or in the air understood what was happening. Gary England warned the chopper pilot to get out of where he was and the tornado turned abruptly northeast, gaining strength as it moved.
Slowly, our worry descended into panic, watching the storm head toward Yukon. We began to prepare the shelter in the garage, gathering things we would need. I ran past my bathroom and, for some reason, my eyes landed on my toothbrush. In that fraction of a second, I wondered if I would ever see this thing again. Would this memory be all that is left of it? I began to shake a little and sweat broke out on my brow as I rushed up and down the steep stairway into our 3×8 foot shelter.
There was a knock at the door. It was our neighbour. We all stood in the lit hallway, the television blaring in the background, each in our own minds contemplating what seemed the inevitable. Outside, a roll of thunder and within it, the sound of a jet engine lingered as if there were such a thing as a hovering commercial plane.
The tornado was ripping across Route 66 due east and fright started to inch into terror.
Gary on the radio: “Yukon. You need to take your tornado precautions.”
The tornado was headed down between Route 66 and Interstate 40. It was so large, tracking it was difficult. My house is less than a mile off the interstate, which turns south on the west side of Yukon. The tornado turned east then east south east. We were in line for a direct hit.
Another knock at the door.
Our other neighbour and her three children came to the door and we all headed into the shelter. Her husband thought she was overreacting and remained in the house cooking dinner. The radio in our garage was blaring reports on the tornado’s location and they tried to estimate its size.
Radio: “If you are not underground, you are not likely to survive…”
Time seemed to slow down and I could hear my breath trying to drown out the incessant pounding in my chest. We sat in the shelter - 4 adults, 3 children and a cat. I could feel a subtle vibration inside the steel box and a fear like a lightening strike moved through every nerve of my body. I held back tears in a moment of weakness that would only frighten the small children sharing the tight underground space.
Cell phones began to fail. We still had power and so my WiFi was functioning giving me visuals on my iPad.
“I can’t reach, ___!”, our neighbour cried, struggling to get a signal, worrying her husband might change his mind.
She tried another failed text. My text function was working and seconds later, another knock at the door. Then the shelter door was closed and secured with chains. Condensation collected on the grey metal walls. The noise of the radio was interspersed with nervous chatter and silence. We waited.
The wind began to howl and what sounded like cracking and objects striking the garage door every few seconds drowned out the sound of the radio.
The power was still on. I still had video.
The twister appeared to be to the west of us. There was more confusion at the news station. The storm chasers couldn’t see the twister, assuming it was wrapped in rain. The radar image showed rotation above us, but nothing was on the ground. The intensity of the storm subsided into a torrent of rain. The radar image on my iPad seemed to loosen. The northeastern edge was spinning away from us while the chasers struggled to relocate the twister. A mile to the southwest, it touched down again.
It had missed us. How was this possible?
The children began to chatter, but no one was in a hurry to leave. My internet signal went down. Certainty that the danger was passed remained elusive. Soon discomfort overcame fear and the family trickled out, then my husband and me. Our first guest was reticent and stayed a little longer with the cat.
Coming back out of the shelter felt surreal. I was mentally prepared for destruction and to see everything still in its place left me wondering if I had emerged into an alternate universe. Nothing felt quite as it did before the storm shelter door closed over our heads not 45 minutes before.
Have you ever had a moment when you are completely present? It seemed the energy of every person and thing was in resonance and the tingle on my skin dispersed as if the wings of angel unwrapped me from their embrace.
My toothbrush was where I left it.
Unloading the shelter an hour later, a bit of seed cotton from the poplar trees behind the house floated down into the underground shelter. In a day full of moments of presence, I paused to touch it and it stuck to my clothes. The week before, I had written a poem for those affected by the last tornadoes of May 19th and 20th. The poem was inspired by tree cotton falling on a quiet day. Calm after the first storm.
A gentle sunny day
Of an Oklahoma May
The tree cotton lands
Soft like snow in my hands.
It is hard to conceive
What brief violence will leave
A home Nature shattered
Wondering what mattered
When I first arrived in Oklahoma, I sensed it was a place that would steal your soul if you let it. Like a spider’s invisible web it holds you letting you think you can escape, aware but unconcerned with the violence that lurks in the green wheat fields, forcing them to earn their gold. The siren song of the red earth stained its flooding rivers, bleeding through a city already licking its wounds. The cracks and wrinkles of drought abraded by a surgical wind and smoothed by rain, the cost of breaking the grip of dust and fire.
You’d think I’d be running for home. But then home is here. Oklahoma strips you clean making you wonder if anything before her was real.
I laid in my bed early Saturday morning listening to the pouring rain and the weather radio warning of flash flooding. It was as if I was seeing my material world for the first time. Everything and nothing was familiar. I didn’t sleep much. I had mixed feelings of guilt and relief. I knew there were many more who lost that privilege over the dinner hour on Friday May 31st.
We awoke to sunshine and headed to El Reno. My husband’s phone was full of texts tracking employees and reporting on losses. We were sent to the remains of a house owned by one of his colleague’s sons.
Route 66 west of Yukon bore massive devastation. Pieces of metal wrapped around trees, power lines strewn across the road and poles bent to 30 degrees or snapped off entirely. A plane was flung upside down in the ruins of a college campus. Down Hwy 81 in Union City, cars were tossed off the road, some smashed, a few beyond recognition. Bright orange “x’s” marked that a vehicle had been searched for survivors. We could see the weather channel truck that had made national news crushed in the ditch from the back yard of the devastated house.
The family had spent two hours, the night before, trapped in their shelter. The garage roof had collapsed onto it, jamming the door. I suppose that was a grace, preventing the shelter from filling with rain so heavy it was bursting the banks of rivers and flooding roadways all across the center of the state. There wasn’t a full wall standing. The rest of the roof was nowhere to be found, the walls lay shattered out from the foundation, as it the house had exploded. The kitchen stood as if built on the lawn. The carpets so saturated, the sheet rock dissolved into it making removing the family’s few remaining belongings difficult. A child’s toy, a sweater, the children’s beds still in their rooms open to the sky.
I met a brave little girl who shared her ordeal in the shelter, but spent more time telling me about how the toys we found would be important to her brothers. One of her neighbours had moved here from Piedmont after he lost his house there 2 years ago. That house was destroyed as well. People they knew had died on the highway that night. She was remarkable and seemed to think everything was going to be OK. I tried to help her go through her belongings. She did better than I would have. I have tried to imagine her fear when that tornado was ripping across her house. Darkness, then cracking wood, shattering glass, a noise so loud it obliterates any independent thought. Ears pop and then the endless rain…
As the sunlight began to wane, the truck was loaded with coated and soaked belongings and delivered to a garage where the family will have time to sort through them. After what we had seen during the day, it was impossible not to reflect on how lucky we were. Another man from Yukon who had spent part of the day at the family’s property removing debris said what we were thinking.
“Somehow we were spared. So I knew I had to go out and help someone else.”
Some people watch storm chasers for entertainment. Guys like Reed Timmer and others race to drop sensors, get too close and yell over each other as tornadoes form and move across the Plains. Their style and motives are often up for critique in the comfortable living rooms of those who rarely, if ever, experience tornadoes. We are glad they do share their footage for entertainment because that funds their ability to go out there and improve the science of storm tracking and prediction. These guys, including a few who lost their lives on that violent evening, save lives here in Oklahoma.
Arriving from Canada in late 2011, we were quickly educated on meteorologists. The best of the best. Gary England and his team at News 9 is well known across North America for not just the best prediction and warning but for making his viewers feel they have someone watching over each and every one of them. Gary has made many appearances in everything from documentaries to the movie “Twister”.
Gary has a drinking game named after him, created by local college students. Every time he uses certain weather terminology such as ‘hook echo’ or ‘meso cyclone’, the alcohol flows. I am certain that there were some serious hangovers in OK City in the last couple of weeks. There is an enormous amount of fear that is curbed by knowing Gary and his crack team are out there doing their jobs and they have likely saved hundreds of lives. I know that, for me, I found great comfort in hearing their voices in the shelter.
On Tuesday, it was announced that the El Reno tornado was an EF5 with wind speeds in excess of 300 miles/hour (150 on the ground). The width of this beast broke every record in U.S. recorded history at over 2.6 miles wide.
Stormy weather lurks on the horizon again this week. Storm weary Oklahoma will always, bravely, lean into the wind; sculpting a land and people of great beauty and strength.