Anatomy of a Tornado

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.

The one that got us. Photo by Bob Johns, taken from Highway 9 and 168th, looking west.

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?).

Out in our woods: a truck and part of the filling station where it was being gassed up, hurled from the Country Boy Store on Highway 9, about a mile away. No one was in it at the time.
gas nozzle on the ground next to it.

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.

A large-scale IR view on May 10, 2010 at 5:32 PM CDT showing the cluster of very cold IR cloud top temperatures (as cold as -84 C, purple enhancement) that a short time earlier was likely associated with the reports of a couple of tornadoes and hail of 4.00 and 3.75-inch in diameter in the Norman and Tinker AFB areas. Image credit: NWS Norman/CIMSS

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.

My garden, before.
My garden, after. OU professor of zoology Bill Shelton, trying to rescue survivor fish. There were three.

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 Giving Trees; in the background is a volunteer with a chainsaw.

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.

20 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Tornado

  1. Julie Zickefoose says:

    Heart in my throat, I have never, ever seen worse looking radar than that, and I have never seen a tornado shot like that, nor have I read such a lucid and cogent description of something so terrifying. Adding a link to this post in my blog as we speak.
    Kiss Gizmo on the nose for me and tell her thanks for trying to knock some sense into her ma.
    And thanks for reliving this enough to write about it. Maybe sooner is better. You might not be able to go back to it later. I hope the writing has a cathartic effect for you. It does for me. Wish I were there to give you a hug.

  2. 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.

    I keep reading these posts and my heart goes out to you. You’ve looked death in the face….

    All the best,


    Oregon Coast

  3. Corienne Cotter says:

    How beautifully you have written an horrific experience. We are SO grateful that you are alive. This should be published in some magazine.

  4. Marci Heslov says:

    The randomness of what happens…it does leave your jaw slacked. Your words paint a most insightful perspective. Keep going! Your voice is unique and entertaining and wants to be heard! I can just imagine a little banjo music playing in the background as I read your words. You have a true gift big sis! I love you much.

  5. Sara in Michigan says:

    So glad to hear that you have followed Gizmo’s lead and landed on your feet with a roof overhead. It is wonderful news that you have salvaged some of your artwork and belongings, touchstones to link the past and future. All the best !

  6. gail in cali says:

    Hey buddies Amazing photos and Great writing ! good for PTSD to work through all this on paper i suppose . I dont know if i could be so cool as more thunder and lightning arrived but thats life in the Midwest eh ? Sooooo glad you two are not hurt and have found a house to settle in for a moment . Gizmo will be your tornado watch cat from now on so dont forget to follow her orders ! xox gail

  7. Maren Phillips says:

    Unbelievable and horrific, amazing account, heart in my throat with tears threatening… Debby, this is truly a miracle and your writing deserves an accolade! Thanks for still keeping it up!

  8. Mary says:


    My God. I’ve never felt so close to a tornado. This is not the time to tell you how wonderfully this is written…this is the time to tell you that you are truly blessed.


  9. Scott says:

    So glad you came through this without being hurt. Sad to lose the things you have worked hard to build, but these can be replaced. I know something like this is like being hit by a train emotionally. Thanks for sharing such a lucid and vivid account of your extraordinary ordeal.

  10. Nina Feldman says:

    Thinking of you, Debby. Ray Edlund played a bunch of songs for you today on his show. It was nice to hear “Hideaway” again. Glad to know that your banjos survived and that one of them is ready for you to turn into an old-time model. Hope doing some frailing will be comforting.

  11. Wendy Howes says:

    Deb & Mike & Gizmo–Your Massachusetts friends have been following your incredible experience! I do wish we were closer and could help in some way. Hmmmm. . .maybe there is something we can do. . .we’ll see. Meanwhile, I am in awe of the excellent blog and photos that you have pulled together in the aftermath. You are an amazing woman! With an amazing husband. And cat. Very much looking forward to seeing you in 2011.

  12. kathiesbirds says:

    Debby, I have read this acount here and Julie’s story on her blog. It is gripping, powerful, heart wrenching and unbelievable. I have put a link on my blog and my Facebook page to this blog and Julie’s apeal. I hope you will soon be on your feet again. I know that your “Eden” will never be like it was, but I hope it can be restored and renewed and that you will carry that peace it gave you in your heart while you heal from this tradgedy. I wish you all the best and I pray your art will soon flow from your fingers again.

  13. Lynn Van Gundy says:

    This may be a dumb question, but do folks in OK ever build underground houses??? After all the horrific storms, I’d be burrowing deep!
    Take care, Lynn.

  14. Toni says:

    Debby I’ve been reading about your horrific experience. You and your neighbors are in prayers everywhere. Will continue to send love and energy your way.

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