On the evening of May 3, 1999, my husband and I lay huddled under our queen mattress bracketing a sleeping infant and a restless toddler. The power had gone out, and I listened to the news on my Sony Walkman as a twister made its way through Moore, Oklahoma, headed right for us.
Second-by-second updates traced the menacing funnel on its devastating path as I waited for the all clear. What I heard was the storm-chasing meteorologist on the ground exclaiming that the neighborhood off Sooner Road—the western boundary of Tinker AFB where we lived in a duplex in officer housing—had been flattened. Then word that Tinker itself had taken a hit to its northwest gate.
So close. Too close.
We held the kids down and waited until we were sure that it was safe to come out of hiding.
When we finally did, the world was a different place.
Pink insulation, bits of family pictures, and shredded documents lay strewn across the ground, stuck wetly to the street and driveway, dangling from the trees like Christmas flocking.
For some reason it was the insulation that really brought the damage home for me.
The tornado had hopped, skipped, and jumped around, demolishing the neighborhood we’d lived in when we first moved to town, and the one just north of that. It took out the horse stables on base, wiped out the Comfort Inn where our family always stayed, and bounced north before finally losing steam over Midwest City.
We left Oklahoma that summer, but not before driving through the old neighborhood. We got lost trying to find our old rental house. The subdivision looked like a wasteland, a war zone. Trees stripped bare, one with a couch lodged in its branches. Blocks and blocks of shattered wood, debris, and mangled cars punctuated by chimneys and interior rooms or closets, knocked low but still standing.
I’ve never seen anything like it in person. I hope to never see anything like it in person again.
When you live in a place like that you almost become inured to the danger. Tornado watches and warnings are commonplace. The meteorologists have it down to a science, giving you up-to-the-minute maps of where the storm will hit next. Paying attention to the weather anytime there’s a storm headed your way, having a plan for where to hunker down, become part of life.
What choice do you have?
We joked about the tornados. We had one on the night my youngest son was born, and all the moms in the birthing center had to wheel our babies in their basinets down to a basement hallway and wait an hour for the danger to pass. My husband and I called our son our “tornado baby” and I dubbed his online persona Taz (which kind of fits his personality too).
But I didn’t realize the effect living like that had on me until we moved to our next base in Ohio.
In the back of my mind I had this sense that we were safe now. Tornados were something we didn’t have to worry about anymore. Sure, Ohio got small ones on occasion, but this was no Tornado Alley.
And then one day Dayton had a tornado warning and I freaked. Full on adrenaline attack, bile in the throat, dread like I’ve never felt. I wasn’t just scared, I was angry. I was done with all that, damn it. I was no longer mentally prepared for it.
I’m so sad that Oklahoma is going through this again. That Moore and the surrounding areas are suffering the loss again. That they’ll have to rebuild again.
I know the hard part is just beginning, and my heart goes out to those affected.
Photo credit: NOAA – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F4_tornado_damage_example.jpg