Letters From Oklahoma

May 23 2013 @ 7:32am

Massive Tornado Causes Large Swath Of Destruction In Suburban Moore, Oklahoma

A reader writes:

I live in Moore about a block south of the corner of SW 19th and S Santa Fe, less than 2 miles south of where Plaza Towers Elementary used to be. I drove past Moore Medical Center every day on my way home from work. If the tornado had turned east toward Santa Fe just a quarter of a mile sooner than it did, our home would have taken a direct hit. Our power has been restored, and though our yard is filled with trash (a familiar refrain: I have found strangers’ family photos on our lawn), our house is largely untouched. Almost everything north of us has been obliterated. I came very close to losing everything, yet came out largely unscathed. What I keep returning to in my mind is that just a few blocks away, seven kids lost their lives.

Another:

I just wanted to make sure that you know that, although the tornado warning was issued with 16 minutes warning, we had multiple days of warning that Sunday and Monday were high risk tornado days in our area. Scroll through the Facebook posts from the US National Weather Service in Norman (just south of Moore) and you will see what I am talking about. On Monday morning they warned that the risk in our area would be maximal at about the time kids were to be let out of school, and that we might need to make different plans. I picked my children up from their elementary school in Oklahoma City early that day in response to their video update from around 11 AM. Had I waited until close to their usual 3:10 pick up time, I would not have been able to get them, as the school was on lock down due to the tornado warning. My kids’ school does not have underground shelter. With an F5 tornado, that’s what they need. I know the schools need improved safety, but with that monster coming I was glad we had an in-ground shelter in the floor of our garage.

Anyway, the National Weather Service has been the unsung hero of this, and I wanted you to know about them and their relatively new foray into social media. (They are facing sequester cuts, which is terrible.) Oh, and on the subject of shelters, I wanted to add my curmudgeonly two cents.

My family has a small in-ground shelter in our garage. I got it after we moved into a new house and realized that it had no good interior rooms for shelter and no basement (they all leak around here). One tornado siren with my husband, my newborn and my 20-month-old, huddled in a hallway under a mattress, was enough to make me bite the $5000 bullet and get one. That was five years ago.

My neighbors saw the shelter crew jackhammer the hole in our garage floor and put it in. They took interest, but none of them bought one.

On Monday as the sirens blew, and while I was upstairs keeping close track of our excellent meteorologists on TV and frantically trying to think of the things I needed to grab that would be crucial to us if the house blew away, my bicycle-helmeted kids were safely in the shelter. So were my two crated cats, my two dogs, my computer hard drive and my wedding album, along with our prescription drugs, several lanterns, a battery operated fan, my kids most favorite stuffed animals, and my plastic tub containing our emergency supplies (crowbar, blankets, water, food, emergency contact information, cash, etc.). It was pretty jam-packed down there.

I would have tossed everything but my kids out without hesitation to save my neighbors if that tornado had come to our house (some neighbors have come over in past storms). But I have to admit that I am just a bit ticked off that none of them have gotten their own shelter. Not everyone can afford them, but my neighbors could. They all have their places to go in the event of a tornado, but when it is an EF5 and you know you won’t survive above ground, you need an underground plan. I don’t mind if my shelter is someone’s accidental plan. I just don’t want it to be the place they depend on. I feel guilty saying it, but I want to be able to keep my wedding album and my hard drive and my kids’ stuffed animals, and especially my pets!

Want I want to say but never would is this: “Get your own damn shelter!”

Another:

One of your OKC subscribers writing in. We are all devastated. Seeing this type of destruction in your own city is a difficult feeling to describe.

My husband was huddled in an underground room of his school with high school students not far from the storm. When our local weather man said that the storm was taking the same path as the May 3, 1999 storm, I shuddered. That would have meant it was coming for my husband’s school, which was hit by that storm. Fortunately for us, the storm went east instead of north this time, thereby missing Tinker AFB and Midwest City.

What we spoke about last night, though, as we watched our local anchor report the gut wrenching news, was what will change now? When we grew up here as kids they told us go to an interior closet or bathroom, put on a helmet, put a mattress over your head if you can. But after May of 1999, they knew yesterday to tell us on the TV, “Get underground or get out of the way.” They kept repeating it, knowing they were trying to save lives. These “grinders,” as they call them, are different. They literally scour the earth. With a storm that can go from nothing to EF5 in under an hour, what about those parents who do work far from their kids schools? Many times growing up I was huddled against a hallway wall in duck and cover position, and that was not enough to save some of those kids.

What do we do? I can tell you that it is a conversation many of us are having right now. We have always dealt with tornadoes here – they are a part of life. But we are all thinking about what types of emergency plans we need to reconfigure, how our mindset will be different the next time. For a state full of people already extremely knowledgeable about what to do during a tornado, what can we do to be better prepared?

(Photo: Debris litters what remains of a classroom at Plaza Towers Elementary School after it was destroyed by a tornado that ripped through the area on May 22, 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma. Seven children died in the school during the tornado. The tornado of at least EF4 strength and two miles wide touched down May 20 killing at least 24 people and leaving behind extensive damage to homes and businesses. U.S. President Barack Obama promised federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. By Scott Olson/Getty Images)