May 31st Was the Scariest Night of My Entire Life

UPDATE: This video is what we were listening to on our weather radio in our cellar. At the beginning of the video (0:05-0:08) he drives by a Taco Mayo. That Taco Mayo is in front of my neighborhood, and my house is barely two minutes from there. He stops in front of the the bank that’s on the corner of my neighborhood, and that’s the building he’s filming over during the video.

Hi again.
In my last post, I described what the May 20 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, was like for someone nearby but not affected. I have never been affected by a tornado, actually, at least not personally.
There’s even like this running joke that the town I grew up in, and the town I live in now, are protected by some Native American blessing from tornadoes. It’s almost easy to believe, because I cannot even count the number of times a tornado has been heading for my house, and then it will abruptly turn and go somewhere else, or barely miss us.
On Friday, I was even joking about this with one of my friends as we discussed how the risk for tornadoes that afternoon and evening was really serious. It was the last day in about a three day period where we were in a serious risk, the second week in a row where Oklahoma was supposed to have bad weather. We were all just grateful that, so far, we had had nothing like the week before with the May 20th tornado.
I went home to make sure we could keep an eye on the weather, and we kept hearing ominous warnings from the news that “the cap was about to break.” This meant that the conditions were about to become perfect for a supercell, which is what produces tornadoes. Finally, it did. Once that happened, things got serious really fast. I live in the central part of the state, just to the southwest of Oklahoma City. To our west, storms started building up and getting violent. Eventually a EF3 tornado broke out near El Reno, the town I was actually born in. It was particularly bad because it seemed to just be following the interstate. Most of the people who died were caught in their cars by the storm. We waited anxiously to see which way the storm would go, but it looked like it was going to go just north of us. As I stood in my yard, we could look to where the tornado was, and there was this constant growling, roaring sound coming from the clouds. Above us, hail clouds were blanketing the sky, but no hail was falling:
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I thought we were going to be spared again, and my mounting anxiety began to subside.
Suddenly the storm began to shift to the southeast.
Towards us.
Then, other storms began popping up all around to our west. Very quickly, the weathermen started calling out my town’s name. And all of a sudden, things got very real. We began gathering up our most important things to take to our storm cellar right next to our driveway. Only once before had we put stuff into the cellar, but the storm had turned pretty last minute, before we had to go down. I kept waiting for someone to say, nevermind, the storm has turned. But they never did. It was actually going to happen.
I have grown up in Oklahoma, and I have grown up terrified of tornadoes. A lot of people have recurring nightmares, and I am one of them. My nightmares are always about tornadoes. I have a very staunch respect for how dangerous they are, and I get very stressed about bad weather.
As I ran around my house, I was in a state of utter panic. I was grabbing things and running them outside into the cellar then running back in. I have two cats, as you may know, and I had to get them in the cellar, too. We only have one cat carrier, and Finn has to go in it. There is no way we could carry him anywhere, because he would flip out. Unfortunately, by the time I was putting Finn in the carrier, I was nearly in tears because I was so upset, and Finn could tell. He proceeded to flip out nearly as badly as I was. I’ll go ahead and tell you now, the only injuries sustained by anyone in my family that day were the claw marks Finn left on my legs and hand. Finally, I had to wrap him in a blanket to get him in and pull it off his head only after he was inside. I hurried to take him down to the cellar as he meowed piteously a few times, and then went quiet.
I rushed back in to get Boo, who was casually sprawled on the loveseat watching the proceedings with sleepy interest. I wrapped him in a sheet, listening as I did so to the weathermen telling everyone in my town that they needed to take their tornado precautions. My sister appeared with my nana, who lives next door, and her and I went down into the cellar to wait.
The rest of my family, who don’t have quite the same anxiety as I do over tornadoes, stayed in the house to keep watching the news. I sat with my nana, holding Boo, nearly paralyzed with fear. Some of my friends started texting to make sure I was getting to safety, and I was shaking so hard I almost couldn’t text them back. Then I waited, listening to the thunder growling and the wind blowing and hoping my family would come and tell me it was all a mistake.
I don’t know if you have ever sat in a tornado shelter, but it’s not terribly pleasant. Ours is not particularly big. It’s also damp, musty, and has lots of bugs. I fixedly watched the stairs, waiting for someone to come and tell us something. I was too scared to be above ground, but too scared to sit and wait without knowing.
My sister finally came back and told me that it looked like the tornado was turning and heading towards a town just barely north of us, the town our high school is rivals with. I know a million people that live there, and I was in no way comforted by this. My sister says to wait downstairs, just to be safe. After a little while, she comes down again, bringing some more stuff, and she tells me the same thing. Suddenly filled with restless, frenetic energy, I beg her to hold Boo so I can go in the house and clean the scratches Finn gave me. As I had sat in the cellar, some of the adrenaline from earlier was wearing off, and I was beginning to feel the scratches, especially a particularly deep one on my ankle.

This one.

This one.

As I rushed into the house, unable to bear not seeing what was happening while I was down in the cellar, I noted how ugly the sky looked, and what a bizarre color it was. The wind was whistling around me, and I was quick to get in the house. I cleaned the cuts up, but as I listened to the TV the weatherman started talking about how a new circulation was forming that looked like it would head towards my home. I pleaded with my dad to come to the cellar, and he said he would be down soon. I went back down to wait some more.
Eventually my sister and my mother joined us, and very quickly after my dad appeared. We were going to close the door. Our shelter was already in place when we bought the house we live in, and it’s pretty old. The door is partially rotted and pretty rickety. We chained it down taut to the stairs. Then, my dad placed a door that they bought on clearance in front of the stairs, and braced it with with a 2×4 against the walls. We had managed to get our weather radio on by this point, and we anxiously listened. Storms were forming everywhere, so many that the weathermen almost couldn’t keep up, and one of them was coming towards our town. In the confusion of all the storms they were trying to track, we were unsure of just exactly which part of our town it was going to hit.
Tornado shelters are very eerie. Ours has these two little holes in the ceiling that are the ventilation vents up to aboveground. It is bizarre, because it allows you to hear what is happening outside, but it is strangely muffled. We could hear the rain pick up and start hammering the metal door of the shelter. Our house is surrounded by trees, and we could hear them whipping and tossing. Things got louder and then quieter, and we had no idea what was happening. No one had mentioned my town on the weather radio in a while and I began to hope that they were wrong, and it wasn’t going to get to us.
Out of nowhere, the weathermen start talking about my town, and one of the stormchasers starts yelling that there are power flashes at a Lowe’s that was two blocks from our house, and that something is touching down on one of the roads that we live off of. Very shortly after that, the light we had plugged in downstairs goes out, and we have to turn on our lantern.
I spent three hours in that cellar. They were the most terrifying of my life. Honestly, I have never been so scared. It was mostly a haze of absolute terror for me, and I alternated between almost throwing up and almost passing out. Every time we thought about getting out, they would talk about how there was threatening rotation that could potentially hit us. Finally, as it got later and later, it seemed as though things were dying down. We kept waiting for the rain to stop pouring so we could get out, but it never did. Eventually we could stand no more, and we decided to venture out. My dad peeked out from under the lid, and to our relief he confirmed our house was still there. I was the first out, and it was pouring down rain so I was instantly drenched. There was still a little bit of light left,  and I was amazed to find a giant tree branch was blocking most of our driveway:
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I rushed to the backyard, my number one concern to check on our four dogs. We have Labs, and they are big and very unruly. There is simply no way to bring them in the cellar and still have room for my family. They also would probably get in a fight. This is probably the worst part for me in regards to tornadoes hitting our house; our shelter is really secure so I was never really afraid for my life. When I got to my backyard, I couldn’t even get to my dogs, who we keep in another part of our yard, because a huge tree branch had fallen on the gate and part of the fence dividing our yard. I splashed through my already flooding backyard to an unobstructed part of the fence and started yelling for my dogs over the noise of the rain and thunder. Johnny and Cash were the first ones I saw, and finally Riley came trotting up, completely unconcerned. But I could not find Sadie anywhere. I called and called, and finally I saw her little head peek out from under our storage building where our dogs love to lay. I called for her to come for me, but she simply laid there and whimpered. I was terrified she was hurt. I had to run to the back part of my yard and squeeze through another gate we never use in order to go around and get to her.
Sadie is a very courageous dog. I would venture to say she is tougher than any of the boys, and we are pretty sure she fought a coyote or something along those lines once. When I got to my poor girl, she was shaking so hard that water was flying off of her, and she was whimpering like I’d never heard her do. I was afraid she couldn’t get out from under the building, but finally she managed to drag herself out. She was scraped up and not putting pressure on her back leg, but she was not seriously injured. I cried because I was so relieved, and I knelt there, absolutely sopping wet with rain and tears and holding Sadie, while my other dogs came and rubbed their wet, muddy bodies on me.
After I knew everyone was okay, things didn’t seem as bad. There were giant tree limbs down everywhere, and our yard was turning into a bog, but there was no serious damage. Somehow, all the tree limbs had fallen just around our cars and our house instead of on them, even though we had parked our cars under the trees to protect them from the hail. We had no power, but we had a home still.
We began carrying things up from the cellar and lighting candles in the house and changing clothes because we were soaked. My uncle, who had drove away from the storm, showed up and told us that the nearby town we thought the tornado had hit was, in fact, essentially fine. He’d stopped and picked up food for himself. We all very quickly became aware of how hungry we were since it was nearly 10pm by this point. We decided to try and drive to the town to see if we could find somewhere to eat since we had no electricity and were too hungry to just eat simple, no-heat food.
We almost did not get out of yard because it was so muddy, and we were afraid if the water got any higher on the roads that we might not be able to make it back to our house. As we drove out of our town, there was no power anywhere that we could see. It was still raining ferociously, and on the way to find a restaurant, it started hailing again, big, ugly hail that beat the roof of our car. Desperately we pulled off at a 7-Eleven and tried to wedge our car in with the mass of other cars taking shelter by the gas pumps under the structure that shielded them. Eventually the hail began to slow, and we pulled out and hurried to find somewhere to eat. We tried IHOP first, but they told us there was a nearly two hour wait. Eventually we made it to Waffle House, who were short-staffed. It tooks us nearly two hours to eat there, but it was some of the best food of my life.
When we drove back home, we decided to look around, and drove through the Lowe’s parking lot that had been reported hit. The little metal sheds and display buildings they had in the parking lot were torn to shreds, and there was debris randomly scattered about. A power line was down along the road in front of it.

Photo credit: Jon Watje

We then drove down the main road we live off of, and the powerlines were destroyed. About a half a mile from our street, one had even fallen on top of a car and into a flood of water on the side of the road. It was nearly midnight, and already there were brave crews working on them. We almost drove onto a downed powerline, and quickly realized we needed to get back home.

Photo credit: Jon Watje.  The road we live off of, the next day.

On the road that crosses ours in our neighborhood, we found the entire road blocked by an entire giant tree that had fallen across it. As we went to go home, a fire truck and a towing truck were arriving to try and move it.
The next day was beautiful, and we spent it cutting and dragging limbs around. I made sure and took pictures of some of the worst damage:
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We are fairly certain that the tornado came right through our neighborhood, just skipping around and never fully forming. I could not sleep that evening because there were still thunderstorms coming through, and every time it thundered I got intensely stressed. We had no power, and all of our phones were dying, so it was nearly impossible to check the radar, even though there was not supposed to be anything serious. When I finally fell asleep, I kept having tornado nightmares. It was a long, rough day for all of us.
I can only say how incredibly thankful I am that we were so lucky. 14 people were killed as a result of the storms and the flooding that followed them. Our situation could have been much more tragic, and I am amazed every time I think what might have happened to us. Perhaps we truly do live in a blessed town; the tornado even tried to get us, but pulled up as it went over.
Sadly, I know that my tornado anxiety just reached a whole new level.

I want to say thank you for reading this. The past two weeks have had a profound impact on me, and I needed to write about them. Hopefully you found my story worthwhile.

With my gratitude,
Sara

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