Surviving the Moore, Oklahoma Tornado, by J.B.

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One of our motivations for making disaster preparations was the tornado scenario.  Living in Tornado Alley, there is a reliable risk every May and June.  Each spring brings numerous alerts and trips to the closet when the sirens go off.  This was my first experience of a tornado disaster since moving to Oklahoma eight years ago.

On May 12th  of this year, the sirens went off three times, which means a tornado has been spotted on the ground nearby.   My sister and I headed to the safe room each time, where our “disaster bags,” water and snacks were stashed.  Nothing happened in our area and we were relieved.

On the Monday morning of May 20th, I called for an appointment with the chiropractor and they had an open slot at 2 pm.  I knew a storm was headed our way sometime in the afternoon/evening.  Feeling a little uneasy, I rationalized that I would probably be home by the time the storm hit. Mistake # 1:  knowingly making an appointment at a time of potential risk.  I did not listen to my intuition.   
It was 2: 40 pm, my appointment was over and I stopped at the waiting area where a couple other clients were watching the television.  The staff had come out to the waiting area and we all heard a concerned newscaster say, “this is a monster tornado, a mile wide,  get underground. “FIND SHELTER UNDERGROUND NOW!”  The blood drained from my face and my heart began to pound.  What should I do?  We just had a safe room installed this past January and I felt more confident as the tornado season approached.  I finally had a safe room and now I wasn’t home to use it!

My home was about 7 miles away in the direction of the tornado.  In other words, I would have to drive toward the approaching tornado in order to get home.    The tornado was approximately 12 miles from my home in the opposite direction.    In normal traffic, the 7 mile drive with 7-8 traffic lights, usually takes me about 15-20 minutes.  The big question was, could I get to my house before the tornado?  It seemed too big of a risk to me.  The second big question was, do I even want to be home and was the above ground safe room, safe enough?  The newscaster said, “ UNDERGROUND!”     
My sister, a computer tech specialist, was working remotely from home.  She texted me to say that she was heading to the safe room, the tornado was at such and such a street.  This information confirmed that I should not try to make it home.

As I am watching the news, the other two clients leave the office.  I am not going home but where should I go?   Going to a friend’s house at that time of day was not an option.  No one I knew had an underground shelter.  The staff gathered blankets and prepared to go into the bathroom.  We again heard the newscaster shout, “FIND SHELTER UNDERGROUND.“  One of the staff remembered that she had a friend close by and called to see if the friend had a shelter.  The friend said she did, so the four of us quickly got into our vehicles and drove two blocks away. 

When we arrived, the husband did not know that his wife had invited four extra people!  He warned us that the underground shelter had a couple inches of water on the floor.  As we looked down the steep stairs, a friendly black puppy was waiting at the bottom, wagging its tail wildly and splashing water everywhere.  While it wasn’t verbalized, I am sure everyone wondered what else might be in the water.  There was no light except for the open door, maybe it was a good thing we couldn’t see?  However, if I had a flashlight, I would have shined it around to verify if there were any critters in the water.    Mistake #2:  flashlight in my Disaster Bag was at home.  I do not know if the owner had already checked the water.  Remaining above ground seemed like a greater risk, so we rolled up our pants and descended into the dark, wet shelter. 

 Most of us had smart phones.  We were texting loved ones, checking the tornado progress on a weather map, etc.  While this is comforting, it isn’t reliable for timing purposes because of the amount of texts and phone calls being made in the area.  In other words, you can expect phone calls not getting thru, or delay in your messages or texts because the cell tower is overloaded.  There was some delay and lost texts between my sister and I, but texting to family out of state did not appear problematic. 

For 15 minutes, it had been lightly raining. Rain usually precedes a tornado.   At one point, a female screamed and two additional women came running and joined us in the dark.   We could not hear any rumbling yet.   A few minutes later, the husband who had been outside, came down the stairs and told us that he thought it had missed us and it was safe to come out.  The chiropractor staff and I looked at each other in the dim light, wondering if we believed him.   We didn’t know him and he didn’t know us. There is often a “calm” right before the tornado hits, so we didn’t want to come out too soon.  After checking the phone weather reports again, we decided to take a chance, leave the shelter and go our separate ways.  We were grateful to a young family for sharing their shelter with strangers.

As I headed south on the normal route to go home, thus began my 5 hour driving nightmare.  I was surprised that the traffic was already bumper to bumper.  Since traffic was barely moving, I decided to turn west sooner than my normal route.  I was on the east side of the North/South I-35 corridor and I wanted to crossover I-35 to the west side.  This was mistake #3:  I was driving right towards the destructive path that the tornado left.   As I began to cross over the I-35 bridge, I was shocked to see the freeway was empty of cars and a muddy mess. I wondered where all the cars were?   As I looked beyond the freeway, I was again shocked to see the devastation of businesses and buildings that once  lined the frontage road.  It looked like a war zone where huge bombs had gone off.

I received a text from my sister that she was okay, that our house had not been directly hit.  She thought our brother’s house had been hit and she was headed over there with some supplies. This news upset me because I thought it was too risky for her to leave a safe place.  Keep in mind, everyone is in shock, not thinking clearly and have different concerns on their minds. 

Traffic slowly inched forward in a western direction.  After I traveled several blocks past the freeway, I wanted to turn left or south towards my home, which was about 2 miles away.   However, turning south was not an option.  The police had already placed barricades to keep people from driving into that area.  The efficiency of the police and emergency personnel was amazing.  The traffic snaked and snarled thru the neighborhood streets that were cluttered with debris. It seemed like no one could go the direction he or she wanted.  People were patient, took turns letting others in when you wanted to make a left turn, etc.  People began parking cars and walking.  The walkers were moving faster than the cars.  Traffic lights were not working. Debris was everywhere.

As I drove from neighborhood to neighborhood, the traffic proceeded at a snail’s pace.  Several times I tried to avoid a major intersection by turning right into a neighborhood entrance, hoping to leave by a different exit.  I would then run into streets blocked by debris or downed power cables and have to turn around.   With shattered and pointed pieces of wood lying in the streets, I began to worry about punctured tires from nails and other debris.  I decided to stop seeking shortcuts and stay on major streets.   [JWR Adds: Everyone with a car or truck should always carry at least one 20-ounce spray can of Fix A Flat tire inflator/sealant, or equivalent. And anyone living in tornado or hurricane country should carry three or four of them!]

At every junction, you only had the choice to go north or west.  This happened time and time again between 3 pm and 8 pm.  It was very frustrating to not be able to turn in the direction of one’s home.  As I realized later, there was a 17 mile area of destruction between me and my home.   No one was allowed to go into the disaster areas as they needed the streets free for emergency personnel to rescue or recover bodies.

During these five hours, the police, ambulances, fire engines were going in the opposite direction I was traveling.  The noise never let up. The constant sound of loud sirens was just maddening.   I have never in my life seen so many emergency vehicles at one time.  They also came from surrounding communities and cities. About 5 pm, I saw a convenience store and decided to pull in and rest.  I am diabetic and had no food nor water!  Almost always, we have 1-2 bottles of water in the car.   I couldn’t believe there were none on hand, that day!  The convenience store had no power.  I was lucky to have stopped here early enough as I was able to use the bathroom, buy water, snacks and bananas. Note:  only those of us who had cash could buy things.  I also had plenty of gas and a phone charger which allowed me to keep in communication with loved ones.

Feeling a bit refreshed, I decided to take a friend’s advice to travel west towards the I-44 Interstate which ran north and south.  It might be possible to take I-44 south 5-10 miles, turn east, then look for an open road to travel north and enter my neighborhood from the south.   However, when I arrived at the I-44 junction, double lane traffic was stopped in both directions. I later learned, the tornado had also crossed this interstate farther south before it arrived in the Moore area.  Traffic was backed up because of damage near Newcastle.  I turned around and tried to go back the direction I came from, but new barricades had been put up! Unbelievable.

I joined a line of cars that was trying to travel south via a gravel road.  As we inched along, the road got muddier and was washed out in places.  A view of the 12-15 inches of water across the road explained why some people were turning around.  I was in a Honda CRV, not low but not high.  I didn’t want to risk stalling or getting stuck.   Once again, I turned around and headed back to the Interstate.

At the I-44 interstate junction, there is a newly built ER facility.  It was 8 pm and I was exhausted.  I had tried again and again and again and was now 15 miles from home.  I prepared to spend the night in the ER parking lot in my car.   I had access to a bathroom, the facility provided me a pillow and blanket and I felt reasonably safe.  For two hours, I texted family and friends, assuring them I was safe and where I was.    By 10 pm, I could not stay awake any longer and just wanted to sleep.  I didn’t want to talk to anyone and welcomed the peace and quiet of this rural parking lot.

It turned out that the traffic diminished considerably and some barricades were removed after 11 pm.  A couple friends decided they were going to come and get me and bring me back to their place for the night.  A normal response would be to welcome the kindness of friends.  I had texted these friends not to come. They didn’t listen.  I was upset when they showed up because I just wanted to sleep!  I am sure there is some psychological reason why I acted this way.  I got over my crankiness about half way to their house.  They are dear friends and their concern for me was touching.  However, I told them that “next time,” I would not tell them where I was. 

I was able to drive into my subdivision and home at 8 am the next morning.  Thankfully, our home had no structural damage, but mostly small debris all over the roof, gutters, front and backyard.  The debris included wood, insulation, tar paper, sheet rock, branches, lumber and tin. Mud, grass and leaves were plastered all over the south facing windows.    I felt very fortunate that my home was standing, but realize that it could have easily been one of the destroyed structures 1 mile away.
What did I learn from all this?

When I was at the chiropractor’s office watching the news, I remember thinking, I wish I had my “Disaster Bag”.   It was at home in the tornado safe room.  I will be assembling a smaller bag to keep in the car or light enough to take with me.  At minimum, I will add to this bag:  (a) flashlight,  (b) P-Mates, (c)  ibuprofen, snacks, water and  (d) Wingman.   See the following explanatory notes.

  1. There was a flashlight in the car, but my car had been left at the chiropractor’s office and I rode to the underground shelter with the doc.  I didn’t have the flashlight when I needed it.
  2. I was fortunate that I could use the rest room at the convenience store that had no power.  Had I not been able to, P-Mates (pmatesusa.com) are helpful for women to pee while standing up.   I purchased these for motorcycling in rural areas and for emergency situations.  A couple of these are needed in the car as well.
  3. As a diabetic with arthritic hands, I did not have pain meds nor snacks in the car.  Those will be added to the car bag as well.  A kind woman, who was also “camping out” at the ER, shared her ibuprofen with me.   The food purchases at the convenience store provided needed energy.
  4.  I was delighted to have with me my Leatherman Wingman, which I had just received for my 60th birthday.   How many 60 year old women do you know, go to the chiropractor with a Leatherman multi-tool in their pocket?   It came in very handy when cutting off the ends of bananas. (LOL)    I also felt like I had some type of weapon if someone tried to break into the car.  The knife blade is partially serrated, the scissors and pliers are spring loaded and I love it!

I now understand what others have said about travel routes being shut down in the event of a disaster.  Timing and quick response is crucial.   I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around that previously and now I have a better understanding.  I am hoping that I can think differently next time and immediately start driving away from the disaster area.  One has to have a certain degree of accurate information to know what locations have been effected so one can avoid those areas.  This is especially important if you live in a metro or suburban area with heavy traffic. 

After the last text from my sister, when she left to go to our brother’s, I did not receive any understandable texts from her till about 10 pm.  Communication can be frustrating and lead you to wonder why someone isn’t answering your messages.  You cannot make assumptions other than the messages are likely delayed by the cell tower.   Emergency personnel need the air waves free so people are asked not to use their cell phones for calling.  Some conclusions, in retrospect:

  1.  The decision to not race the tornado home was wise.  I would have likely been caught in the commercial area that was hit. 
  2. In your food pantry, having food on hand that you don’t have to cook is a good thing.  We were so worn out from the stress that neither of us wanted to cook.  Frozen waffles with syrup or cereal with blueberries, sounded good for dinner. 
  3.  Before I retired, my job required leadership skills during stressful situations.  While I remained calm during the whole event, I was most surprised at what a traumatic event like this does to your mind and body.  I did not suffer to any degree like those who lost loved ones, homes and businesses.    

 However, in the days after the tornado, or after any traumatic event, you can expect certain symptoms.  It was difficult to make decisions.  My sister and I both acted like we were in a daze, easily distracted, hard to focus, we had conflict over little things, forgetfulness, and we didn’t want to socialize or be around people.  We were extremely tired.  I would do something for two hours and want to sleep the rest of the day. This shows our state of mind and body after a traumatic event.  Our neighbors are experiencing the same behaviors.  Can you imagine needing to make life and death decisions in this condition after a traumatic event?  If possible, delay any important decisions until you are thinking clearly.  However, in the case of a TEOTWAWKI event, one may not have that luxury.

My sister took a prescription to the drug store, went back twice to pick up and each time forgot her money.  “Third time was a charm.”   It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the drug store hadn’t been near the devastated area and slow, slow traffic. 

We finally felt like we were getting our energy back 4 days later and we started to work on picking up the debris in our yard. While we feel more “normal” at this stage, it is still difficult to focus, we tire easily and are “uneasy” with any storm clouds in the sky.    

Our neighborhood was the only one in the area that did have power that same night. There was no city water for two days.  The cable and internet came back on after a 7 days.  We know how very fortunate we are compared to those who use to live 1 mile away. 

We had stored water, did not need our generator, and I had just installed an OTA antenna in our attic two weeks prior.  We watched the 15 local HD channels.   We were able to access our email and internet thru our phones and Ipads.  The biggest adjustment was not being able to watch Fox news and the national issues. LOL.  However, we did go to their web site and read news online.

While in this “dazed stage,” there is something to be said for cable television entertainment.  While there are other activities like reading and playing cards, we missed not having movies to watch and wanted to focus on something besides the tornado. The local Red Boxes were out of commission so no DVD rental either.  We could have driven farther, but we didn’t feel like it.

We give thanks to God for having survived the Moore tornado and pray for those who have an overwhelming recovery process ahead of them.  When preparing to survive any disaster, having disaster gear with you, is only part of the preparation.  Recognizing the psychological and emotional impact, the impaired decision-making from shock, the emotional & physical stress, are some of the other aspects that have to be dealt with.

P.S.: After this was written, Moore and Oklahoma City area had five additional tornados and hurricane-like wind and rain on May 31st. A serious thing happened, which could have resulted in many more deaths than the nine deaths that occurred.  All the freeways and Interstates became “parking lots.”  Evidently, people thought they would try to escape the approaching bad weather, especially knowing what had happened a week before, and the freeways became gridlocked.  Traffic was at a standstill.  There were numerous tornados moving along the freeways and people were urged to get out of their cars in the fierce wind and rain and find shelter!   As Governor Fallin said, ”staying home is safer than getting in the car.” After this experience, I also understand why it is recommended, “If you must evacuate, use back roads and leave as soon as possible!

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