One Year Ago Today: Until the Sirens Went Off

We were in legislative session when the sirens went off.

For the first time that day, the room fell silent. It was the kind of bottom-dropping-out, free-fall silence that occurs when people face their omnipresent dread.

Tornadoes are an omnipresent dread in Oklahoma. Their unpredictability, coupled with their potential for absolute deadliness are the source of our nightmares.

I don’t personally know a single native-born Oklahoman who does not have tornado nightmares. Fear of these things is drilled into us from birth.

That the room fell silent when the sirens went off was predictable, especially in the Oklahoma House. We know that no matter where one of these things comes down, it will hit people that we are responsible for.

The silence was especially loud, coming as it did in the middle of an exceptionally noisy day. I learned as a child that horses run and pitch when a storm is coming. Any mother can tell you that children are unmanageable when weather is brewing. If yesterday means anything, the same thing must apply to middle-aged adults.

The Speaker gaveled us down repeatedly. He admonished us again and again to take our seats and maintain order so that the legislators who were explaining bills could be heard. Nothing he did affected the behavior on the floor at all.

Until the sirens went off.

That silenced us. One of us was on the mike, introducing a bill. After a moment’s plunging silence, he said, “Get under your desks.”

That broke the quiet as we all laughed.

Not too long after that, we had to evacuate the House Chamber and go to the Capitol basement. Several Indian dancers had been performing in the rotunda when the storm hit. They trooped down and waited with us, amidst comments about rain dances that were too effective.

I watched the tornado form on the screen of the tiny tv in the capital snack bar with everyone else. It dropped at a town called Newcastle. These storms follow tracks, almost as if they actually were on rails. I knew that if this thing stayed together that South Oklahoma City (where I live) and Moore were in for it.

Straight and Wide. Evidence of a killer tornado.

 

There are tornadoes. And then there are tornadoes.The ones that kill and destroy on a large scale stay down, move slowly and get bigger as they go. That’s what I watched this tornado do. I’m not a meteorologist, but I’ve watched a lot of these things and I knew that this one was a killer.

There was absolutely nothing to do. The phones went dead. I sat down in a corner and waited. I knew people were being killed. I had no idea if my house or the houses of my friends were going up. The reports that were coming in over the tv were too confusing to tell. I did know that people I knew, had known all my life, were in grave danger.

I stayed in the basement until it passed. Then, I loaded up and left. It was raining, hailing. I ended up taking shelter at a Sonic drive-in for about 30 minutes. The traffic lights were out and the interstates had been closed, which resulted in traffic gridlock. I snaked around through back ways to get South. It took me an hour and a half to do what would normally be a 15-minute drive. A friend of mine who lived on the far side of the damage told me it took him almost seven hours to get home.

I was out of touch with the larger world for about 12 hours. No power. No water. But nobody hurt, either.

My district didn’t get hit. My family is all ok, although some of them are without power and water. I have several friends who lost their homes, but they all got out of the way before it hit.

After the May 3 tornado in 1999 went through the same general area, we had a lot of orphaned pets — cats and dogs — who showed up. It was impossible to find their owners, so people adopted them and took care of them. I’ve already decided that our home will be open if a battered-up pet wants to come there.

I want to thank everyone who has texted or posted, asking me if I’m alright. Yes, I am.

Sooo Oklahoma: tornadoes, Native-American dancers, all of us sheltering together against the storm.

Okies Chase Westboro Baptist Church Out of Town

 

The idiots of the Westboro Baptist Church, “shagged tail, got in them cars and was leaving in a hurry,” after tangling with the outraged citizens of Moore Oklahoma.

The Westboro group showed up at Moore, planning to picket with the message that the death of innocent children when last year’s tornado hit their school was “God’s judgement.”

Several hundred people, many of whom had lost their homes, friends and family members in the storm, were there to greet them.

From KFOR.com:

MOORE, Okla. – Hundreds of Moore residents lined Broadway across from Central Junior High Sunday afternoon.

They were ready and waiting for members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

Members of that church have long contended that God hates homosexuality and America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

They also claim that he sends disasters as punishment.

Church members had a permit to picket in front of the school, which has been housing Plaza Towers Elementary students since last year’s deadly tornado.

According to the Westboro website, they contend that God sent that tornado as retribution against Moore.

Amanda Eccles said, “It’s just sickening. You know, it’s just innocent kids that lost lives and it’s sickening for them to even think that way.”

Kristy Hensley said, “They’re judging us because they think that, you know, we deserve what we got you know. But you know, their judgement day will come.”

Westboro’s permit to picket was for half an hour.

They had been there a mere eight minutes when several people took matters into their own hands.

Some Moore residents crossed the picket line to go after Westboro members.

 

Tornado Recovery One Month In

I drive by the path of the May 20 tornado almost every day. Recovery is moving along, even though it is painful.

In the first days, people went back into the areas to sift the rubble in an attempt to salvage what they could. I went to the 7-11 with one of my sons late in the evening a couple of days after the storm and we spoke to a man who had lost his house. He had somehow managed to find his high school ring and a photo album. That, except for his life, was all he had left.

After the first attempts to salvage what could be salvaged, an army of volunteers, just ordinary people, went into the area to sift through and try to help. They found all sorts of things. They also began the clean-up process.

After that, the heavy equipment moved in. Day after day, I drove by to see equipment lifting huge piles of rubble to be taken away.

Now, a lot of the debris is gone. Once rebuilding starts, things will begin to look more normal again. I drive by the path of the 1999 May 3 tornado every day. There was nothing left where it went through; whole neighborhoods rubbelized. Within a year it was all rebuilt and there was no way to tell by looking that anything had happened there. It will be the same with this new damage.

But for now, here’s how it looks. I took these photos of a small part of the 17-mile trail of damage, with my cell phone while I was driving. I didn’t even look at what I was snapping. I just drove at normal speed, held the phone up and clicked.

The two big buildings whose metal underparts are sort of standing in photos 1, 2 and 3 were some kind of bigger business type buildings. I can’t recognize them now, and I don’t remember what they were. There is also one house in photo 3 that somehow remained standing. It’s a tear-down, but it didn’t come apart in the storm. All these buildings were at the edge of the storm. The buildings to the right in the second photo are the small strip mall. It wasn’t hit by the tornado, but the winds off it damaged the mall badly. I think most of it will have to be demolished. Notice that the trees are beginning to grow new leaves.

Photos 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are of a densely populated neighborhood that was flattened. The last photo is coming to the edge of the tornado path.

It still looks bleak, but if you could compare it to what it was at first, you’d see that there’s been a lot of progress. Also, if I’d thought of taking photos of the hundreds of volunteers digging through the rubble to help people, those photos would show enormous love.

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Which Shall it Be: Above Ground ‘Safe’ Room or Below Ground Cubby

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The nightmares are back. 

I had lunch with a life-long friend today. Our mothers were pregnant with us at the same time. That’s how long we’ve known one another. 

My friend got caught in the storm last week and she confided that she’s had tornado nightmares since then. I don’t think I have. I sort of remember some kind of storm dream, but I don’t think it was a full-bore tornado nightmare. It may be have been, but I don’t think so.

I have decided that I’m putting in a shelter of some kind. Not now. Everybody and his dog is probably ordering a shelter right now. If I ordered one this afternoon, it would take weeks before they got around to installing it, and tornado season would be over by then. I’m hoping that if I wait a few months, the prices will drop and I can get a good deal. 

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Safe Room Shelter 

Besides, I can’t decide what I want. I could get an in-ground cubby hole, the kind people put in their garages. Or, I could get a safe room that might go anywhere in my house. I’ve been reading about them, and safe rooms are only guaranteed for winds up to 250 mph. The tornado last Friday had winds that were almost 300 and the May 3, 1999 tornado had winds over 300. 

So, the question is, will a safe room stand up to one of those things?

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Cubby Hole Shelter

On the other hand, how, if I’m alone with her, would I ever get my almost 88 year-old mother down into a cubby hole shelter? If my kids were around, no problem. They can pick her up like she’s a potato chip and hand her down, no problem. But I can’t do that. What am I supposed to do if a tornado comes at us and I’m here alone with my mother, put a mattress on the floor of the shelter and throw her down there?

There’s also the question of cost. Safe rooms cost more than cubby holes. On the other hand, you can put one in a closet and use it for other things when you’re not ducking from a storm. 

These questions aren’t a hypothetical to me. We lost two extended family members in the May 3 tornado. I know a number of people, including close friends, who lost their homes in both that tornado and the May 20 storm. I also know people who were grievously injured. My mother’s old house, which she still owns, lost its roof to a tornado that killed a number of people a couple of years ago. I went to a wedding a couple of weeks ago and many of the people there had attended a funeral for a tornado victim earlier in the day. 

As I said, it’s not a hypothetical. It’s real. Whatever our family gets, we’re going to have to take out a loan to do it, which means we need to make the right decision.  

Safe room, or cubby hole? I can’t decide. I think a cubby hole is the most likely to get us through a tornado alive. It also costs less. But if I can’t get my mother into it, it’s not worth much to me. If she can’t go down, I won’t go down. We’ll just live or die together in a closet. 

I’m wondering if any of you have experience with these things and can give advice. The real question, much more than the money, is whether or not a safe room can take a direct hit from one of these big monster tornados. If they can, that’s probably how I’ll go. If not, I guess I’m going to have to rig up a hoist or something so I can get Mama into a cubby hole when the winds blow. 

 

The First First Responders

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Oklahoma City spun with activity all weekend. 

Everywhere you went, the sound of chain saws filled the air as people cut fallen trees into kindling. A house not far from mine lost a big part of its roof. I don’t mean that the storm took off the shingles. It lifted the roof off the house like it was a child’s miniature playhouse, and then dumped about 8 inches of rainwater into the interior. It also tore up a tree in the front yard and tossed it in a neighbor’s drive. 

People piled in to help. There were men nailing new beams up and others cutting the tree into pieces. A whole troupe of neighbors pitched in to drag away the rubbish and bail out the water. In a few hours, the house had an ugly blue tarp where its roof had been, but it was reasonably dry and habitable until major repairs could put it back the way it was before the storm.

Almost no one had power, so people were sleeping on sofas in the houses of friends in the few houses that did have power. Relatives and friends had already taken in lots of people from the earlier tornado. Now, we were packing them in tighter. 

We had mass and our holy hour with the Pope without power, and I have to say it was nice. I enjoyed the relative quiet of no organ, no sound system, etc. It was even nice to have the sanctuary door open and hear the buzzing sound of chain saws. 

I think it is very important to go forward with church services in times like this. It doesn’t matter if you have to pray in a parking lot. People need stability. They need the comfort of worship and in the case of mass, the Eucharist. They need one another.

Which gets me to the real point of this reminiscence, and that is the first first responders and how much we need them. 

The tornado on May 20 took out whole neighborhoods. Everything was rubble-ized. Help was coming, and everybody knew it. But minutes were also ticking by in which a trapped person might either smother or be saved. There was no time to sit around and wait for the authorities to come blaring in with their sirens and equipment. 

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Everybody who was alive and able got to work immediately lifting rubble and looking for other survivors. The tornado had no more than passed when neighbors began helping other neighbors to dig out. 

The same thing happened in Boston. As soon as the bomb went off people began moving barricades and going to help other people. 

There are folks alive today in both cities because of the quick action of their neighbors. 

The first first responders are your neighbors. When that first line of defense fails, terrible things happen.

I remember a couple of years ago a young girl was gang-raped at a school event in California in front of a crowd of onlookers who did nothing. There is the horrible story that shocked a nation of a lady named Kity Genovese who was murdered in her apartment while her neighbors heard her screams for help and didn’t even call the police. 

What happens when community breaks down and people stop helping people? The answer to that is simple: We start to die when we would live otherwise. More to the point, the monsters among us begin to reign over us. 

I watched the videos of the aftermath of the savage murder in Britain a few days ago. It was bemusing to see this murdering maniac hopping from one side of the street to the other, standing over the dead soldier’s body like an animal guarding its kill, spouting lunatic rhetoric. They filmed him. One woman went up to him and talked to him. But nobody took him down. 

One reason why he was able to get away with this is obvious: He was armed and they were not. He was covered with the blood of the young man he had slaughtered and he was waving the machete he’d used to do the deed as he shouted his justifications for his actions. 

The by-standers evidently didn’t feel threatened, but they also took no action. Even if they didn’t have a gun — which they clearly did not — couldn’t they have picked up clubs, gotten themselves organized and taken Mister Raving Lunatic Islamic Radical out?

The British are brave people. They’ve proven that over and again. They are also strong and resourceful. I admire them enormously. I don’t know much about British law, but I have a feeling that there must be something in that law which prohibits people from taking action. I know that London is a big city and that people disengage from one another in big cities. The sheers numbers destroy community on a larger scale and leave people isolated in a crowd. 

But, in truth, if we don’t help one another, we are doomed. That’s what civilization is: People helping one another. 

America has suffered almost endless attacks these past forty years on the organizing units which build community and bind us together. The way we have decimated the family is an obvious one. Less obvious is the way we have been encouraged and even pushed to abandon and destroy our community groups. The most recent example of this is the fall of the Boy Scouts to political correctness. 

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If we ever lose this sense of community and fellowship that binds us together, we will also lose our first first responders along with it. Social destruction has a high cost. The cost in crime, psycho-social destruction of individuals, families and organizations, the loss of initiative and national purpose are obvious. But when disaster strikes and people stand around waiting for official first responders rather than taking up the work of going to help themselves, a lot of people will die needlessly. 

People who go into a storm shelter in Oklahoma when a tornado is coming do so with the knowledge that they may end up trapped due to tons of debris landing on their shelter door. They are able to go ahead and go down in that hole because they know that as soon as the winds stop, their neighbors will be there, digging them out. All they have to do is yell for help. 

People who stand and watch while a young girl is raped, who don’t even call the police while a woman screams as she is murdered, who stand around and watch helplessly while a lunatic speechifies over the body of his victim like an animal guarding its kill, have lost pieces of their birthright as human beings. They’ve stopped being neighbors and become a crowd. 

I know the on-lookers in Britain were stunned. I don’t know, but I have a feeling that the law somehow or other added to the helplessness they exhibited. Having said that, I hope they find a way to react more aggressively the next time one of these things happens. 

Because there will be a next time. It may not play out exactly like this did, probably won’t, in fact. But there is an endless supply of murdering maniacs who feel empowered by our Western codependence masquerading as “tolerance” to act out their darker impulses. Western society has been empowering monsters for quite some time now and we are paying the price of our codependence in the face of outrageous behavior with lost freedoms. If you doubt that, just take a trip on one of our airlines.

Tornados come down from the sky. But bombs and machetes are wielded by human hands. 

Whenever and however destruction of human life happens, the first first responders are us. We must help one another without waiting for the authorities to come. Most of the time, when someone shoves back the rubble, opens your shelter door and reaches in to help you out, it’s your neighbor. 

I hope I never see a day when that’s not true. 

This video of news coverage in the first few minutes after the Moore tornado of a couple of weeks ago shows neighbors helping neighbors.

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Tornados and Doing My Part

Moore Tornado 2 jpg I grew up looking at the remnants of a tornado.

It was an area of acreages and farmland that today is inner city. On the land next to our acreage, the remains of a roof rotted slowly back to the ground. The tornado had stripped it off a house and dumped it there. A half mile or so past that, a tilted grain silo sat where the same tornado had deposited it. It was about a mile from its original moorings.

That particular tornado happened before I was born, before my parents were married. They were both involved in it. My Daddy told me how he watched it take the house where my aunt and uncle lived. He described how the tornado seemed to lift the house off the ground, and then it exploded. That storm jerked trees out of the ground and their roots pulled up with them in long tendrils that left trenches in the earth. It took up grass off the ground.

Daddy said that the canned goods lining the shelves in the neighbor’s cellar where he took shelter vibrated as the storm passed over.

Thirty-five people died in that tornado. They were people my family knew. My mother went to school with a girl who lost her entire family and was terribly injured herself. This lone survivor of her whole clan wore a headscarf after that because she had been scalped by the winds.

Every time I read another comment about how Oklahoma doesn’t have basements for people to shelter in from these storms, I remember the line of graves in the cemetery not far from where my grandparents and my father are buried. This family went to the basement of their house. They were killed — every single one of them — when the tornado dropped the house down into the basement on top them.

In storms like this, you have to be underground, and the top of your underground shelter cannot be the floor of the house above.

Daddy and my Uncle Jimmy dug us a storm cellar when I was a little girl. After what they’d seen, they were adamant about what it took to come through a bad tornado. It had a concrete, steel-reinforced top that you could park a train engine on without any problem.

When my parents went through the killer tornado that killed so many of their friends, there were no tornado warnings. My father watched this particular tornado form. There were two funnels at first, then they got together. The rest was rock and roll. The fact that he saw it happen gave him and his time to take shelter. He even had time to do a stupid young man’s thing and try to drive his car to the shelter. Why he thought it would save that car to move it, no one, including him, ever knew. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

He and his brother left the storm cellar, with my grandmother yelling at them to come back and not be such idiots, ran back to their house, got into that car and raced, teen-aged style, for the shelter. All this while a killer tornado was roaring right at them.

I can only imagine what my grandmother must have felt, watching these two young bucks of hers as they risked their lives for no reason at all. The tornado didn’t hit them. But they got enough of a by-blow that it lifted the front end of the car off the ground and shoved it into a ditch. They got out and made the rest of the trek on foot.

The only reason I managed to get born is because that day just wasn’t my Daddy’s day to die.

It was the day to die for thirty-five other people. As I said, there was no warning. The girl who lost her family and ended up wearing wigs and head scarves for life said that the first they knew of it was when they heard gravel from the road, hitting the side of their house. That was the tornado, throwing the gravel as it approached.

Later, when I was a little girl, we had sort of storm warnings. By that I mean the television would make a loud beeping sound and the weatherman would come on to tell us there was a “line of thunder storms” coming at us. He used what looked like a white magic marker on a black board to make little squiggly marks signifying the line of thunderstorms and then he’d draw arrows to show which way they were moving. Nobody, including him, knew if this particular line of thunderstorms would make hail, high winds, deadly tornadoes, or just pass on by without even dropping rain.

We would troop down into the cellar Daddy had built, us and all the neighbors. Before he built it, I remember going to other people’s cellars in the neighborhood. Going to the cellar back then was something of a community event. We took lanterns and the kids took toys. The women and children sat around underground, passing the time and waiting for the storms to get there while the men stood aboveground, gazing thoughtfully at the skies.

You may not know this, but real men always stand guard, even if it’s against a tornado.

After a while the storm would hit and we’d all sit there together, listening to hail as it pounded the cellar door. Many times, it go too loud to talk.

People always take other people in during storms. I remember once we were traveling across the Texas panhandle when the clouds got gnarly looking. We stopped at a farmhouse. There was no one in the house, so we went around back to the cellar and knocked on the cellar door. They opened it, saw us, and invited us in. We rode out the storm with these good people. After it was over, the men shook hands, the women said their glad-to-meet-yous and we we got back on the road for home.

I’ve heard rumors that a branch of a national bank turned people away in the storm last week. I haven’t been able to verify it. But if it’s true, I’m taking my money out of that bank. I think they need to close up and go somewhere else. They don’t belong here. 

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The May 3, 1999 tornado is the worst tornado I have ever personally experienced. 

Warning time is everything when it comes to tornadoes. Without warning, hundreds of people would have died last week. Without warning, many hundreds of people would have died in the May 3, 1999 tornado.

Those early tornado warning pioneers with their magic markers and vague information saved lives. Today’s weather forecasters with their helicopters and doppler radar save many more lives.

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Plaza Towers Elementary, May 20, 2013 

That is not to say that we can’t do more. We must do more.

I have been haunted all week by the fact that I am a state legislator and children died in a public school for lack of adequate shelter. I can not explain why we haven’t built shelters in the schools. There is no reason.

The May 3 tornado hit a school and leveled it. We all shook our heads and said that it was lucky that the tornado hit after school hours. But I don’t guess any of us thought what we should do to prevent a tragedy if one of these things came in a few hours earlier in the day.

I know I didn’t.

I wasn’t in the legislature at the time, and when you’re not in the legislature you think differently. But I am now. I have been for years. Why didn’t I at least try?

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The reason, stupid as it sounds, is because I didn’t think of it. I think about tornados in much the same way I think about my own impending death, which is to say, not much. They just are. Tornados kill. Everybody knows it. Even with today’s technology, they are unpredictable in the extreme. Someone I know lost their house last week when the tornado they were watching move away from them suddenly turned and headed toward them. They had time to get out ahead of it, but it was close.

Tornadoes are unpredictable. Even the smallest ones will kill you with a direct hit. I saw a tornado once that looked like a water spout. It knocked over one great big sign in a grocery store parking lot about a block from my house. Not much damage. It didn’t even tear up the sign. But if that sign had been a person, things might not have been so simple.

That was a teeny tornado. It was so small and short-lived that only those of us who were looking straight at it ever knew it existed.

There is no tornado that can’t kill you. Some tornados take out a single house. A neighbor of my Daddy’s best friend lost their house to a tornado. The house sat on a hill. Their daughter had been out riding her horse. She saw it coming and got off the horse, raced indoors and climbed up the chimney. When the tornado passed, the chimney was all that was left of her house. Until like most other tornados, this one didn’t leave a pile of rubble. It cleared the house off that hill and left a chimney, standing tall and alone against the sky.

But the big bad ones that come down and stay down and cover territory are killers that can take out a whole community. They have the potential to kill everyone and everything that is above ground for miles, sometimes for hundreds of miles.

We didn’t do what we should have done about building shelters in the schools. That’s the plain truth of it.

I talked to the House Speaker about this late one night last week. He sort of sees the same thing. He’s still got his Oklahoma blinders on, though. We don’t ever think it’s going to happen again. Until it does. Then we don’t think it will happen again … again.

But this is Oklahoma. We get hit by tornados. These storms go in cycles. You can have years, decades, without a really bad one. Then, the killers start dropping out of those clouds like popcorn popping, one after the other, bang, bang, bang. We’re some place in a cycle of bad tornados right now. We may be half way through it. We may even be at the end of it.

But one thing we can know for sure: It will happen again.

I have to live with the fact that those children who died in that school last week are dead at least partly because we — meaning me — didn’t do what we should have done. There is no choice. I failed in my job so far as this is concerned, and the burden of that is something I have to live with.

But I will not live with failing to do what I should do from here on out. I know the people I work with. There are a lot of them who will have trouble with the state forcing local school districts to do anything, even something as ubiquitous and important as building tornado shelters. There are some of them who will decide this is a nanny state thing. So be it. I’m not responsible for them. They will have to stand before God and explain themselves one day just like I will.

I don’t intend to explain that I didn’t try to stop at least this part of the tragedy we are enduring from happening again. I don’t care who gets the credit, or anything like that. All I care about is that I do my best to save lives.

All any of us ever has to do is our part, and that is my part.

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Huffington Post has some interesting before and after photos of the May 20 tornado damage here.


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