Just another day in Oklahoma with a risk for severe storms and possible tornados. I didn’t check the weather at all that day. I lived in Texas for 21 years and never saw a tornado, so there was no reason to worry on May 20, 2013. Then, I found myself holding my daughter on the floor of a building that I knew couldn’t withstand the EF-5 tornado that was coming our way.
It was 2:00 pm and my boss say’s, “you might wanna get out of here, storms are coming, and it’s looking like it might get pretty bad.” I shrug him off but start to finish up for the day. I check the KFOR app and radar. There’s one small storm heading into Newcastle. “I’ve got plenty of time,” I thought. I log off my computer, gather my stuff and get into the car to drive 3.7 miles from where I worked to where my daughter is at daycare.
“Golf ball size hail in Moore, a Tornado Watch has been issued for Cleveland County.”
It’s pouring on base now. I get to daycare and run in to get my daughter thinking I can still get home before it’s too late. But it’s already too late. I walk in and see parents holding their children in front of a small tv in the break room, and I see it. I see what up until now could only be seen in the movie Twister, and I’m consumed with fear.
I get my daughter from her class and put her in my lap and sit in the hallway with the other children, parents, and teachers. I mentally go through my check list of people.
Where is my husband? In Shawnee helping patch up a roof from yesterday’s storms. Where are my friends? Where is Maria? Maria is still on base too, I think. Maria’s kids are in school. Where is Jennifer? Oh my god, Jennifer! Jenn… Jenn is sleeping because she works nights. I try to call out what felt like 50 times, but my phone won’t work. I start to send texts, frantically. Does she know? She doesn’t have a shelter. God, please let her know.
“It’s heading into Moore. It is redline centerline for Moore. It’s getting bigger. It’s about to cross 19th St.”
She finally responds back and tells me she’s in the bathtub with her dog. “I can hear it,” she says. All I can do is tell her I love her and that it’s going to be ok.
I can only think “this isn’t happening,” but it is. Right in front of me. That’s still not enough to wrap my mind around the words I hear next. “This is a violent tornado, over a mile wide, and there is no sign of it lifting.”
I pick up my daughter and move from the hallway back to the break room. I watch on tv as it hits the Moore Warren Theater, and the Moore-Norman Regional Hospital. It’s going to hit Moore High School next. It’s moving down 4th street, where my home is. No one knows what to say or do, so we say and do nothing.
All you can do is watch. All you can do is wait. All you can do is pray to God that this is going to end. It doesn’t. It just get’s bigger. Then it stops moving. It sit’s on top of the city of Moore for over 3 minutes.
It starts to move again, and he says…
“If this doesn’t lift soon, it will hit Tinker Air Force Base.”
I’m shaking, and my daughter looks at me, and says “bad, mamma?” I watch teachers pick up babies and put them in rollaway cribs that are pushed into small bathrooms. There is no storm shelter for miles, and they wouldn’t let me leave the building even if I had somewhere safer to go. It’s going to hit us. This is going to happen. I’m going to hold onto this little girl with everything in me.
Then, it’s gone. In a blink of an eye, it’s gone. It’s over. I pick my daughter up, run out of the building, and put her in the car to get off base as fast as I can. I’m driving so fast that when I finally start to see debris and downed tree’s close to my house, I realize I’ve beat fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars to the scene. I approach my neighborhood and slow down because I don’t know if my house is going to be there when I make this left turn.
I turn left, and chills run down my spine when I see my house still standing. I park, run to the door and I can hear my dogs barking. I start to cry because thank god they are ok. The power is out, and all of our doors are dead-bolted, so I can’t get to them right now, but my husband will be here soon, I think.
I go back to the car to check on my daughter. I start to look around and see chaos and fear in every direction. There is a junior high within walking distance that was hit and parents begin to park anywhere and everywhere.
A woman gets out of her car and runs to me, screaming, “did the school get hit? Where are the kids? Where are they?” I look her in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t know. I just pulled in.” She turns and runs towards the school. She see’s a man in an Air Force uniform running towards her, and stops him to ask for help. He says “I’m sorry, I can’t, I have a newborn at home and I’m trying to get there” as he bends over to catch his breath.
The man was my boss. He drove as far as he could, parked his truck and ran about 2 miles to our neighborhood. His son is only six weeks old, and he can’t get in touch with his wife. I get my daughter out of the car and into a stroller and yell, “Gough, take my car.” He takes the key’s, and he tries to get home.
Everything after this is a blur. People are crying, yelling, walking, and running. There are helicopters hovering and fire trucks racing by. I don’t know what to do so I just sit and wait. I try to make phone calls. I try to text. Where is my husband? Where are my friends? Is Jennifer ok?
Everyone close to me was ok. Jennifer came out unscathed, physically. Our home took a hit, but nothing in comparison to those who live within 100 yards of us that lost everything. If the tornado had not of turned when it did the outcome would have been a lot different. This is not an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination. The bright yellow is the bottom of the tornado that was on the ground, and the dark yellow is the width of the tornado. The red dot is my house. Call it what you want – fortunate, blessed, or just plain lucky. At the end of the day, I had my daughter to hold, my husband to put plywood over broken windows, dogs to feed, and friends to cry with. The families and friends of others did not.
This tornado took the lives of 24 people. Of those victims on May 20, 2013, was Megan Futrell who died in a 7-Eleven where she went for shelter while holding her 5-month-old son, Case Futrell who also died. Plaza Towers Elementary lost seven children. It’s hard to think that anything good could come from the loss of seven young lives but there is a silver lining. Between the community and the parents of these children, thousands of petitions were signed and storm shelters are being placed in every public school in the city of Moore.
Yes, the people of Moore, Oklahoma realize we live in what others refer to as Tornado Ally. Yes, people make jokes that we’re crazy for staying here. I thought for a minute that we would be crazy to stay, too. That was before I experienced first-hand the generosity and comfort humanity is capable of giving to others.
First responders and volunteers that dug through piles of 2×4’s for weeks searching for sentimental items of strangers, pets, and even people. Bottles of water, trucks with people handing out food, strangers on ATV’s taking people to and from their homes to get things. Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint trucks lined up with charging stations. The Tide truck, letting people wash their clothes. Walking into Canes Chicken two days later because they were the only place with power only to be given a free meal.
You’ll never understand it until you live through it, and I hope to God you never have to.
This nightmare – this disaster that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent and harmless people has taught me something I always knew, but never fully idolized until May 20, 2013…
The most important things in life aren’t things.