5 Things You Learn Surviving An F5 Tornado
More than 1,000 tornadoes hit the U.S. every year -- in some parts of the country, they're almost routine, like giant monster attacks in Japan. But every once in a while, a big one hits. That's what happened on May 20, 2013, when the country's biggest tornado in years landed in Moore, Oklahoma. It obliterated more than 1,000 homes, flung a 10-ton oil tank onto a school a half a mile away, and killed people as they hid in showers, in bathtubs, and in closets.
We sat down with one woman whose family narrowly survived that storm to find out what it's like to be at ground zero when the weather tries to assassinate you ...
Tornadoes Are Entertainment (Until They Become Emergencies)
When you live in Tornado Alley (the primary area of which includes Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska), tornadoes are frequent but rarely kill anyone. Just a couple of months ago, a tornado landed 10 miles north of Moore and hit a tiger safari, releasing all of the tigers, which is a huge problem for any community. Within an hour, we were also dealing with an earthquake and massive flooding from another tornado that landed just two miles away. But the people here just shrugged, cracked a few tigernado jokes, and noted, "You have to be the grittiest sons of bitches to live here." The residents of a nearby trailer park lovingly refer to their cluster of mobile homes as "God's waiting room." It's just the attitude people have here.
We'd show you the trailer park, but this is all that's left.
When I first moved here, I found that friends would treat it like a party. When the clouds start gathering and the storm warnings go out, they order a few pizzas and congregate at the biggest apartment (which isn't necessarily the safest apartment), and pregame until the news begins offering wall-to-wall coverage. You switch to meteorologist Rick Mitchell, where you gauge the severity of the storm according to how far he rolled up his sleeves (the higher the sleeves, the worse the weather).
When they get high enough that he starts asking the production assistants for help, you know it's time to get to the cellar.
Then, it's over to Mike Morgan, where the same "storm severity" measurement can be made according to the obnoxiousness of his tie. Finally, you park the television on Gary England, the most famous weatherman of all, and start drinking -- England has tracked tornadoes on TV for 40 years (he even appears in Twister).
You can actually feel the tornado coming. The morning before a tornado is almost always sunny and warm. Then the air becomes very still and heavy -- before the tornado forms, all wind dies.
Nanna's knee starts acting up. The cows give powdered milk.
People leave work early and grab their kids from school. I personally pack up my wedding album, jewelry, and other keepsakes in a small box -- basically, anything I don't want to see scattered across the county by a remorseless wind demon. At least a few times a year, I have to decide what would be most important to hand down to my daughter on her wedding day, even though she's still a toddler. After helping enough friends pick through the rubble that used to be their homes hoping to find even one thing to keep, you realize how important -- and how worthless -- each of your belongings can be.
I was home with my husband and three kids on May 20, 2013, when what would turn into the biggest tornado in recent history began to take shape ...
Many People Have No Real Plan
Initially, the weatherman tracking the storm was serious but still fairly relaxed. However, as the storm grew larger, heading straight for downtown Moore, he became frantic. During the last two minutes before our television went out, he was holding back tears and repeating, "If you're not underground, you won't live, you won't make it," over and over.
I was scared shitless. We had no shelter and no plan, and the storm was coming right at our house.
In general, people in Moore always have plans in place. The two exceptions I've seen are young people who believe they are invincible and old people who just don't give a shit anymore. A couple next door, both of whom are 85 years old, had seen their home hit by tornadoes five times over the years. On the day of the 2013 tornado, they just didn't have the energy to go to the shelter, so they sat down in their bathroom and decided that if today was the day, at least they were going out together. When the storm passed their house by, they put on some George Strait and slow-danced in their living room.
Despite how you may feel about your own innate heroism, nobody really knows how they're going to react when imminent destruction comes rushing at them. I surprised myself. I'm entirely spastic by nature, so I assumed the looming specter of death would've reduced me to a crying, screaming, pants-wetting puddle of helplessness. Instead, I calmly helped my husband shove our dining room table inside a closet and put bike helmets on my kids. Then we all crawled in.
The kids -- 3-year-old twin boys and a 1-year-old girl -- had no idea what was happening. My guess is they thought we were making a fort, because we made hiding in the closet seem like a game. We snapped a photo where you can see my husband selling it with a pretty convincing smile.
Hiding the disappointment that he didn't get a super-cool helmet.
I called my mom in Pennsylvania, and she sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to my children in what was the most heart-wrenching moment of my entire life. The ground shook, I yelled to my mom, the phone call was dropped, and we waited. I listened for the damn train noise everyone talks about, but instead, it sounded like thunder coming from the ground.
I lay with my husband on top of the kids, but just moments before hitting us, the funnel cloud veered -- slightly -- and barely passed our house. We were alive, and I had no idea that the same storm would kill two dozen other people and injure several hundred more as it ripped a massive swath of destruction right through the heart of town. That's because ...
You're The Last To Know How Bad It Is
I went outside, and right around our house, everything looked fine. When my phone finally came back online, I had 47 text messages, people pleading with us to let them know we were alive. The last two messages I received were:
I'm watching the news, it's coming at you
... because there comes a point when there just isn't anything else left to say. I finally got through to my mom, and I remember saying, "I don't think it's that bad." She was already watching coverage on CNN. She replied, "Sweetie, it's gone. Your town is all gone. And I don't know how you're alive."
"Were you hiding under the magic elm tree?"
The tornado killed 24 and injured 377. It did $2 billion in damage, destroying 1,150 homes. Our celebrity weatherman retired after reporting on seven children lost at Moore's Plaza Towers Elementary School.
But this is what separates tornadoes from other storms -- they can have an almost laser-like focus to their destruction. To the left of our house, everything looked normal (aside from the crowds of people and police officers standing around), but to the right was complete devastation. About two blocks from our house was a debris field where random objects were scattered all over the ground. Two blocks further from that, buildings lay in ruins. At the heart of the tornado's path, entirely empty concrete slabs were the only signs that houses had ever been there. A few degrees of shift in the storm's path, and that would have been us.
Like this, for horrific example.
For the rest of the day, we heard gunshots. Like, a lot of gunshots. Later we learned that what we were hearing was farmers putting hundreds of injured livestock out of their misery.
Even If You Survive, You're Still Trapped
The city of Moore was basically a war zone. All the roads were packed tight, and traffic was at a standstill because people had abandoned their cars to get to friends and family on foot. And the few navigable roads were purposely blockaded by officials, including the military, in order to allow first-responders to get in and help the injured because our hospital was completely destroyed. We wanted to get our kids someplace safe and got in touch with a family member upstate who offered to take them. But getting there was another matter entirely.
Portals to the north sent us back south. Every tornado makes these.
I asked a cop for help, and he flatly told me there was no way out of town. I went up to him again later, sobbing like ... well, like a woman who has just survived a horrific tornado and who desperately wants to get her children someplace safe. I'm not proud to admit it, but my hopeless crying was probably what convinced him to tell me about one road that was still somewhat passable. After we sneaked onto it, I saw an unbelievable number of police cars, fire trucks, and even tanks. It was essentially 50 miles of emergency vehicles, traveling single file on this one road.
First a tornado, then traffic. The universe had no mercy for Moore.
Once we dropped off the kids, my husband and I turned around and headed right back to Moore, to a home that would have no electricity for days. That night, I remember telling him that I needed a fan for white noise, because I couldn't sleep in silence. But that didn't end up being an issue, because dozens of helicopters were zooming around overhead. To this day, I start shaking whenever I hear one.
Relief Efforts Are A Confusing Mess
The first lesson I learned in the aftermath: When a disaster hits, don't send goods. Send money.
We took a week off from work to join the relief efforts and helped sort through donations. Well-meaning people from all over the country were sending towels, bedding, clothing, and furniture, not realizing that the tornado victims they were trying to help didn't have any use for them. They didn't have homes anymore. A lot of organizations actually had to rent huge storage units just to have a place to put all the stuff, at huge expense. If you send money, on the other hand, people can get exactly what they need.
"Ooh boy. Paper towels, posted from Seattle. How efficient."
FEMA swept into town and registered thousands for aid, but for many in Moore, FEMA was a running joke. People came in for help and instead got an insane list of requirements they had to meet in order to qualify (because, for some insane reason, their list of requirements was longer than "my house was just destroyed by a damn tornado").
Meanwhile, the Red Cross reported doing a ton of good work during the tornado relief, collecting millions of dollars via text donations from people eager to help. However, it was later revealed that those donations weren't earmarked for the tornado specifically -- they just went to the Red Cross to be dispensed as they saw fit (until word got out and they did end up ensuring those funds went to Oklahoma tornado relief). At one point, they drove up while we were helping a friend. A few guys jumped out of the truck, gave my friend a Gatorade, took some pictures, and that was it. They disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived. The Red Cross employees told us to find a local organization if we needed immediate help, because their own hands were tied by red tape, which is apparently what their logo really represents.
Either that or a giant NO symbol.
Local charities and churches did the most work. What was surprising was all the help we got from big companies. Lysol had a truck that was helping people clean. Tide had a mobile laundromat. Tyson grilled food for the victims and volunteers, and Verizon rolled out charging stations. The local Harley-Davidson dealership hired therapists to set up shop in their building, offering free counseling to anyone who needed it. No, really.
Whoever rode in on the red bike did more than the Red Cross.
When it was safe for the kids to come back, I managed to keep them away from the damage for a few weeks. But the first time I drove by what used to be the hospital with my twins, one of them started crying, "The hospital is so broken; my heart hurts so bad." My daughter was only a year old at the time, so she doesn't remember how bad tornadoes can be. Today, she hears the meteorologist on TV warn about storms and yells, "Yay, a tomato! We can get in the hidey-hole!"
Our storm shelter is now a 3-foot by 7-foot metal box buried in our garage. It's awful to get into, but the last time, my daughter declared, "This is my home now," as we crawled in. She'd probably make a great cult member, considering how ready she is to abandon society.
A small cult.
Because we live directly in the mouth of Tornado Thunderdome, people constantly ask me why we don't move away. But I'd never seen a sense of community like I experienced here -- that's what happens when you travel to hell and back as a town (besides, Oklahoma finally got a professional sports team and a Dairy Queen, so this is no time to abandon ship). Afterward, there were For Sale signs in front of destroyed homes stating "recently renovated," "some assembly required," and "new floor plan." The local liquor store changed their sign to read, "God, it's starting to feel kinda personal."
"God is a jerk." -Isaiah 45:7
The whole attitude can be summarized by one family we saw drinking beer and eating Cheetos in their front yard with "Better luck next time" spray-painted on what was left of their house. Because fuck that tornado.
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For more insider perspectives 4 Things You Can Only Learn By Surviving An Earthquake and 7 Things You Learn Surviving An Atomic Blast.
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