One Year Ago Today: Until the Sirens Went Off

One Year Ago Today: Until the Sirens Went Off May 20, 2014

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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21 responses to “One Year Ago Today: Until the Sirens Went Off”

  1. My mom’s family is from Oklahoma city area — Yukon, specifically — and I am sure I still have relatives there. My mom left OK when she was 4, but she had vivid memories of the one tornado she experienced. I think that is why the Wizard of OZ movie always frightened me so much.
    Was up until 2 a.m. this morning (Pacific time) praying for you and all effected. We already sent our $100 donation to the OKC Catholic Charities and I urge everyone to do the same.
    Glad you are safe , Rebecca – -thank you for posting today.

  2. I know now where the tornado went, but last night some idiot on the BBC said or implied that it had hit Oklahoma City directly, and I was terrified for you.

  3. I considered it and decided you had plenty to do. I can confirm all that you say about these monsters. You, yours, and you Oklahomans have been in my prayers, as you will be for a good while. God Bless you all.

  4. I left a message for you on the blog where you told us you would be taking a rest from the site here. I didn’t see it posted, so I will express again my thoughts being with all of you in OK. I’m so glad you and yours are fine. Your description above is frightening. I have never been thru such a disaster, though as a child lived in Kansas for 6 years. Blessings.

  5. Fabio, it managed to hit both South Oklahoma City (where I live) and Moore. The two towns run together. Thank you for caring.

  6. Thought about you today, Rebecca. Thanks be to God you and yours are safe. My prayers for all who have suffered the loss of loved ones, homes. May God in His mercy shelter all of you. Mary, most holy please, be with your children in Oklahoma now, in this hour of need.

  7. Oh. I assume that your home and family are OK?

    As for caring… you are one of the few people who give me hope in this world. When I look at politics and big business, and all I see is fashionable folly and ugly complicity, with the alternative to the current powers being ignorant and prejudiced populism, I thank God that somewhere there is someone like you. “Mutatis mutandis”, I feel about you as GK Chesterton’s Father Brown felt about this character (in the short story “The Quick One”):

    ‘We matter to God — God only knows why. But that’s the only possible justification of the existence of policemen.’ The policeman did not seem enlightened as to his own cosmic justification. ‘Don’t you see, the law really is right in a way, after all. If all men matter, all murders matter. That which He has so mysteriously created, we must not suffer to be mysteriously destroyed. But — ’

    He said the last word sharply, like one taking a new step in decision.

    ‘But, when once I step off that mystical level of equality, I don’t see that most of your important murders are particularly important. You are always telling me that this case and that is important. As a plain, practical man of the world, I must realize that it is the Prime Minister who has been murdered. As a plain, practical man of the world, I don’t think that the Prime Minister matters at all. As a mere matter of human importance, I should say he hardly exists at all. Do you suppose if he and the other public men were shot dead tomorrow, there wouldn’t be other people to stand up and say that every avenue was being explored, or that the Government had the matter under the gravest consideration? The masters of the modern world don’t matter. Even the real masters don’t matter much. Hardly anybody you ever read about in a newspaper matters at all.’

    He stood up, giving the table a small rap: one of his rare gestures; and his voice changed again. ‘But Raggley did matter. He was one of a great line of some half a dozen men who might have saved England. They stand up stark and dark like disregarded sign-posts, down all that smooth descending road which has ended in this swamp of merely commercial collapse. Dean Swift and Dr Johnson and old William Cobbett; they had all without exception the name of being surly or savage, and they were all loved by their friends, and they all deserved to be. Didn’t you see how that old man, with the heart of a lion, stood up and forgave his enemy as only fighters can forgive? He jolly well did do what that temperance lecturer talked about; he set an example to us Christians and was a model of Christianity.

  8. praise God you and your family are alright – our prayers are with those who were affected. Tragedy and sorrow seems to surround us every day in one form or another, but through my own I have learned to lean on God and trust in Him even when I want to scream at Him. May God give courage to those who survived and comfort those who have lost so much and welcome those Home the way he had my husband.

  9. What a great piece of writing. Difficult circumstances always bring the best in writers. Thank you for the update, and thank God you and your loved ones are safe. My prayers for everyone effected.

  10. I know you are probably very busy in the legislature- but it would be extremely appropriate for a pro-life Democrat at this time to put forth a bill *requiring* storm shelters in all new housing (an above ground shelter costs $8000-$10,000; a basement under an existing house can run $20,000- but a small concrete basement as a part of the foundation added during construction costs only $2,200). This should be an OBVIOUS saving of life in a tornado ravaged area, and I am astounded to read the the mayor of Moore has had problems passing such a common-sense ordinance in the past.

  11. Yes, I had the same mixed feelings: concern for Rebecca and her loved ones, but not wanting to burden her during an already stressful period.

    I heard Tom Cole, a state representative whose district is in Moore, talk on the radio. He said that he has been very busy fielding calls from residents and trying to look after their needs. I imagine the same is true for Rebecca, even though her district was spared the worst of the storm.

    This is a very sorrowful time for the country. I can’t imagine the difficulties faced by those who live there.

  12. We had a small (very small) tornado touch down near my home last spring but all it did was tear the roof off some barns and uproot some trees. I watched the monster on TV and all the time I was praying for the people of Oklahoma. I have never seen anything so destructive in my life.

  13. I think there will be many stories of heroism and kindness following the terror. Glad you are safe. Praying for your state.

  14. I’m going to repeat my earlier comment, but with a change.

    A 8x10x10 Galvanized Plate Steel Room can be welded together for as little as $1000. Why the heck aren’t storm shelters already a part of Oklahoma’s building code, like Magnitude 6.5 Earthquake Protection is a part of mine in Beaverton? How can you have a school with that danger of tornados without a storm shelter for the kids?

    Good place to store your Global GoFoods packs….just in case debris blocks the door.

  15. I am glad that you and your family are ok, and sad for those who lost their property, and worse, loved ones. May God console everyone in this hour of need. God bless you all.

  16. My heart goes out to every Oklahoman affected by all you face [as you called it omnipresent] with what has been coming your way. Stay safe and near a storm cellar. Let there be no prohibition to caution and true concern.

  17. When hubby and I were debating between Arizona and Texas, the reality of tornadoes (and hurricanes along the Gulf) prompted us to pick AZ. I know most folks in Tornado Alley don’t end up experiencing one taking their house or life, but the potential seemed way too real when no job or family was drawing us there. Even just seeing and hearing about twisters in books/on tv, their horrific power is mind boggling, like watching video of the tidal wave that hit Japan a cpl yrs ago, racing across the plain. Against things like these, human beings are like ants before a rampaging rhino. 🙁 I know recovery from something this size is never quick, but I hope your community is rebuilding as best the folks can.