I’ve had so many swirling thoughts about the tornado that ravaged my state. I’ve never said on AO where I live in Oklahoma, but I will say this: we were close to the tornado. Fifteen minutes away.
May 20th. I was home with the stomach flu that day. I turned on the TV because the skies looked menacing. The general rule here in Oklahoma is that if the meteorologists haven’t commandeered the airwaves, it’s not that bad. A soap opera was playing, so I was happy to see it was indeed not that bad. My relief was short-lived. Within seconds, the soap opera was gone, replaced by a meteorologist who said, “Folks, we’re going to switch to the weather for a while. Something could be brewing.”
He was right. It didn’t start out all too menacing, though. There was a suspicious cloud with a hook, ready to spawn a tornado at a moment’s notice. For now, a menacing but harmless thing. Then there was more rotation. Then it was a little funnel, just barely touching the ground and dissipating. Then it tried again and wisped away. It was just another little tornado, the things that populate our spring television sets, allow us to beef up our arm chair meteorologist cred, and momentarily disrupt our lives.
By May 20th, the sirens had already gone off two times in our neighborhood this spring. The first time, The Professor and I sat in our closet with the cats to wait it out. The next time, we knew the storm had passed our neighborhood by a few miles, so we did rednecks proud and stood in the street and took pictures of the developing funnel cloud.
Bad weather, it’s sort of normal around here.
And that’s what this tornado looked like – sort of normal. Trying to touch the ground, not succeeding, and trying again. Gaining speed to become a little EF1 or EF2 tornado and then back to originally scheduled programming. Except, that’s not what happened. Eventually it hit the ground and stuck. And in seconds, it went from a small wedge to a behemoth. A super cell, long track tornado headed straight for the city. The stuff of nightmares.
It was hard for me to comprehend how big it was. Soon it was crossing rivers, plowing through roads I’d driven on and intersections I could see in my head.
And then The Professor’s school was one of the landmarks on the weather map. My heart dropped. But I did the projection, geographic calculations we Okies, accidental or not, can do in our sleep. Storms travel North East. This one was traveling East North East. He would be safe. I was safe too. That’s why I stayed on the sofa when the tornado siren began screaming.
I watched powerless as the shaky TV footage showed the tornado taking out houses. Then whole neighborhoods. Then businesses. And schools. The debris cloud was so dense that the tornado and its conquests were one large dustbowl extending from the evil skies. It was on the ground for 40 minutes. A two-mile wide monster leaving death and destruction in its wake. Then it was gone.
I watched helplessly as reporters made mad dashes to assess damage. Helicopter footage showed large swaths of neighborhoods gone. Then they discovered the schools. One reporter relayed news while the other listened to police scanners, their normally tidy anchor desk covered in paper, their words less smooth. One school had every child miraculously accounted for. But not the other.
Then a reporter started to cry.
We’ve all watched disasters unfold on TV – 9/11, floods, tsunamis. I was watching this one on TV too, but it was happening 15 minutes from my house. It was a cognitive disconnect I still can’t quite comprehend.
As if to serve as a reminder that I wasn’t watching a feed from a far away place, our wireless Internet and cell phones went out. They’d stay out until 11 that night. Even if the phones had come back, reporters were relaying desperate pleas for people to stay off their phones and keep the network unclogged. I got one text out to my mom that we were fine. Everyone else had to wait.
A few hours later, The Professor came home. He’s not emotional in this sort of situation – facts, by the book. But his voice was anchored in sadness and concern. We watched the news for another ten minutes and then turned it off. The sadness in our house was thick, and we didn’t want the news reminding us of why we were and would continue to be heartbroken for our community.
It’s been several days now since it felt like the world fell out from beneath us – since 25 of our friends, neighbors, classmates lost their lives to the menacing skies. Part of our city looks like a war zone. Then for people like The Professor and me who weren’t directly impacted, things are normal, or as normal as they can be. It’s a strange set of realities.
Mixed with sadness and loss are stories – miracles great and small. A friend was on the team of meteorologists who surveyed the damage and the path (and other sciency things, I’m sure) to determine the tornado’s place on the EF scale. He said he was encouraged by the number of stories of unlikely survival.
This week, I’m more proud of my accidental state than I’ve ever been.
The Home Depot next to one of the neighborhoods hit became a drop off and triage site for all the pets found in rubble. Now the farmer’s market where I buy watermelons every summer is housing lost pets and orchestrating sweet reunions.
The local gluten-free communities are banding together to provide gluten-free food for displaced celiacs.
The entire community came together to give a new backpack filled with goodies for every kid whose school was leveled. That was 1,000 backpacks collected and filled in about 18 hours. Our local cupcake bakery supplied 1,000 cupcakes.
Big Truck Taco, the world’s greatest gourmet taco-truck business was serving breakfast tacos to first responders the next morning.
My university is housing 100 people in dorms. Employees gathered supplies like sheets, toiletries, and diapers and the university set up a free store for families to shop from. Our state school is partnering with a church to provide free daycare for the kids staying in the dorms so the parents can sleep, talk to insurance adjusters or sort through the rubble. And our cafeterias are serving meals to search and rescue crews that have come from across the country to help.
Volunteers were sent away because so many people showed up.
Within hours of the disaster, the churches in my town were a mobilized and unified front, a single Body of Christ meeting needs 24/7 for a week now.
Westboro Baptist Church, a sad cult of deranged and misled people, are reportedly in town to picket children’s funerals. The Freedom Riders got to the funeral first along with thousands – yes thousands – of citizens who created a human shield for mourning families.
The grocery store I shop at is donating huge proceeds of their sales to the Red Cross. The value supermarket in town provided 20,000 snacks for kids. The bake sales and car washes manned by children on almost every corner are donating all of their sales.
(If you want an even more impressive list, look at this blog post).
Last night at 10 p.m., The Professor and I drove up to Oklahoma City after a last-minute need came through our email from church. A jewelry store in Midland, Texas, had put a call out on the radio that they would collect donations and buy supplies. The store, along with a few other local businesses, was packed with people dropping off money and supplies. Midland sent the high school band’s semi with 100 tons of supplies. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the huge Texas flag streaming off the back of the truck. The Texans had arrived.
The supplies were amazing – tons and tons of bottled water and Gatorade. Diapers and wipes. Someone donated garment bags full of nice suits. There were Pack-N-Plays, nursing pillows, shovels, scrubs, and boxes of new pillows and blankets.
Most of the water bottles were heavy 40 bottle packs. Then we’d get to the more precious offerings – 5 rolls of toilet paper from someone’s home, a four pack of Gatorade. Gifts from people who gave what they could, meager as it was. The widow’s mite – sure to be blessed and multiplied.
As I hauled in my place, I found myself praying over the boxes. That each item would find the right person. That the business man who needs to get back to work would find the nice donated suits. The nursing mom would find the nursing pillow. The Disney princess backpack would find just the right little princess.
I don’t know if you know this, but I hated Oklahoma when I moved up here. It was my duty as a Texan to hate it. But the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve come to love this place. It’s not a “getting used to it” sort of love, but a deep affection. This week, amongst the tragedy and the triumph, my heart is soaring for this state.