It’s been three weeks since the mile wide, F4 tornado that swept through our community. It feels like it has been a year. Shockingly, in this short time, we’ve had so much help that some homes have been completely bulldozed off of foundations for new building to begin, roofs have been repaired on other homes along with all kinds of repairs, and piles and piles of debris have been neatly stacked in front of homes and properties for county pickup.
The Sunday had started out hot and muggy. The wind had been blowing for two, straight days and it was so hard and so brisk that people looked around nervously and commented to each other, “I don’t like this. It doesn’t feel right out here.” The sky was clear and blue with big, puffy, cumulus clouds off in the distance.
That afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend and Mr. Fix-It came in and said, “Grab your camera! Those weird kind of clouds are covering the sky!” I told my friend that I was going to take pictures of some clouds and she said, “Oh! Mike Morgan (the weatherman) is talking about those clouds right now!” I didn’t take the time to turn on the weather to see what kind of clouds these were for fear of losing a picture.
The whole sky was covered with what looked like a huge cluster of grapes. They gave an ominous feeling. Mr. Fix-It said, “This isn’t good. The last time we saw clouds like this was before a front that spawned tornadoes.” I felt weird inside. Something was nagging me that this day was going to be the day that we finally came face-to-face with the brutal force of a tornado. I had never experienced one of these twisters but had seen the aftermath of their devastation in the neighborhoods of friends. Somehow, our area had always been spared. In May of 1999, when the then largest tornado in history chugged its way through Moore, Oklahoma, I had been just south, in Norman, trying to make a getaway to get home, not knowing that two tornadoes were behind me. We made it to the cellar and those tornadoes lifted right over our area to set back down several miles behind us. We felt like we were blessed with protection. But this day…this day was different. There was a foreboding in the air.
Our neighbors must have felt it too because my cell phone rang in the early afternoon and my neighbor, The Horse Lady, said in a timid and questioning voice, “I think it could be bad this evening. Can we come share your shelter?” She and her husband have two little girls. I told her to come if the sirens went off.
At around 5 pm, our astute weathermen began warning that bad stuff was coming. We always keep our televisions tuned to the local stations when impending bad weather is possible. With their droned warnings in the background, I gathered up my laptop, a bag of goodies and water, my purse and a cloth bag with valuables that we would not want gone if the house was hit. All of these things went to the shelter where there is always a couple of lanterns, a battery operated fan, a battery operated radio and a backpack packed with a change of clothes for each of us, some jerky, dried fruit, copies of important papers, a first aid kit with bottles of our medications and toiletry items. The backpack would come in handy if we lost everything. Mr. Fix-It had cleaned the shelter, also known as a “fraidy hole” in Oklahoma, the month before, making sure that there were no spiders or other crawly things with which we’d have to share our space! We placed cat carriers at the back door, ready for Sway and Callie and little Ellie dog got dressed with a purple harness for a quick attachment of a leash. We continued our evening while keeping an eye on the television.
At around 6:00 pm, Mike Morgan, the channel 4 weatherman, declared breathlessly that a storm with a tornado was headed our way. He showed a timeline of communities in the path and just then my phone rang and a friend asked frantically if I was watching the weather. She said, “You could be a direct hit.” I assured her that we were aware. I called The Horse Lady and told her to get her family over to the shelter. Mr. Fix-It and I loaded the cats into their carriers and put a leash on Ellie and got the animals situated in their temporary surroundings. At 6:15, sirens could be heard in the distance. I wondered where The Horse Lady and her family were. It was starting to rain.
The Horse Lady and her husband and two girls suddenly appeared and came running through what was starting as quarter-sized hail. We helped them down into the shelter, little girls crying in fear, and got the door closed and bolted with the two, spring-loaded sliding bolts that slip into the concrete wall of the doorframe. It wasn’t long before texts on my cell phone started coming fast and furiously. We had lost all cell connection for voice, but for some reason, we could still get texts. My two dear friends were giving us blow-by-blow descriptions of what was happening outside our cozy, underground storm shelter and our children were wondering if we had made it to the shelter. I have never felt so at home in that place in my life!! I was ready to hang curtains! One friend managed to get through one last time by voice and I could tell she was upset. She lives in El Reno, Oklahoma, quite a distance away and she said she was trying hard to keep from crying because she could see what was headed our way. We could hear on the radio what she was seeing on the television.
Suddenly, it got very quiet and then the wind started picking up. It felt heavy in the shelter and the wind began a low moan. The moan rose in pitch and became louder and higher and a strange whistle like a tea kettle whistling could be heard over the loud chugging of the wind. I can’t describe it any other way than it sounded like demons howling outside. And it just kept blowing and getting louder and louder. Mr. Fix-It and I glanced at each other as the two little girls sobbed in absolute terror. We exchanged an understanding look which indicated that we fully expected for there to be nothing left standing when we opened the door to our underground safe room. It seemed like the wind blew forever.
When it was obvious that the storm had passed, Mr. Fix-It unbolted the shelter door and peered out. I could see the back of our house. I was astonished. He came back down and whispered to me that all of our big trees were twisted messes and that the fence had been taken out. “Is that ALL??” I thought.
A piece of twisted tin lay in the side yard and another was wrapped high up in a tree – the remnants of somebody’s tin roof. Debris was scattered across the acreage, but it wasn’t debris from our buildings!! All were standing as pretty as you please. Later, we would find out that our roof was totaled, as was the guttering, and the garage door was damaged along with most of the window screens. But we thought at the time that the tornado must have missed our area after all. We were not prepared for what we would see of our neighbors.
Everyone crawled out of the shelter and we could hear a woman behind us crying for help. She was trapped in the rubble of her home. People were already there to help get her out. Mr. Fix-It and I moved toward the main road where we saw neighbors gathering. All have acreages and so some were walking from a distance. The Horse Lady and her family saw that there was a hole in their roof and our neighbor across the road showed us that the entire back portion of his roof had been lifted of its shingles to the decking. The neighbor to our south had a big tree in the middle of their house. But it was directly behind us that stunned us. Not a single home was left standing along a two mile stretch beyond our home to the east and for a mile to our south. Everything was either gone or exploded. Miraculously, nobody was hurt or killed. Just a few miles from us, though, two people were not so lucky. They died as their mobile homes were swept up by the tornado and hurled into little heaps of crumpled metal.
Power lines were cut, poles were toppled or snapped in half and there was no electricity for miles.
But not to worry at our place. Mr. Fix-It in all his wisdom had installed a whole house generator this past Fall. It isn’t a huge one, but runs the well pump so that we have water, some lights, the little heat pump at the back of the house, as well as two window units that we have in the attic for emergencies. It also runs the refrigerator and freezer and washing machine. The generator runs on propane and uses very little of the stuff to operate. We have a wonderful Camp Chef propane cook stove and oven that Mr. Fix-It set up in the sun room for me to turn into my temporary kitchen. That home canned bacon, hamburger, chicken and soups sure came in handy!!
The sunroom can be shut off from the rest of the house by French doors and then the side panels of the back door and the windows can be opened to ventilate the carbon dioxide.
In the midst of all of this devastation, a blessing came in the most unexpected way. All of us in this area rubbed shoulders with the American spirit of neighbor helping neighbor from both near and far. I have truly never seen anything like it. Within 24 hours of our disaster, semi-truck loads of supplies, tools, tents, blankets, food, water, gatoraid and all kinds of necessities from private donors came rolling in to the little church that is just to our south. This tiny church became a hub of disaster relief activity without even planning! People just showed up! Trucks of supplies from all over the country brought their donations to that little house of God and the members and neighbors jumped in to work night and day to get things organized for victims.
U-Hauls, commercial trucks, pickups pulling trailers, flatbeds loaded with heavy equipment and even vans of workers waited in line to either unload their goods or to be assigned to a particular area to help with cleanup. On one day, there were volunteer vehicles from 37 different states!!
The first morning, canopies were set up in the church parking lot to cover tables where people in the area could register for help, supplies and anything else they might need. This was all privately organized!!
By day two, the church was overwhelmed with the generosity of Americans across the land. It was something to behold. A system was set up to provide meals for all of the people in the community who were trying to salvage what they could from their homes and Mr. Fix-It and I, as well as my friend and her daughter, jumped in with other teams to deliver those meals house to house. Mr. Fix-It and my friends and I averaged 130 meals a day for dinner or lunch. We also distributed paper towels, toilet paper, fruit, snacks, diapers, wipes, water and gatoraid. We saw other groups simply showing up at each location where homes were either gone or partially standing, just diving in to help with cleanup, tree cutting and stacking and sorting through belongings.
This particular neighborhood was especially hard hit. We delivered meals here and were amazed at the number of people from the east coast who had immediately loaded up, made the trip to Oklahoma and were already in place with bulldozers, backhoes and tractors, volunteering their time, money and equipment to help these people who had lost so much. We gave lunches to these workers and they were very grateful.
The church also provided three, hot meals a day for anyone who was able to make it to the church. However, much of our community was stranded at their homes because cars had been totally destroyed or swept away in the winds. The church is continuing to provide meals now, three weeks later.
And in the middle of it all, the sound of chainsaws, the crackling fires, smell of smoke and the roar of heavy equipment has been our night and day experience. I even heard a chainsaw on our property and was surprised to find my brother-in-law, who had come all the way from Earlsboro, without asking, cutting up our twisted and destroyed trees so that Mr. Fix-It wouldn’t have to do it all himself. You gotta love everyday, plain folk Americans!!! When things need doing, they “gitter done!”
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