I’ve been in Oklahoma almost all my life – I grew up on a farm in Grant County, Northern Oklahoma. I’ve stood at my back door and watched tornadoes dancing in wheat fields and debated whether or not it was necessary to run through the rain to my parents home next door and the safety of a basement. Invariably, the answer was a “no” as I watched the tornado lift and go away. Nothing happened. A little wheat was uprooted but that was about it. Yesterday was unbelievably different.
Moore, Oklahoma, is a growing community, a southern suburb of Oklahoma City, situated directly on I-35. Former wheat fields have become shopping centers, major theaters, huge box stores, fun restaurants, hospitals and communities packed full of upwardly mobile families who’ve chosen to buy or build homes there because the school system is ‘good.’. It has also been a frequent playground for some of Oklahoma’s most severe tornadoes, including the May 3, 1999, tornado that initiated the EF-5 rating – the Enhanced Fujita scale which rates the wind strength of tornadoes in the United States and Canada by the amount of damage they create. The May 3 storm – as it has become known – was on the ground for hours and created at least 100 smaller tornadoes, over a three day period, that spun off and did damage of their own in other parts of the state and Kansas.
We had never seen anything like it before and were sure, after Oklahoma and Kansas had buried 50 people due to the destruction of that storm, that we would never see anything like it again. It was unbelievable.
While the May 3 tornado was one that lasted so long, the loss of life was greatly decreased by the increased and intense warnings of Oklahoma’s amazing meteorologists who continually screamed, “take cover – underground – NOW!” Lives were saved and we were thankful.
And then there was yesterday. We knew by the weight of the air, the difficulty in breathing, that conditions were right for a tornado. We were watching and there were warnings that the weather was ‘unstable’ but no one, not even the meteorologists, could have foreseen what would happen. In less than an hour, this killer storm developed from a small tornado lazily dancing through open fields to a killer storm, dubbed a ‘grinder’ that grew to be two miles wide and stayed on the ground for over twenty miles. And, it all happened before our eyes as we watched the weather people, in almost a state of shock, proclaim what was happening.
Even as storm watchers in cars and daring helicopter pilots charted the path of the storm screeching warnings and sounding tornado sirens, no one could have know how quickly, how devastatingly serious this monster was. Unbelievable – truly unbelievable, even as we watched it with our own eyes via television.
The winds blew, torrential rains fell, hail peppered roofs and cars and teachers rushed their pupils to what they thought would be safety in the well practiced drills into hallways and narrow passages. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The drills were supposed to work. No one could believe a storm like this could reach its tentacles through the walls of substantial concrete block buildings and snuff out the lives of beautiful, innocent little children. It isn’t supposed to happen, yet it did. Unbelievable.
Walking wounded is a term that I’m not that familiar with. It is a term that belongs in a war zone – it is a picture that my mind conjures up from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It isn’t a picture I expect to see or a term I should hear in the heartland of America. But it is a familiar term now – today – after yesterday’s devastation. Unbelievable.
Never, in my wildest imagination, would I think I’d see refugees in the United States let alone Oklahoma. But I’ve seen them now. Last night, as dark began to settle in, the haunting pictures of families with nothing but the clothing on their backs, a purse, and maybe a cooler once used for picnics that now held their remaining possessions, walked north, out of Moore, toward Oklahoma City. Some carried children. Some held hands. All were dazed. They had nothing. No home. No cars. No clothes. No roots. Everything was gone, left behind in a war zone that only Mother Nature was fighting. They aimlessly moved north, looking for safety, shelter, a future. There was no destination, just despair.
Huge spot lights began popping up, marking the quiet skies, and casting eerie shadows across the piles of rubbish as first responders and fire men in yellow fire gear gingerly dug through what had been schools, looking for and hoping that they’d find children alive under that hideous, vicious rubble. Death toll numbers rose from 4 to 7 to 24 to 31 and then to unknown. They continued to dig, some walking away, shaking their heads in disbelief, tears streaming down their cheeks. Unbelievable.
Today, we are in a state of shock. We hear the meteorologist talking, telling us the storms are over but the thunder continues to roll through the heavens. I have a guilty sense of relief that my family, and I, are all okay. We are safe and whole and protected and we thank God for that. And, we thank God for those lives that were saved, and we petition God for those who lost their loved ones, their homes, their everything.
In a few days, families will begin to bury their dead and I can’t help but wonder what will they do for memories? Will there be any family pictures? Will there be a remaining toy as a reminder of the child that was. What clothing will they have to put on the body that is now an empty vessel of a life that once was? What will they wear to the funeral of their loved ones, when all they have is what is on their back. It is hard to think of – it is unbelievable.
Oklahoma is a place of faith. We will overcome this. Already, even before we were up this morning, the ‘drop off’ places for food, water, emergency supplies were experiencing lines of over two miles in length as people loaded up their personal vehicles and brought what they could to the center. No words needed to be said. It was a show of unity. A show of strength that Oklahoma would come through this because that’s what we do. Unbelievable? Oh yes – definitely – but thank God, we can look up and know we will survive this – together. And that is believable.