Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Lucky Me, I was There

Cell phones change everything, including the experience of taking shelter during a tornado.

Last night, while we sat in our storm shelter in Oklahoma City, my husband exchanged texts with his best friend who was a hundred miles away in Sand Springs. His friend was also in a storm shelter.

Okies.

We know tornadoes.

A wave of storms swept through the state yesterday, sending a lot of us into shelters. These weren’t the huge killer tornadoes that come down and stay down for long periods of time, taking out whole communities. They were the hop, skip and jump tornadoes that happen any number of times in this state every single year.

I underestimated these storms from the start. Yesterday was the first day in almost two weeks  that I felt well enough to go out to eat. We went to our fav Mexican food place, where we go every Wednesday. They know us so well that they don’t bother to bring us menus. The waiter already knows what we want.

One of the waiters was twitchy about the incoming storms. He and I had both been watching them on radar on our phones. “I think Tulsa is going to get it,” I told him, “but we’ll be alright.”

So much for me as a weather prophet.

My husband decided to put gas in his car, so, on the way home, he pulled into a gas station around the block from our house. We’d been watching the clouds on the drive home. As we pulled to a stop, I noticed a change. I watched as one of the clouds started to turn; to, as the weather guys say, “rotate.”

“That thing’s starting to spin,” I said.

I think my husband’s view was blocked by a post in front of our car. He glanced up, saw nothing and got out to get the gas.

His view must’ve changed when he was standing beside the car, because a moment later he got back in and started the engine. “I can get gas tomorrow. We need to get home.”

It was a short drive to our house, literally around the corner. But as we turned into the drive, the wind hit, bending over the pear tree in the front yard. That tree had been a poofy cloud of white blossoms. As  we drove into the garage, the wind stripped those blooms, blowing the petals into the garage ahead of us, littering the concrete floor with white.

We got in the shelter, and the rest, as they say, is rock and roll.

This particular tornado hit about six blocks from our house. The damage it did can be repaired and no one was killed. There was another small tornado — or maybe this same one, touching down again, a bit further south of us that tossed around vehicles and shaved off the roofs of houses.

The people of Sand Springs and Tulsa got hit with a stronger tornado that did heavier damage and killed one person.

Tornadoes like these happen several times a year, every year, in Oklahoma. They’re different from the huge tornadoes that come along less often. They certainly can and do kill people. A direct hit from a small tornado will destroy your home and kill you. But their killing power is limited to smaller areas and tends to be somewhat capricious.

These little tornadoes go up and down. They are unpredictable. They can form in minutes and vanish in a second.

That is what we were dealing with last night. The warning on a big tornado can give you enough time to get into shelter. But these smaller tornadoes happen fast.

The weather reports had predicted storms, and we could track the overall storm pattern on radar. But the only specific warning we had last night was when I looked up at that cloud and saw it start to turn. If I hadn’t spent a lifetime looking at these things, I wouldn’t have known what I was seeing.

That’s what makes smaller tornadoes dicey. The local weather people, even with all their tornado spotters and radar, mostly tell you about small tornados shortly after they’ve hit. A small tornado can dip down, flatten your house and go back up, leaving the house across the street covered in debris from your house, with the car that was in the drive tossed aside, but otherwise untouched. Then it can come back down and flatten a whole block two streets down.

The irony here is that the thing can kill you just as dead as one of the big ones like the tornado of May 3, 1999. Thanks to our excellent tornado alert system, I watched on tv as what we call “the May third tornado” formed in Apache Oklahoma. I watched it as it stayed down and plowed 100 miles across the prairie to my neighborhood.

I didn’t watch as it continued on through Del City and back out across the prairie to Stroud. I was too busy ducking.

Big tornadoes usually give more warning than little ones. In fact, little tornadoes don’t give warning at all. They are more survivable, and they do not usually cause the total destruction of whole communities. But they can spin up and drop down in a minute. I mean that literally.

I found a spider in the storm shelter last night, which means it needs de-bugging, and not in the computer sense. I also realized that we need to buy flashlights and put them in there. Also bottled water. And maybe a horn or something we can use to get help if the worst happens and we get trapped because our house has fallen on top the shelter.

After the storm passed, I went into an exhausted, totally washed out mode. It was like the experience sucked all the life out of me.

I didn’t realize it, but I’m still not over the big tornado from two years ago. That one killed a lot of people, destroyed a whole community, took out a hospital and flattened two schools. It killed 8 school children in the process.

The rebuilding hasn’t been completely finished from that tornado. I see foundations with no houses when I drive my Mama around in the afternoons. The hospital will be rebuilt, but it hasn’t been yet. The grieving for lost loved ones is on-going.

I guess that’s why this experience last night left me so tired and dispirited. Also, I’m still not entirely well from this cold/flu thing I’ve had. That may have made it worse. All I know is that I usually take these things matter of factly, but last night I reacted with exhaustion, that, and I’m glad we have that shelter.

Mama was prattling to me later in the evening, and I realized that she had forgotten the entire thing. She had no idea there had even been a storm, much less a tornado. Her dementia had wiped it away.

There are times when forgetting is a blessing.

 

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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.

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The First First Responders

 

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.

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.

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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Thank You Mister Idiot Eastern Newscaster

Let me begin this post with 3 caveats.

  1.  I am tired. I attended a series of meetings in Washington DC on Thursday. This meant flying East Wednesday, doing meetings all day Thursday, then flying home Friday. There is no way to get into and out of Oklahoma without connecting flights which means you’re in transit for 8 or 9 hours.
  2. I came home yesterday and stepped right into more weather. My bag is still packed and sitting where I put it when I walked in the door.
  3. I am an Okie, and I love my home.

Now. I’ve dispensed with the caveats. Let me begin the real meat of this post, which is a defense of my fellow Okies.

During last night’s storms a lot of people took to the roads to try to get out of the way of incoming tornados. I’ve been listening to eastern newscasters explaining to the whole wide world what a bunch of dummies they were for doing this. I even heard one prominent newscaster ask why people don’t move away from Oklahoma with its terrible weather. 

Ok, Mr Eastern Newscaster who doesn’t know come here from sic ‘em, let me try to ‘splain a few things to you.

First of all, last night’s storm didn’t behave the way these things usually do. A storm that begins outside El Reno will usually move in a certain track heading northeast. This big bruiser turned and headed south. Worse, it kept trying to spawn tornadoes over its very considerable girth and length. It was like playing a fast game of whackamo to try to keep up with them.

We have some excellent storm chasers and weathermen here in Oklahoma with great technology to back them up. They fought hard to keep everybody informed, but there was so much information and it was so odd that it was confusing. Unfortunately, every little radio station has now got their own storm guys and a lot of “storm chasers” are nothing more than young men in souped up jalopies placing themselves in harm’s way and exaggerating what they see. There were some goofy reports out there with the good ones.

The major problem people had with this storm is that it didn’t make sense. It seemed to be coming at everybody, everywhere. A lot of people — and I mean a lot of people — tried to get out of the line of fire of the incoming storm. This ended up overpowering the capacity of the roadways.

The result was that thousands of people were sitting ducks. They would have been trapped in their cars if a tornado had hit them, and that’s one of the worst places to be. The flooding that came with the storm was not predicted and a lot of people lost their cars in that. I am surprised that more people weren’t killed by the flooding and high winds.

Among the other things I’ve seen on the news this morning is talking heads telling people here that they should “shelter in place.” That, in retrospect would have been a good idea last night. The tornadoes were the kind that you could survive (there is no surety for anyone above ground in a tornado, but the odds were good) but the flooding was serious. However, there was nothing in the warnings people were hearing that indicated this at the time. People were told that the tornado that hit El Reno was a “violent tornado” a mile wide. That sounded like a killer tornado. There were no visuals of it because of the rain. People responded to the verbal descriptions.

There isn’t a big margin for error with these storms. You may have time, but you won’t have much time. Whatever you’re gonna do, you’ve got to do it quickly.

The only people who were killed last night were those who got caught in their cars. So last night shelter in place was good advice. However, based on the reports that were going out, it didn’t sound that way. As I’ve said before, there are tornadoes and then there are tornadoes. A tornado that’s a mile wide and with what one weather caster said were high wind velocities is not a shelter in place tornado. The fact is, it turned out to be different than it sounded.

Contrary to the blather I heard on the tv this morning, people do successfully get out of the line of fire of incoming tornadoes all the time. This is a big part of why the May 3, 1999 tornado only killed 44 people. That storm was on the ground for over a hundred miles. There was tons of warning that made sense and people just got up and got out of its way. I personally know a number of families who ran and saved their lives. Their homes were gone, but they were fine. The same thing happened with the May 20 tornado of a couple of weeks ago. People got out. And it saved their lives.

The problem last night is that there were so many tornadoes and so many warnings of impending tornadoes that everybody in the whole metro felt in imminent danger.

What happens most of the time is that smaller tornados are funky. They pop up and then they go away. They do goofy things. They’re harder to run from than the big ones that come down and stay down. We had funky tornados last night. Running from those is not a good idea. You really are better off to shelter in place with those. However — and I want to emphasize this — that wasn’t what it sounded like early on. A mile wide tornado with high wind velocity sounds like another, more deadly, kind of beast.

The advice to shelter in place which is blaring out at us over the airwaves from those East coast studios is good advice if the tornado is bearing directly down on you. It’s good advice if you’re in a solid structure and it’s a smallish tornado. It’s lousy advice if you have a long window of warning on a big tornado that is tracking clearly. It’s also bad advice if you’re in a mobile home or an automobile.

My advice to Mr Eastern Newscaster is to get his rear end out of the studio and come on down here and try it out. Let’s see how he does with it. After he rides out a couple of these big fellas, maybe he can give us some intelligent opinions about living in tornado alley. At the very least, he may learn some humility.

Now, I’ve people in my district who are in distress and need my attention. I probably should thank this newscaster. I was feeling too tired to face the day. But he’s revved me up and got my blood pumping.

So thank you Mr Idiot Eastern Newscaster who knows nothing but thinks he knows everything. I was tired, but now, I’m completely energized.

As for moving away from Oklahoma because we’ve had a couple of storms, you can forget that. I am insulted by the question.

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