Four months after the event I’m still thinking about it every night. How could I not be? But I feel like I’m finally ready to write it all down. This is my Moore, Oklahoma, May 20, 2013, F5 Tornado survival story.
After my post-pregnancy visit to my doctor at Moore Medical Center earlier that morning, my husband and I stopped into Qdoba for some lunch where he received a call from his supervisor at Tinker Air Force Base not to come in today because of all of the predicted tornadoes in our area. I we alighted! He almost never gets to stay home with me. I thought we’d get a nice evening together and maybe watch a movie. Well we drove the one mile home and turned on the TV. After about 45 minutes of watching Mike Morgan on KFOR, Max says “Hun, maybe you should get a bag together just in case”. Now I’m starting to get worried. Max has never told me to get “a bag together” in the 7 years of living in our Moore, Oklahoma house. Okay, so a bag I start getting… throwing in our family vital information, passports, IDs, photos, etc… Then I start on a bag for my almost 1 month old baby girl; diapers, clothes, bottles, etc…
Bags packed by the door I look around and decide to collar and leash the dogs, then I grab the car seat and diaper bag and ready both. Sitting antsy on the arm of the couch, listening to the tornado sirens go off again for probably the 15th time, and watching the power go out, I begin to think we should just go, just in case, so I strap Taylor (my baby girl) into her car seat and announce to Max “I’m ready, let’s go”. I get, “Hold on, I don’t want it to turn and us run into it in the car”, back. Okay, okay, that makes some sense I supposed those I’m not happy about waiting.
Max kept going outside the front of our house watching the hail and storm approach while tracking it on his RadarScope app on his phone. Finally I stop him, probably a bit frantically, and demand that we go, that I’m leaving without him if he’s not in the truck with me. So he graciously acquiesces to the raving lunatic in front of him and carries the baby in car seat out to the truck while I grab the bags and call the dogs out with me.
As we get into the truck we start to see fog… now I’m really FREAKING out! I know I was shaking. Later I will learn that my calm, cool, and collected husband is also freaking out but doing a marvelous job of maintaining his poise.
(Now for a little background on our neighborhood. We lived on Penn Lane which runs North to South parallel to Santa Fe. All routs out of our neighborhood run West except for a single road going North).
My dad calls as we’re leaving the driveway and I literally said “We’re leaving the driveway now, I’ll call you later” and I hang up. With one dog in the front seat, one in the backseat on my right, me in the middle and the car seat on my left, and of course Max behind the wheel, we turn to head North and quickly realize that with that the only viable way out of the neighborhood it’s packed with other cars headed North. So, being that we were in our Toyota Tundra with 4-wheel drive, we turn around and head South, where the only way out of the neighborhood in through a muddy field you need to hop a few curbs and drive through a front lawn to reach. Well reach it we did and headed South we are, towards 19th street. Once on 19th I turn around… Yea, now I see it and it’s HUGE. It sounded like a B2 engine run or if you’re not familiar with what that sounds like imagine 4 passenger jets at full throttle. It was a sound I hope never to hear again.
As I’m looking back I see 3 really bright flashes; power transformers being taken down. After watching the news reel from that day on YouTube we’ve figured that we’re about 2 miles from the tornado at this point. Headed East, we didn’t realize that the Warren Movie Theater evacuated it’s customers who are now all at 19th Street and I-35. So, seeing a sea of red lights Max turns South again into the Target/Home Depot parking lots. From behind the buildings we see the tornado just North of us about a half mile cross Santa Fe and we realize we are safe where we are but that it actually is headed directly for our neighborhood. Sitting there, in our truck, inside the debris ball of the tornado, watching mangled metal and wood splinters flying around us, I found myself truly in awe of what Mother Nature is capable of. I’ve seen extreme flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes and other ‘Natural Disasters’ on TV and in photos, but nothing can prepare your for what it actually feels like to be inside something so powerful, so unstoppable. Collectively, we as humans tend to live in the delusion that we have control over most aspects of our lives. And while this is true when it comes to what we want to eat for dinner, when we want to brush our teeth or watch TV, we don’t have control over the big things that really pose a threat to our way of life, such as that drunk driver that hits and paralyzes your husband, or the mechanic that forgot to tighten the bolt just right setting into a course of events that ends in our plane crashing, or the big one now, Mother Nature invoking her right and flooding an entire city. You never think that these things can or will happen to you. I have said several times since the tornado that “These things don’t happen to you or people you know, you just see them on TV”. Boy, I’ve learned my lesson!
After the tornado passed our area we drove back to 19th Street where, not to sound Cliché, but it looked like a bomb went off. Every telephone pole was snapped in half or completely down. There were no stop lights. Piles of rubble were where buildings used to stand.
As we made our way to Santa Fe it became quickly apparent that we weren’t going to get in that way so we headed back to that muddy field that allowed us to escape. This time it was a bit harden to pass, with down fences and brick and trees everywhere but we made it back in, sped over splintered housed that were like a sheet over the street and landed at our pile of stuff that was once our home.
I was speechless and unable to do much at first but Max quickly jumped out of the truck and began pulling families out of the rubble. People were sprinting towards the Elementary School, kids were walking around without shoes, or parents. There were dogs everywhere running around looking for their owners. When Max brought the neighbor’s son out to sit in the truck with me I perked up and gathered what supplies I could find in our truck. I through a towel around this little boy who had no shoes or shirt on and started handing out water bottles to people.
I didn’t see Max for the next 2 hours as he went house to house with 1 police office looking for survivors and marking houses with fatalities inside. It was heartbreaking and terrifying. Most of those walking made there own way to the ambulance trucks parked outside the neighborhood (they couldn’t get in because of all of the debris), but several needed a ride out so since I was in the only operable vehicle in the area (for about 2 hours) I served as transport vehicle with my daughter in the backseat.
It was 12 minutes between when I hung up on my dad and when the tornado passed. Those 12 minutes changed my life and my view on the world forever. As I sit here writing this, tears are streaming down my face. It wasn’t the Red Cross or FEMA that were the most supportive throughout the whole mess over the next several weeks. Other than family, it was fellow individuals who saw the destruction and came from all over the county to help clear lots, pass out water, grill and serve hot dogs and hamburgers. Once group that came by our lot, sometime over the following few days, were from Joplin and lived through that tornado. They said that living through their experience and knowing what it’s like afterward has inspired them to travel around to other tornado devastated areas and help however and whoever they could.
Living through this experience has renewed my faith in humanity. We may not always act kindly towards each other but when devastation hits we come together and stand tall. We are still receiving calls from area churches asking if we need anything. Everyone throughout this event has been overwhelmingly kind.
I’m so thankful to have lived through this truly life and death experience with my whole family in tact. I left with my husband and daughter, as well as my 2 dogs. Three days later we found one of our cats and 6 weeks later we found the other because of a group who never gave up on him and continued to trap tornado cats even when others told us he was probably dead.
Oh did I mention that if Max had not received that call to stay home (with the truck) I probably wouldn’t have made it out at all. And with what was left of the house I’m not sure I would have survived. It was a scary experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone but one that repeats itself each year with each tornado season. I know now that next tornado season I will be ready for anything and ready to help those who find themselves in the situation I was in last May.
The pictures below are of our home post-tornado.