It is almost five in the morning and I just found myself shaving my legs in the sink of my small bathroom that was dimly lit by a flashlight. With each stroke of the razor, my thoughts raced back and forth between listening to my boys breathing the deep contentment of sleep and replaying the events of the night before. My feelings went from wondering if I was making too much out of it or if it was really that life threatening.
I have never run from a tornado. Just like most Oklahomans, I’ve watched the weather when it gets bad enough and hid in a closet or a bathroom and rode out the storm. We have so many tornadoes each year that we can’t stop what we’re dong and close businesses and schools just because there is a threat of tornadoes. If we did that, life would come to a stand-still for six weeks every spring and a few weeks during the fall. We don’t know if it is going to be a thunderstorm, a hail storm, or an F1 tornado or even as big as an F5, or if it will fizzle out. We just don’t know.
Tornadoes are like a rattlesnake. They can strike without much warning or they can approach slowly but you still never know what they’re going to do or is they will quietly slither off, never doing much more than just poking its head out at you to say “Hey, I’m here. Watch out.” When they do decide to do more than just rattle their tale, they can travel on a straight path, never veering off course or they can twist and turn making no sense of the path they are creating.
That is why I almost can’t believe that on May 31, 2013, I ran from a tornado. Maybe it was the panic from what the may 20th tornado did to Moore and the day before that in Shawnee. I’m not sure, but I do know that I will never do that again.
I think most people had the same thoughts as me and the flight or fight response kicked in. As I watched the weather and saw it coming down I-40, leaving a path of destruction in its wake, I questioned myself if I was going to hide my family in my bedroom closet or leave the area. When I saw the majority of the storm going North, but the tornado was still coming for us, that’s when I decided to leave. It didn’t’ help when all the local news channels were repeating the same thing, “If you are not underground, you will not survive this!” Those same words were said May 3, 1999 and then again May 20th of this year and each time the strongest tornado ever, devastated Moore, Oklahoma.
We rode out an F4 tornado on May 8, 2003 and witnessed a metal roof and a couch in a black swirling cloud descending from the sky fly by my living room window. We hid from an F3 (or2?) tornado in Norman about a year or so after that. There was a large F3-F4 tornado that just missed our house in Edmond in February 2010. Those chilling words of death from the news channels never passed through their lips for those other tornadoes (except for the two in Moore). So, when I heard it yesterday, it was like the mother bear in me awoke and I was protecting my cubs. I knew I was no match for this beast coming towards us so we left and I prayed that I was making the right decision.
Our plan was to go south, let it pass by and then return home. Just as we left, the beast changed directions. It was like it had its sights locked on the target. We were the target and it wasn’t far behind us. Every time I thought we would be ok and were in the clear, either it followed us more, or another one spawned out of that dark cloud in the sky.
The traffic was crazy. Hundred of cars running form the tornadoes. Highways were so congested, they were turned into parking lots. The back roads where I live are just small two lane roads with grass ditches on both sides. People were driving in the ditches and even driving down the wrong way trying to escape the monster’s path.
It was intense the entire time, but as nightfall began to creep in and the visibility of a tornado becomes non-existent unless it shows up in front of a lightening strike, it became down right terrifying. When there are only headlights to light the way and you’re not familiar with a town, it is difficult to know which the best way to go is.
We were still traveling south and then east while listening to the radio to see where the tornadoes were at. We had some small piece of debris flying around us in the air a couple times which meant the tornado was getting way too close, but each time we were able to get ahead of it again.
Then, it got closer. Large pieces of debris, sheet metal off of a metal building, dirt, large rocks and other things, started blowing in front of us and across our car. The wind was so strong, at one point, it felt like it tried to pick up the back of my SUV.
Somehow, we came across a school and took shelter there in the men’s bathroom. There were quite a few families there. Some brought their animals; others had their children wearing helmets and had them lined up sitting against the wall. We made small talk with the people who were in there as we listened to the wind and rain pounding the roof. The storms died down and one by one people started leaving.
The ride home was daunting. Dodging large tree limbs and other debris in the road, trying to figure out which roads weren’t flooded and the storms.. the storms were still going strong. There were downpours so heavy, the roads were invisible at times. Hail caused us to pull over to hide under a gas station awning once and a bank drive thru another time. Power lines were across the road but weren’t visible due to the high water and potholes were everywhere. But I had to get home to see if I had a home to go to because at that time, it was still unclear exactly where the tornadoes hit.
My house is still here, I still have a place to rest my head. I can handle no electricity because I know my family is safe. For that, I am grateful. The thoughts of the people who didn’t survive last night and the visions of flying debris every time I closed my eyes, kept me awake most of the night except for the hour I restlessly dozed off.
After we got home last night and things settled down, I saw the Bible laying underneath a CD case. My boys had grabbed a couple things that were important to them before we left the house and the Bible was one of them. It might not seem like a big deal to some people, but to me, as a Christian, it means everything.
It is now 7am, time for me to take a cold shower in a dark bathroom before I attempt to use all the food from the fridge before it goes bad and cook breakfast on the propane grill. At this moment, I can say that I will NEVER again leave my house when a tornado is coming, but one can never be certain when faced with such decisions. Regardless of what my decision will be when the next tornado comes through, I would NEVER tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do because if you haven’t ever been through an F5 tornado, or seen with your own eyes the destruction one can leave behind, you have no place to judge how someone will react. And if you have been through one, then you definitely know you can’t judge what others do when they feel their life is in danger.
We don’t have basements here. Very few people have storm shelters. There aren’t many public shelters any where here. When you have seen houses get completely blown away to where the only thing left, is the foundation, and sometimes, not even that is left, your thinking is changed just a little bit. Human nature is to get away from the danger. If that isn’t an option, the next response is to fight. Would you want to fight a huge monster like that?
As a side note: For anyone who wants to say something negative about me trying to be a ‘storm chaser,’ think again. I have no interest in purposely going out and looking for tornadoes to video or take photos of, that was not my top priority. I was in survival mode and snapped a few photos/videos when I could.
It is very disorienting when there are several storms surrounding you that are producing tornadoes at different times; especially when a lot of them are rain-wrapped. It’s hard to judge where the tornado is at, if another one will shoot down close to you or which way you should go. This video is from the perspective of someone trying to get away from the storms. This is not from the eyes of someone trying to be a ‘storm chaser’
I found out later that the EF5 tornado that first hit El Reno, had lifted a few miles before getting to my neighborhood and then came back down about a mile from my house. These tornadoes were very ‘out of character’ and erratic. Usually they come up from the SW part of the state and travel uniformly to the NE, sometimes straying off course, but still heading in that general direction. This group started in the West and traveled to the East, then South, up North a ways, back to the South and East some more. It was just crazy.