I know this is going to sound cliche, but it is truly strange to me how much can change in a short period of time.
I had no idea when I last posted that the next two weeks were going to be some of the craziest of my life. When last I left you, I was on the verge of going to my friend Kady’s bachelorette party. Let me just say that we now are nearly certain that I am allergic to alcohol and the doctor agreed, and I will never again drink more than a glass or two at a time (no one mistook me for a man, at least, so that’s something).
That was on a Saturday. The next day, while I was busy being violently ill in reaction to my suspected allergy, I was vaguely aware that in certain parts of Oklahoma, some pretty seriously awful tornadoes were going through my state. A few people even ended up killed. I remember as I was hazily stumbling out of the doctor’s office looking at a tv in the waiting room and being horrified by the destruction I was seeing. That was May 19.
The next day was May 20 which, if you watch national news at all, you probably know was the day that one of the worst tornadoes recorded ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, and killed 24 people.
In Oklahoma, especially in May, people are pretty used to the threat of bad weather. I have grown up with a healthy terror of tornadoes and a intimate familiarity with the steps of taking your “tornado precautions.” Even on Saturday when I was at the bachelorette party, there was risk of bad hail, and it poured down torrential rain on us for awhile. We knew that the next couple of days were high risk for tornadoes and dangerous weather. The problem with living in Oklahoma for a long time is that there’s always risks during the spring for tornadoes, and you eventually just get to the point where you’re ready for them, but try to believe that it won’t end up being too bad. If you believed that every time there was severe weather in Oklahoma it was going to be as bad as May 20, no one would live here. We would have all had heart attacks at some point and moved to Europe.
My dad is a mailman, so he gets off work pretty early in the afternoons generally. My sister and I usually wait for him to eat lunch, and we did so that Monday. We went to a local BBQ restaurant (one that I worked at last summer, as a matter of fact), thinking we had time to eat before the weather got too serious. We were still in the midst of our sandwiches when rain started pouring down. Suddenly, the tin roof of the building was pounding like a bass drum at a rock concert, and we ran to a window to watch in horror as pea to golf-ball sized hail started flinging itself down on our hapless car in the parking lot. People started running out, dodging hail madly, to get to their cars and try to find somewhere to shelter them.
We weren’t going to take that route, so we sat down and quickly finished our food. Luckily, it seemed as though the hail and rain had started letting up, so we decided to try and get to our house, which was not even five minutes away. We had barely pulled out of the parking lot when the first giant pieces of hail started thudding down on us. The truly big ones were only sporadic, thankfully, but that made them particularly startling when they did hit. I kept letting out a little scream, terrified that our window would break out before we got home. To our relief this was not the case, and we managed to get home. We shielded our cars as best we could under our trees, but they were noticeably dinged up.
We were so incredibly lucky that day. The storm that eventually produced the horrible Moore tornado formed over the area we live, dropped that hail on us, and then moved on. We were never in fear, or really in danger. The hail storm lasted probably less than 30 minutes. We lost power briefly but had it back shortly. We spent the day watching Moore be ripped apart, as well as other towns beyond it. It was eerie listening to the weather stations because it was the most awful sense of deja vu. I was seven years old on May 3, 1999, when the worst tornado this state has ever seen ripped through Moore the first time. We were at a hockey game downtown, and I remember we had to leave it to go to a nearby underground parking garage. We walked outside and I can still see, clear as day, what that tornado looked like. It was enormous, and nearly unbelievably black. It dominated the sky, even from miles away, looking like some sort of elemental monster.
On May 20, 2013, we followed desperately the stories of victims and the search for survivors. I cried when they talked about the schools being hit. My mother is a teacher, my sister will graduate in December with her Early Childhood Education degree, and I spent four years working in daycares. I adore children, and teachers are very close to my heart. One of the teachers from Plaza Towers Elementary is the sister of a girl I played volleyball with in middle school and high school, and for a while they did not know if she was dead or alive, though she survived.
I have talked about my best friend Kasey on here numerous times, and her family is like a second family to me. Her father, someone I consider a second father to me, is a teacher in Moore. The gym and part of his school was destroyed, and his car was totaled. Kasey had to walk two miles to get to the school to even see if he was okay, which by a miracle he and everyone else in his school were. My heart shattered on Monday night when we finally turned off the tv, with reports coming in that the death count could even be as high as 91.
The next day when we heard that the number had been reduced to 24, I could not help being thankful, though I was in no way happy. It’s just that when I watched videos of that storm and looked at the damage, it is amazing to me that more lives were not lost. And the strength and love and dignity my state showed filled my heart with pride. The support we received from the world was overwhelming, and humbling. It seemed almost strange to me, just how much people cared. I saw articles from newspapers in England and Britain talking about Oklahoma, and the Nightly News broadcast from here. When two English Premier League soccer clubs played an exhibition match in St. Louis, they teamed up with the Cardinals to raise money for children affected by the storms. They wore black armbands to honor those lost, and all stood together behind a sign that said “Together in support of Oklahoma.” It was a bit jarring; I am so used to bad weather and the destructive powers of tornadoes that it seemed strange to me that people wanted to help us. It reminded me that perhaps the only good thing to come out of the darkest of events is the wonderful, amazing people who step forth to bring light again, and that those people are everywhere.
Shortly after, one of my best friends, Stephanie, asked me to help her do laundry at a laundromat in my hometown because the water was out in all the ones by her house because of the storms. She is married to a youth pastor, my friend Gavin, and I just assumed they were gathering clothes to donate to people and they wanted to wash them. I rushed over to meet Stephanie, who had a younger girl with her that I had never seen before. Stephanie asked me to go help her bring clothes in from the car while the girl got the washing machines set up. When I got to her car and started sorting through stuff, I realized it was soaked and muddy, just covered with debris. Something clicked in my head, and I asked Stephanie, “Did that girl lose her house??” Stephanie looked at me like I was crazy, and said, “Yes, this is the stuff we could salvage when we all went out there to look.” We had about three or four bags of clothes for an entire family. Three or four bags of clothes for four people.
We carried the stuff back inside, and I suddenly did not know what to say to this girl, this fifteen year old who had lost her home not even 24 hours before. The best I could come up with was telling her how incredibly sorry I was. What amazed me was how gracious she was to me, how calm she was acting. I tried to imagine myself in the same situation, and could not imagine smiling, like this girl was doing. I realized she was wearing some of Stephanie’s clothes, and she had on an old, too-big, holey pair of Stephanie’s husband’s shoes, because Stephanie wore a smaller size and that was the best alternative they could come up with at the moment.
So we did laundry, and it was so surreal. I had to pre-wash a lot of the stuff by hand because it was so dirty with debris that it would have made everything else in the washer dirty if I didn’t. After we got all the washers loaded, I rushed back to my house (which was only about five minutes away) and quickly went through the embarrassing amount of clothes I had to see if I could find anything to give this girl. When I got back, Stephanie and I’s friend Lisa had showed up with literally her entire backseat stuffed with clothes to give, and I felt so proud to call Lisa and Stephanie my friends.
We put the stuff in the dryers at this point, and then sat down to just talk with her. She described what it was like going through what was left of her house afterwards, and she even told me how her brother was asleep when the tornado was coming because he worked nights. His girlfriend got ahold of him just barely in time, and he left about 10 minutes before the tornado destroyed their home. The whole time, she was so calm, making jokes and laughing, and I just didn’t understand how she did it. But finally she said to me, “I think I’m still in shock. I think that pretty soon it’s going to hit me, and I’m going to break down.” I didn’t even know what to say. My heart simply broke for her. I honestly wanted to cry, but if this brave girl was not, then I certainly wasn’t going to.
When the laundry was done, we folded it and divided it up according to which family member it belonged to. It was a humbling experience. Everything this family had to wear fit in three laundry baskets and a duffel bag. When it was time to go, she hugged me and thanked me so kindly for helping her, and I just felt so lacking. I wish I could have helped her more.
That Friday was Kady’s wedding, and it was beautiful and sweet and everything a wedding should be. It was a bright spot in what had been an otherwise very traumatic and heart-breaking few days. Saturday I went with my sister to one of her long-time friend’s weddings, and it was lovely as well. It helped me to remember that even in the worst of times, life goes on, and that happiness and joy come again, even when it seems impossible.
At the end of last week, I was hurting for my state, but so proud to live in it. I was amazed at the goodness of people and the peculiarities of life, yet things were getting back to normal.
But this is Oklahoma. In May. And things rarely stay normal for long.
If you would like to hear about my experiences with the tornadoes of May 31, check out my next post. This one is already way too long, and I should have written it sooner. I just didn’t feel ready to try and sum up something so monumental in a blog post, and now I have even more to tell you. I hope that you’ll want to read it.
Bless your heart,
PS “Bless your heart” is about as Okie a phrase as you can get, so it felt appropriate.