We take our storms seriously in Central Oklahoma. We have to. Living within 15 miles of three of the largest tornadoes mankind has ever recorded makes one cautious, but prepared. Our meteorologists have it down to a precise science, able to predict when the skies are going to be particularly unstable. May 31st was just such a day. The best story I heard firsthand was from my sister, who has a history of finding herself in unique circumstances.
Becky’s Story (or my version of it, anyway)
We knew it was going to be bad. We were warned. Even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, we left the park before late afternoon when the storms usually fire up. I had the boys home (Walker-10, Weston-8, Wyatt-5) and the weather on when my husband Jeff called.
“What are we going to do tonight?” he asked.
“I guess go to Mom and Dad’s.” Their two-story is built into a hill making it the most comfortable storm shelter around.
“I don’t know. They say it’s going to be bad. Why don’t we head south, eat dinner in Tuttle and come back when it’s over?”
That sounded like more fun than being at the mercy of Dad’s remote control all night. I got together our photos, our birth certificates and other valuables and loaded them into the SUV. The boys packed a bag including irreplaceable things like their Bibles, hair gel and DS games and we set out.
Immediately we noticed that traffic was heavy. Sunday after church and Friday night after a football game are about the only times you have to wait through a light in our town, but it seemed that everyone had the same idea – fleeing the coming wrath.
And by now it was starting to sprinkle. Dark clouds formed from thin air…which is normal I guess, but these didn’t look normal. By the time we got to the bridge the view was breathtaking. Jeff pulled over to join the dozens of others looking back on what was passing just to our north. A giant column of clouds boiled, the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen. Now, in case you’re questioning our sanity for parking on a bridge and getting out, I’d like to mention that by this time traffic was barely crawling. Under normal circumstances the 4-lane split highway would carry you over the prairie between the two towns in about 10 minutes, but this Friday it’d take hours to go that far. Might as well forget about dinner and watch.
Which is what everyone was doing. Groups gathered, sharing updates about the giant tornado that was plowing through El Reno, headed toward Yukon. Strangers compared notes on who they’d talked to and what neighborhoods were safe, although communication was failing. Cell towers were going down, electricity blowing out and the updates growing scarce.
Sprinkles turned to drops as the sky darkened. Time to edge our bumper back into the traffic and hope it moved faster. The kids were getting hungry and the rain was really picking up. With the rising wind the party on the bridge broke up. Through the busy windshield wipers we could tell that the clouds over us were beginning to have the same sickly color as those to the north. In fact, they were swirling, too. What looked like fingers pointed down here and there, mean protrusions that hovered, ready to squish us like bugs.
“This is bad,” Jeff said and he wasn’t the only one who thought so. Suddenly all traffic rules were out the window. Those with trucks, which were most, crossed the grassy divide to rush south in the northbound lanes, which were mostly empty. Probably because no one in their right mind would want to be where we were.
“We have to get somewhere.” Because of the kids I tried not to panic.
“I’m trying, but there’s no where to go,” Jeff answered.
“Do we know anyone who lives over here? Brandon and LeAnna? They live near.”
Power flashes. Street lights out. The only lights were those of the cars stuck on the highway. We pulled off and drove on the shoulder until we reached the next road and wove our way towards the neighborhood. We had to dodge branches, ease through water, and stop to peer at each dark house, all the while very aware that the storm was intensifying. I pointed at the house. Jeff pulled up and tried to call our friends, but the phones were out and the house was dark.
“They have a storm shelter in the back,” I said. “They have to be in it.”
But then someone opened the door to look out at us. It had to be them.
We ran for the house. The rain flew sideways like someone was throwing buckets of it on us. I couldn’t breathe without getting a mouthful of water. Gusts literally blew Weston down, but we all scrambled inside just as we realized that we’d left the doors of the SUV open. Too late to fix it. Sirens wailed as we rushed inside.
“Hurry,” the lady said, shining her flashlight to show us the way to the master bedroom closet. As we crouched beneath her hanging clothes I held the boys tight. We were all here. A closet isn’t the safest place to be if the tornado ramped up to a F5, but it was better than sitting in a car. Besides, being with friends is a comfort…I squinted my eyes again at the woman holding the flashlight. In the darkness I couldn’t see her very well.
“I don’t think we’ve met. Are you LeAnna’s mom?”
“LeAnna? Never heard of her. I think you’re at the wrong house, honey.”
We stayed with the nice lady for a couple of hours as the storms back-built – forming and reforming over the same area instead of passing through like a normal front. Getting home was difficult because of electric lines down, bridges washed out and flooding but we still had a house and after hearing about the homes destroyed and the lives lost, we didn’t take that for granted. Next time we’ll hunker down closer to home and ride it out with family, although we did make a new friend that night.
Ruthless storms and hospitable people – Oklahoma’s worst and best at the same time.
(Thanks to our friends for the amazing pictures.)
If you’d like to donate to help faith-based disaster relief (both in Oklahoma and around the world) prayerfully consider the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Team.