Gizmo the cat woke me up early yesterday morning to let me know a storm was coming. There were flashes of light through the venetian blinds and thunder rattled the glass. She was very insistent that I get up NOW, meowing and bumping her head against my hands, slashing my ankles to make me hurry. I shambled into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil and told the cat I couldn’t do much about the weather, to which she replied with loud, angry protests and more head-bumping. I knew how she felt.
We have landed, like cats, on our feet. We are in a house in town, renting it from Gizmo’s wonderful veterinarian, who just happened to pull into the parking space next to ours at Sonic Burger just down the road from our ruined house. We just happened to be ordering 15 hamburgers to feed the volunteers who were hard at work excavating and recovering our scattered and buried possessions. She just happened to have a rental available in town, and in perfect karmic randomness, she offered it to us just as we wondered where on earth we would find ourselves living next.
The tornado that hit us was upgraded by the National Severe Storms Laboratory to an EF4. It wasn’t traveling alone, either. May 10 was an afternoon of tornado outbreaks; there was a count of 34 twisters in Oklahoma when all was said and done. The EF4 that hit us was accompanied by a weaker, parallel-track sidekick that probably got us as well. And that wasn’t all.
Another tornado, an EF3 (I think) that had just taken out the Country Boy Grocery and Gas Station, arrived from the south. The Country Boy was (and will be again, I hope) a small supermarket serving the needs of the folks of the Little Axe region, including us. The customers and employees crowded into the beer cooler as the store was demolished by the twister. A few days later I found a completely flattened Dodge Ram truck, wheels up, in our woods. The tornado carried it nearly a mile before dropping it (and thankfully, no one was in it at the time). On the ground beside the truck is a torn-off gas nozzle; it was no doubt being gassed up at the moment of departure. Steel beams from the gas station are twisted like pretzels all around it and one has skewered the truck (yes, it’s still there. Will someone please get their truck?).
The EF3 converged with a second, smaller one right behind our house. The two may have interacted with the EF4 in some way but it’s still unclear if they did. Our neighbors Ken and Wanda stood on their front porch and watched the two funnels twist together, taking this as their cue to seek cover. They never saw the monster coming from the west; by the time they were in their closet it roared past their house, crossing the road and claiming ours. Ken and Wanda were shaken but unhurt. Their home had lost not much more than roof shingles.
We were in the orbit of a most peculiar event. What went on above our heads as we crouched in the shelter with a thin skin of steel between us and the vortex is nearly unimaginable.
The big tornado that came out of the west formed, in a touch of cosmic humor, over the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman and tracked 16 miles along highway 9. It followed the highway, then spun onto the surface of Lake Thunderbird, dragging the entire marina, boats and all, into the center of the lake. Water has less resistance than ground, and with the lesser friction the tornado may have intensified as it reached the far shore. By the time it crossed 180th Street, it had become an EF4. Traveling at nearly 60 mph it first hit the southeast corner of our house, rotating into the kitchen and second-floor studio. It twisted off the crowns of our big oaks and tossed them whole onto the roof. The bedroom wall blew outward as the vaulted roof crashed down under tons of wood, bark and leaves, flattening everything underneath. Our closets exploded; clothing flew far and wide. Some still on their hangers dangled from limbs, giving the debris a yard sale look.
The studio broke open like an egg and spilled brushes, pastels, paintings, a fractured easel, an upended drafting table, a taboret. Chairs wrapped themselves around tree trunks. There was a random element to the turbulence that was oddly capricious. File folders and even loose papers stayed in perfect order in their wire file stands even as the lawn tractor flew through the air and split against an uprooted oak. Right before the storm I was ordering paper from an online art supplier; I left my credit card on my desk when I hurried to the shelter. It was right where I’d left it-in the rubble on a fragment of the shattered glass desk.
And after this weird, ferocious storm was done with us, it plowed eastward, turning deadly.
Next stop was the pretty stone and wood house just up the hill from us. Dave and Cathy Knight’s shady garden with its beautiful koi pond was one of my big landscaping inspirations. After a glass of wine with Dave and Cathy some years back, I put a pond in my garden, too, and stocked it with long-tailed comets, gambusia, and a single long-eared sunfish.
Dave stepped out his front door and saw the tornado coming. He ran back in, grabbed Cathy and the two got into the bathtub, Dave throwing his body over Cathy’s. The house was ripped to shreds around them. They survived, miraculously.
When it reached the next home, a white two-storey frame house tucked under oaks and hickories with a wide, well-kept lawn, Erik and Sheila Michealsen were in their closet. They heard the house coming apart, boards peeling off one by one. The next thing they knew they were airborne, too, describing the feeling as “the motion you get when you go up in an elevator”. They woke up on the ground near each other, 75 yards from where the house had been. Erik had minor injuries but Sheila was badly hurt. You can read the full story here.
After stripping the home across the street down to the slab (the Bolles family had driven out of harm’s way before the storm hit and were not hurt), the tornado went northeast and took the life of Tammy Rider, 29, and critically injured her three children. Here is the story of this awful tragedy.
The trees that crushed our house saved much of the contents. In their last act of falling, they pinned down much of what was underneath, holding it in place as the tornado roared through. We were able to recover many things, including a great deal of artwork. Next: The Things We Found.