A Most Unearthly Sound

This is the backside of the storm, heading east. The red streak in the foreground is paint and shows the path of the tornado; a paint can was sitting on the garage floor moments before the garage exploded and blew away. Our once-beautiful forest is flattened and littered with debris.

Our home, in shambles under fallen tree trunks, branches and crowns.

The sound of a tornado is  predictably described as sounding “like a freight train”. It’s a catch-all phrase I admit I’ve been curious about. That said, I never have had a great desire to hear it firsthand. Growing up across the Bay from San Francisco, I’ve experienced many earthquakes large and small. A couple of them sounded pretty freight train-like. There were often overtones of stones grinding against each other, waves of infrasound rising and falling.

The west wall blew outwards, exposing my studio. You can see the side of the wooden flat file in the upper left corner. It contained dozens of drawings and sheets of paper.

This tornado hummed.

Crouching in our shelter, we listened to our crank-style weather radio. My phone rang as fellow blogger Tim Ryan called from Barcelona, Spain, frantically warning we were in the path of a large tornado, telling us to dive in the shelter NOW. Tim’s a great friend and knows what a weather wimp I am. He has talked me through many storms, always calm and reassuring. But he was practically shouting at me. We told him we were safe and tucked away underground; all was well, gotta go,  gotta listen to the weather radio ’cause we think they are saying something important, thanks for your concern and thanks for calling, talk to you later.

Then we heard the strangest sound.

This was an oddly quiet storm- no rain, no lightning, little wind. It moved across country at  proper speed limit:  60 mph, driving straight out of the west and propelling the colossal rotating column of an F4 tornado.

There was just the hint of what sounded like thunder, growing steadily in volume, rising to become a fully-engulfing deep steady hum, felt more than heard. It blocked out every thought, it filled my ears until they popped again and again. I gripped the frame of the shelter and held fast. There was growing vibration, then shaking, then the unimaginable sounds of shattering, smashing and cracking  right overhead. Something banged the lid of the shelter.

Just as I thought my eardrums would explode, there came a massive wrenching pop, and we were showered by a fine brown powdery dust through the vent screens, drifting gently over us as calm slowly returned. I was instantly seized by a splitting headache.

Every one of our trees flattened in the path of the tornado.

Sunlight was shining through the vent holes where just moments before we had been sitting in the dark. I looked through the small round screens: a patch of clear sky framed by waving leaves. “It’s gone” I said. “Mike, the house is gone”.

27 thoughts on “A Most Unearthly Sound

  1. Jean Warner says:

    Gads. Unbelievable. So glad you are okay. You’ve sold me on the steel box in the garage floor; I’m nagging Larkin until he buys me one! You are both on my prayer list – esp that you find lots of your treasures and that others find their way back to you over time.

  2. Cris Winters says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share your incredible experience! So glad you are safe and sound, but how heart-breaking to lose everything else. Sending you my best wishes.

  3. Kathy Heath says:

    Hi Debby,
    Mimi Hills sent us your article. Oh my gosh!!!!! I am so very sorry that this has happened to you. I can’t imagine what you are going through. We will pray for you. If you need anything from us, please let us know.
    I grew up in Grand Rapids, MI and remember spending alot of time in our basement waiting for tornado warning sirens to stop. I was fortunate to never actually experience the devastation of a tornado.
    Again, so sorry and if there is any way we can help, please let is know.
    Kathy Heath and Mark too.

  4. Mary Tilson says:

    Asshole tornado! How big is your shelter anyway….from you pics it looks really tiny. Is it? And yes, when living in the most tornado prone area ON EARTH it’s good to have a shelter. Wow….excellent description.

  5. kathiesbirds says:

    Debi, I am amazed you can write so calmy about this. What a thing to live through but thank God you are alive! So sorry about your trees! I know that house can be rebuilt but it will take a long time for a forest to regrow! And your drawings! All your beautiful drawings! Did anything survive? I was wondering if your studio was in your house. What can I say? I am so sorry about all of this but so glad that you are still alive! Thank you for being brave enough to write this. So glad you have TR as such a dear freind.

  6. Melessa says:

    I am so sorry about your house, but so glad that you are OK. I’ve checked in on your blog from time to time for the past few years thanks to the Okie Blogger Awards. I heard through the blogger grapevine that you lost your house and have been watching for a firsthand account. I appreciate the detail, especially about the ear popping-I don’t remember hearing about that before from anyone else. I’ve lived here my whole life and I always know when impending weather is going to be bad because I always have a headache. (It was a horrible one May 3, 1999 too.) What you wrote explains that.

    Again, I’m very glad no one was hurt and so very sorry about your home.

  7. Vickie says:

    Chilling to read. I can only imagine what it was like to look out to where you house once stood. I am so grateful that you had shelter, warning and that you and Mike are safe. Life holds so much frailty and loss. But you are here with all your talents in tact. That is an enormous victory to celebrate.

    Keep writing. I felt as though I was right there with you.

  8. jen says:

    I’m sorry you had to endure this terrible storm and the losses it brought, but I’m so glad you are OK. I hope you feel the love of Oklahoma around you.

  9. julie Zickefoose says:

    Nothing like a firsthand account. I’ve been struggling from my end to write this up today, only to find your incredibly well-drawn portrait. Good, I suppose, to write it while it’s fresh. These photos: stupefying.
    Love you. Hang on, hold on.

  10. JanRhodesKelsey says:

    I just read your blog experience and have a tight throat and a pit in my gut….so sad! Thank God for the miracles you did experience like no one was hurt and this blog and hopefully all the computer archives you still have! I lived in OKC for 12 years growing up next door to TR. As youth we knew the dangers intellectually but not emotionally. Now I live in the beautiful earthquake zone of SW British Columbia. If I could fly down and help in any way, I would. Should you need a get away this is an especially wonderful spot to do so…Consider this an invitation!

  11. Pinelian says:

    Dear Debby,
    Wow! Good on you for having that pit in your garage! It would have been ironic if the rubble had trapped you in there. Good call bringing your cell phone in there with you. Did you register your shelter with the local rescue authorities (fire dept., search and rescue, etc.)? Do you have neighbors nearby? What if?

    Was this a sturdily built home, or was it a flimsy mobile home? Every year we read about mobile home parks devastated by wind damage. Go figure. For a disaster plan you need a calendar and a map: It’s May, you’re here, you’re in a mobile home, get the heck out!

    Are you moving back to California where all you have to worry about is California sliding off into the Pacific after an Earthquake?

    What about rebuilding, but with cinder-blocks and a concrete roof?

    Take care, and thank goodness you are OK!

  12. Penni Jo says:

    It was heartbreaking to hear of this awful loss and see the devastation. Joe and I are so glad that you are all in one piece. Bless your hearts and luckily you had a safe hidie hole.

    You have such a great attitude and amazing strength. God Bless you both!

    Penni Jo

  13. Sara says:

    My heart goes out to you. I send positive thoughts of strength and courage to you both in this difficult time. May the caring of many lighten your burden.

  14. zeladoniac says:

    Thank you all for your wonderful outpouring of love and support. It’s really, really helping us both to know you are there for us, too. We’re getting much of our strength from our community, and believe me, you are a great part of our community.

    To answer a few questions (particularly Pinelian’s): didn’t think or know you could register your shelter. What a good idea! We had neighbors nearby and we checked on each other afterward. Tragically, one of our neighbors didn’t make it.

    Our house was a well-built two-storey frame house on a slab foundation. Nothing is indestructible. Our well house was solid cinderblock and collapsed into rubble, and the barn, also well built, was swept away down to the slab. Our heat pump (it looked like Robbie the Robot of Plan 9 From Outer Space) was wrapped around a tree, hundreds of yards away. Around here, May is the cruelest month.

  15. Dinah Sanders says:

    So very glad of your foresight in having the shelter, the weather radio, and the good sense to use both. What an astonishing and awe-ful account – thank you so much for sharing this!

    And hooray for the web and all these tender threads that connect us near and far in space and time (another ol’ Pinel school kid, here) and encourage us to to share online. Seems like you at least have a lot of your artwork digitally documented. Not the same as still having the originals but better than nother.

    From my middle-of-San-Francisco apartment, gratitude for your survival and for the inspiration to finish up the last tasks on my earthquake kit,


    p.s. Whatever your local breed of disaster, take another look at that survivor portrait. See those heavy gloves? Put ’em in your shelter or kit right now.

  16. Jerry says:

    I am visiting you for the first time — and what a horror I’ve witnessed through your words. I am so very glad that you and yours are uninjured, and stunned at the devastation you’ve endured. My heart wand warmest wishes go out to you.

  17. gail coppinger says:

    cotter love the paint stripe WOW i just logged on to see the latest pictures i am so sorry for all the loss as your posts before the tornado were quite sublime. So cool that you all made it out alive and unharmed . I’m thinkin of you and Mike and wishing i lived closer to come haul shit away for you. Do you want some pictures from the old days that i have of you and mike ? i’d be glad to find them and send them on out there to OK . xoxox gail

  18. Lynn Van Gundy says:

    Words are not enough in a disaster.

    Action matters.

    I am sending a check for Debby and Mike Kaspari in care of:

    Rebecca Renfro
    6024 SE Cornell Dr.
    Bartlesville, Oklahoma 74006

    That way the funds can go to whatever they feel they need the most.

    PLEASE consider sharing ANY amount too. A little bit of something can add up and be a big help.

    All the best,


    Oregon Coast

  19. Diana Donnelly says:

    Hi Debby,
    I haven’t seen you in years (and hope you remember me) but received the link to this blog and a picture of you with your banjo from Elida Ickes. I am so sorry you’ve had to endure such a horrific experience but so glad you and Mike made it through unharmed….along with your banjo and the stratocaster. I’ve sent this along to the rest of the Sidesaddle girls as I know they’d be interested to know you have come through this with such a good attitude and unhurt. You are in my thoughts,
    Diana Donnelly

  20. Ray Edlund {raylmond} says:

    Omigawd! I couldn’t really visualize the devastation you described to me on the phone…having visited your beautiful home last summer and thinking that ALL of it was now history…unbelievable! Sending you and Mike a care package of CD’s soon (mostly bluegrass and old-time, of course..but let me know of any other other preferences..I could use to get rid of a lot of my stuff, too) and Sophie will include some cat toys for her pal, Gizmo. Be well, Ray

  21. 100swallows says:

    Debby: Thanks for this fine account of the tornado and for the pictures. You’ve answered some of the questions I had after your first post. Thank God you are unhurt and that some of your wonderful drawings and paintings could be saved. I was raised in tornado country and we used to go to the basement about three times in spring and summer but I never saw the real thing. And now so far away I had almost lost my belief in them and wondered whether all the fear back then was justified. I guess we were lucky. I hope I never hear the “freight train” or feel that terrible hum, and that you never do again either.

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