Living in Tornado Alley

We still have no electricity so David and I are at Starbucks mooching off their power and enjoying an overpriced high calorie caffeinated beverage. But at this point I’ve stopped caring about my caloric intake.

If you know me personally you know we are stationed in Oklahoma City while David is working on a special duty military assignment and if you’re watching the national news lately you know there have been devastating back to back tornadoes in our area.

5/19 in Shawnee, 5/20 in Moore and surrounding areas, and last night in Mustang, Yukon, OKC, and those surrounding areas, to be exact.

These storms have caused significant damage, injuries, and loss of life and last night we thought it was our turn.

The sky quickly got dark and began to look really dangerous as I was leaving Dell at 5:30 yesterday. I jokingly posted on Facebook about trying to beat the tornado home because I naively thought there was no way we could get hit twice in the same week. I had time to heat up a Healthy Choice microwave meal and eat half of it before the news reports started showing a strong vortex developing to the west of us and moving fast. And of course the condo we rent has no storm shelter.

David’s co-worker lost his home in the 5/20 Moore F5 tornado so we had put some thought into the kinds of things we’d need if we had to flee but we hadn’t put together a formal bug out bag and we had failed to make time to locate local shelters. We should have done that.

David and I quickly grabbed the cats, litter/litterbox, cat food, granola bars, bottled water, a blanket, medicine, firearms, and our small handheld firesafe and made for the car.

We headed east; there was no traffic yet. We waited for about 20 minutes in what seemed like a safe place, got gas, and thought we could head back towards the house. That’s when the tornado made a drastic turn south. Towards us. We immediately tried to go south, too, but so did everyone else.

The cell signal was spotty so we couldn’t locate shelters. In between the storm and everyone we know texting us both repeatedly we were lucky to have the news streaming and the gps working so we could try to locate side streets. I still have no idea how we were able to juggle all that and remain calm and focused.

We are lucky that we left the house when we did because that gave us a 5-10 minute lead and outran the tornado. Every time the weather crew was reporting activity on a specific street we had just passed it. We drove from 6:00 pm until 11:30 pm all over Oklahoma with 2 cats bouncing all over the car. Erik was surprisingly chill and had lay down, but Phil was moewing his head off and running all over the car peering out the windows and leaving little kitten noseprint smears all over them.

behind us

behind us

The storm started turning into the shape of a horseshoe so no matter where we turned it looked like it was enveloping us. I looked at the people in the other cars. All of their expressions were the same. Somber and focused, except for the occasional beating of their hands on their steering wheel in a desperate attempt to urge the cars ahead of them forward. If only that had worked. Traffic was painfully slow, which only added to the urgency of our situation.

While trying to head west from Norman David got quiet and suddenly said “brace yourself. it’s coming.” I have no idea how he knew this; he must have seen something I hadn’t. We sat there holding hands tightly and petting the cats as the straight line winds pushed our car back and forth.

I don’t think we got any significant lift, but it was strong and it was frightening. Without saying a word I knew we were both prepared to die, and I was happy knowing I was with my little family. I have never before felt the kind of peace that I did in that moment. I knew where my family was. I knew I was loved. And I knew my life had meaning. Our grip on each other’s hand tightened as our car kept moving. The violent winds lasted only seconds, but it felt like so much longer than that. We survived.

The winds subsided long enough for us to keep pushing forward. We ended up in Purcell, which is only 31 miles from our house. It just took hours to get there. David and I are both stubborn, which is both our strength and our weakness, so with no hotels to speak of we kept going. We were determined to get home that night.

We headed over to Chickasha and on the way we were pelted with large golf ball sized hail. The hail slammed into our car and David told me to take cover under a blanket. The sound stayed with me. It was a loud crashing smashing sound that sounded like serious damage with each impact. While huddled under the blanket I prepared myself because I was sure the glass would break any second. Like the wind, even though the hail only lasted a minute or two it felt like 10 as we were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and trapped with nowhere to go. We just had to ride it out and hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Tornado travel map

Tornado travel map

After that was over we lurched forward to Newcastle still believing we could get home. We knew the news was reporting I-35 and I-40 were shut down but thought we had a chance with I-44. Traffic was halted there, too, so that wasn’t happening. After waiting in line at McDonald’s for 20 minutes without moving we found a Braum’s that was still open. I caved and had a grilled chicken sandwich with cheese at midnight. Ever the nutrition conscious eater, I tried to remove the cheese but it was permanently glued to the rest of the grilled amalgamation I was about to eat. After the deed was done I instantly wished I hadn’t, but we were out of granola bars and we hadn’t eaten anything substantial in 6 hours.

Traffic was still backed up so with no other choice we slept in the car, only to be awakened by the sound of a lone shopping cart careening across the parking lot. To my surprise the bright clangy rattle of a cart galloping over the asphalt is discernible even while half asleep. We both immediately shot up from our awkward car seat sleeping positions, saw the cart was coming right for us in the with increasing speed, and drove to another spot in the mostly vacant lot. David and I watched as it continued on to where our car would have been and kept going to attack another unsuspecting vehicle.

We had difficulty going back to sleep after all the excitement with the unmanned cart so we checked on the traffic. Nothing. Roads that were packed both ways 30 minutes prior were completely empty now so we started the dark journey home.

Lights were out all over the city but we could still see the debris on the road and along the sidewalks. We were welcomed home by whole fences torn apart, trees split and uprooted, siding hanging from power lines, broken and leaning power poles, and darkness.

We finally got home around 1 am and found a massive tree down and blocking the door to neighbor behind us. The streetlights were out, too, so David turned the car around to shine the headlights in that direction and climbed over the tree limbs in an attempt to get to their door. Luckily nobody was home. We remembered bitterly that the garage door wouldn’t work without power so David had to enter from the front using his phone as a flashlight so he could go through the house and manually open the garage.

Once we got the car pulled in and the cats and supplies unloaded we settled down to text everyone who had been contacting us throughout the night to let them know we were safe.

We went room to room to assess the damage by candlelight. The condo has an insufferable existing leak in the downstairs ceiling and a leak in the wall of the upstairs bedroom closet so of course the Rubbermaid storage bin I permanently leave under the leak was full of water and the towel in the closet floor was soaked.

The upstairs was too hot and without the ceiling fan the air felt stagnant so we ended up camping out on the Ikea sofa bed downstairs. It has been a long time since I slept that well on something so uncomfortable.

So here we are. 8:22 pm the next day and we still have no power. We went and got lunch at Burger King in Moore since they had power and wi-fi, bought dry ice to try to salvage our cold food, and had ourselves a no-power feast: grilled chicken and a heated up can of sliced carrots on the grill.

We’re probably outwearing our welcome at Starbucks. We’ve been here for over an hour and my hair is a hot mess so it’s probably pretty obvious we’re squatters without power.

The sun is starting to set now and that means we’ll be going home to a dark house again. But the silver lining is that we’re safe. We’re happy. And we’re together.

2 thoughts on “Living in Tornado Alley

    • Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for reading. While it is certainly no grand or heroic story it is real and happened to us. It could have been so much worse but it was still frightening. Writing about it really helped me deal with it.

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