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Tornado damage

F4_tornado_damage_exampleOn 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 –

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  1. Reply

    My grandson was born the night before Hurricane Lily. I stayed with my laboring daughter-in-law until he pushed into the world. The family went to my house after his birth and watched sideways rain and live oaks fall in the field by my house. We had to climb over tree branches and debris in the parking lot the next day to visit and had no lights for a week. It was bad but nothing like Katrina or an F5 tornado. Reliving this must be difficult and my heart goes out to you.

    • Reply

      Darrelyn: Storms and low atmospheric pressure and babies seem to go together, don’t they? Hurricanes are scary too, and they can spawn tornados and all sorts of horrific damage. I’m glad you were all okay.

      Thanks for your commiseration. I sometimes feel silly talking about my experience because we were the lucky ones who weren’t directly hit, but it I’ve been stuck on it this week.

  2. Reply

    You describe it as vividly as I remember it. As an Army brat and wife I’ve experience them all. Tornado, typhoon, earthquakes. They all leave you feeling insignificant and grateful. I’m thrilled not to have experienced a sink hole or the destruction of war. Mother Nature just has to remind us once in awhile that we are not really in charge here.

    • Reply

      insearchofitall: Thanks. This wasn’t my first brush with Mother Nature either. We moved to the San Francisco area just in time for the “great” quake of 1989. My first, and by far the worst I’ve ever experienced of the many that followed. Another time I was grateful to have been outside of the damage zone. Then there were the floods in ’83 and ’93 in Tucson… I’ll stop now. 😉

  3. Reply

    Hi Gwen,
    I didn’t realize you had become a Daytonian. Do you still live in the area? I grew up there and have many strong ties with Wright Patterson AFB.
    When I was young a big tornado hit Xenia. It caused me to have nightmares for months. I remember the storm waking me up that night. The tornado touched down about 10 miles from my house. The local news covered it extensively, and our schools implemented tornado drills. I still remember looking at the glass wall of my classroom and envisioning a tornado causing those broken shards to drive directly at me.
    Much later in life, when my husband and I bought a house in Centerville, some of my friends lamented the fact that one of the city’s tornado sirens was in our back yard. The city tested it once a month at noon… I believe it was on a Tuesday… and you’d have to go inside and shut the doors to get away from the noise. It was too painful to stay outside without ear protection. I know most of my neighbors didn’t like having it there, but I was a closet tornado-siren-lover. It gave me a sense of security.
    A few years after we moved in, the siren went off one night and woke us not long after we’d gone to bed. We grabbed my two little ones from their beds and rushed to the basement. My step son and his friends looked up at us in surprise, not comprehending why we would all suddenly appear in their private space. Their fourteen-year-old brains didn’t comprehend what a tornado siren really meant, and they were so involved in playing Halo that a real-world emergency seemed like an annoying interruption to them.
    We turned on the TV and discovered that a funnel cloud had been spotted not far from our house… in fact, it was about a mile away. Fortunately, the storm was a fast-moving one, and it wasn’t long before the tornado sirens stopped blaring. The winds outside had eased and it was obvious that the storm had passed. We watched the news as the red area on the Doppler radar moved to the east. Once we were convinced we were safe, we went back upstairs to bed.
    Fortunately the tornado was a small one and did little damage.
    My two youngest slept through the entire thing. When they heard us talking about it the next morning, they didn’t even remember us carrying them down to the basement! No nightmares for them, fortunately.
    There have been so many weather related disasters recently. Are they becoming more frequent? It certainly seems that way.
    My heart goes out to the people of Oklahoma, and to everyone else hit by these terrible disasters.

    • Reply

      Sheridan: We live in Virginia now. We were only at WPAFB for 3 years, but I have a lot of great memories from there. I’m like you. I think I’d love having the siren in my backyard! In Alabama the one for our neighborhood was close by and it went off every Wednesday morning at 11am. I always wondered what would happen if we actually had a tornado on a Wednesday morning. 😉

      I do think climate change is starting to show its teeth. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. Reply

    It is terrible to see how after so much effort to build lives at a time melts away everything but what you need to do is to try as far as possible recover promptly

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