Tornado Survival and Recovery, by J.M.

You’d think an old lady would learn. Going through old papers and files the other day in my attempt to clear out clutter and be organized, I came across the file containing receipts and all sorts of paperwork that reflected our experience with the May 3rd, 1999 tornado that went through southwest Oklahoma City and Moore, Oklahoma. I shook my head thinking, “What did I learn from this?”

Allow me to provide some detail of that experience. First of all, I was home alone with four dogs….big dogs. These were dogs that didn’t get along well with each other. Two had kennels outdoors, while two lived indoors. My husband was at work. I’d gotten home from work, started laundry, and prepared a simple dinner for myself. I sat down to watch TV and keep up with the local weather, as it had been predicted that we were to have severe storms that evening. I ate a bit while the weather dominated the TV. I became concerned and started thinking about what I should do. I stopped my meal and went outside to move the two dogs from the back yard to their crates in the garage. Once inside the garage, I thought, “This isn’t enough protection for these guys.” So I piled plywood on top and around their crates. Then I piled carpet pieces on top of that.

Back inside the house, I started looking around while I listened to the weatherman. “What do I do now?” “Where do we go?” I called my husband at work. He told me, “Ah Honey, these things always peter out. Give it a rest. I got to get back to work.” Off the phone, I started walking quickly around the house, closing blinds and closing doors. Then I took the other two dogs into my bed room. I pulled the mattress off the bed toward the wall to make a cover for us. I gathered my purse and cell phone. Then I climbed under the mattress and pulled the two dogs in with me. I heard the weatherman say, “You cannot survive this tornado above ground.” The TV stopped and the lights went out. I called my daughter just to hear her voice as the tornado approached. I could hear the “train” coming. It’s just like I have always heard people say– a big freight train coming right at you. But the sound of all the debris flying and hitting our house muffled the “train” sound. It was deafening. And then it all stopped. Quiet. Eerie. I was afraid to see and know what had happened, but I crawled out from under the mattress and was happy to see the ceiling was still intact above me. I went to the bedroom window and raised the blinds. Total devastation. All the neighbors behind us were gone. All I saw was piles of debris. Our backyard was heaped high with debris.

I opened the bedroom door and walked slowly through the house looking and amazed that all was intact. As I got to the dining room, I could see the blinds were damaged and some glass was on the floor with brick pieces and some splintered wood. I tried to open the back door, but the debris pile stopped the door from opening. I walked through the living room to the front hall. I tried to open the front door, but once again the debris pile had it closed tight. So I went through the hall to the garage where I saw the ceiling collapsing, but the dogs were okay. I opened the side door and got outside. Then I push and shoved open the gate and started climbing over the debris making my way to the front yard. Total devastation is all I saw. It was like a bomb had gone off. Neighbors were coming out of their houses and some were coming out of the rubble of what was left of their houses. We checked on each other, and then we just stood there looking at the spectacle of it all.

I looked down the street, and I saw my daughter climbing over debris and making her way toward the house. She was living about 30 minutes away while going to college. Shortly after she arrived my husband came driving and bouncing up over the piles of timber and debris in his old 1976 Chevy pickup. He came to a stop on what had been our lovely green front lawn, now covered with debris. When he got out of the truck, all four tires on the old truck finally went flat from all the nails they’d encountered. I said, “I told you.” Words a husband never enjoys hearing from his wife but gave me great pleasure at that moment.

It took us months and months to repair our house, and it was not damaged nearly as badly as some around us. We had opinions about what spared our home, while the houses on both sides of ours were totaled by their insurance companies. We had replaced our windows the year before with very good windows and had them insulated well all around. We had a fairly new garage door that was insulated and tight. I don’t know if closing all the blinds and the interior doors made a difference but I like to think so.

Within the few months following that tornado, we had a flat top cellar put in our garage floor. I wouldn’t like to be in Oklahoma without one.

Fast forward to May 20 of 2013. I went to the cellar, while my husband watched that tornado move east to Moore, Oklahoma. Even neighbors joined me this time. Then later in May we had another close call, and the neighbors came again. We spent more time in the cellar that night but not before I handed my husband my large pasta pot as I went to the garage. I asked him to please put it on his head if he went outside.

This year, we’re getting prepared. In 1999 we were without electricity and gas for about 10 days. Last year we were without electricity for about four days. I have a gas grill and a gas burner. I can cook. We have plenty of food, water, candles, flashlights, and we always stay ahead on pet food and toilet paper. I still go through my ritual of closing blinds and doors. I’ve added to that ritual: moving the pets to the cellar, grabbing the BOB, and stacking up the outdoor furniture but not necessarily in that order.

My biggest fear is this when we come out of the cellar (I use “we” hoping to get the husband into the cellar), it’s all gone or worse we are trapped in the cellar for many hours. Now we have the means to work our way out, and our cellar is registered with the city. So, one way or the other we will get out, but it could take time. The kids better come looking for us or their inheritance might be reconsidered.

Recently, I took photos of everything in and out of our house– all of our personal property. I put all those photos on a CD, and I put that CD in our safe deposit box. Along with that are all important papers and all the receipts for everything we own. I’ve learned from the experience of others that insurance companies are sticklers for proof of ownership when a claim is made.

So, I’ve been putting together my “survival in the cellar” provisions. We have two cats and one dog now. Yes, they go to the cellar with me. Here is my list of provisions: pillow, blanket, extra clothes, first aid kit, some toiletries, snacks, water, potty bucket, toilet paper, cat food, dog food, kitty litter and pan, weather radio, batteries, flashlights, more batteries, leather gloves, a tarp, bungee cords, a crow bar, and some tools. I also have a map of Oklahoma. Sometimes the weatherman calls out names of towns that either I have never heard of or I have no idea of where they are in relation to where I am in my cozy cellar. I’ve also thrown in a couple of towels for the husband who might decide he’s had enough of looking at the tornado and wants to be sure he keeps his head.

These will stay in the cellar throughout the storm season, which in Oklahoma is year round. I have a BOB by the garage door and ready to grab in addition. I sing in the choir now “Be prepared.” I am a firm believer in being ready and having a mindset that anything can happen and probably is more likely to happen when one is not prepared. If my husband says, “Ah Honey, it will peter out” I will hope he’s put that pasta pot on his head, while I’m snug in my cellar.

Please be safe as the spring storms approach. Take precautions. Don’t try to outrun tornadoes in a vehicle. Assess your surroundings, and do not wait until the last minute to seek shelter. The weatherman on your local TV channel usually knows what he or she is talking about, and they give you ample warning. Last minute precautions are not usually successful with tornadoes. Be ready.