How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

PinExt How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

windowslivewriterdotherightthing 6557tornado damage 1 How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

I survived one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded.  It was the F5 tornado that cut through Central Oklahoma on May 3, 1999.  This tornado was massively destructive.  It killed 45 people and caused an estimated $1.2 Billion in total damage.  It damaged my home so badly that the insurance company called it a total loss.  My wife and I were in our home when the monster twister hit.  It was an experience that I’ll never forget and that taught me several lessons.

The hours before the tornado hit our home.

It was nine years ago this month when the tornado hit our home near Moore, OK.  I had been working that day in Guthrie and heard reports when I left there around 5 P.M. that severe thunderstorms were developing in the Southern part of the state.  I didn’t pay much attention because this is very commonplace in the Springtime in Oklahoma.  When I got home, my wife was watching the weather on television.  Meteorologists and storm chasers were already reporting tornadic activity.  The tornadoes first touched down around Chickasha which is about 30 miles Southwest of Moore.  No one expected them to stay on the ground as long as they did.  I remember telling my wife that the tornado was a long way off and that they cannot stay on the ground that long.  Boy, was I wrong!

Tornadoes do sound just like freight trains.

At just a little before 7 P.M. that evening the tornado ripped through my neighborhood destroying hundreds of homes in its path.  Fortunately, as I said, my wife and I had been watching it on television so we knew what was coming.  Of course, despite the fact that I’ve lived in Oklahoma all my life or maybe because of it, I never expected a tornado to hit my home.  We stayed in our house to the end hunkered down in the bathtub covered with pillows and such.  Just after we got in the tub, I could hear it coming.  It was the most eery and frightening thing I’ve ever heard.  It sounded like a freight train that just kept getting closer.  By the time it hit us, the roaring sound was so deafening that I could no longer hear my wife praying aloud right next to me!

windowslivewriterdotherightthing 6557tornado damage to kitchen 1 How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

What it is like to ride out a tornado in your bathtub.

As the tornado bared down on us, the house shook and rumbled.  The electricity went out which made it dark in the small bathroom.  The last thing that I remember hearing was a local meteorologist on television saying that you needed to be below ground to survive.  The whole world was vibrating.  It was the most terrifying few minutes of my life.  My wife still says that she thought we were both going to die.  I can honestly say that that never crossed my mind, but I think I was too scared for rational thought.  It only lasted a few minutes, but it was a powerful experience.  After the storm passed, there was a creepy silence in the bathroom.  We didn’t move for several minutes.  We were afraid that there could be another one.  The weatherman weren’t sure if it was a single funnel or multiples clustered together.  When nothing more could be heard, I got out of the bathtub to inspect the outcome.

The destruction was everywhere.

The bathroom we were in was untouched by the storm, but when I opened the door and looked toward our living room and kitchen all I saw was blue sky.  The tornado passed in front of our house, but had blown the back half of our roof off.  I then ran to the front bedroom to look out on the rest of the neighborhood.  What I saw really sent me into shock.  Every one of our neighbors’ homes across the street were completely flattened.  The houses that were there just a few minutes before were now literally piles of rubble.  My wife says that she barely recognized my voice when I reported this to her.  I remember telling her that I thought all of our neighbors were dead.  The destruction was that massive.  It was impossible to believe that anyone survived.

Going house-to-house looking for survivors.

As soon as we realized how much damage the tornado had caused, we started going from house-to-house trying to determine if our neighbors were all right.  For most of the  homes, the only thing left standing was a few walls.  We could hear the scream of what sounded like hundreds of emergency vehicle sirens in the distance, but rescue workers couldn’t get to the interior of the neighborhood where we were at because of all the debris.  Houses and their contents were strewn for blocks.  There were cars that had been thrown on top of the piles.  Water was shooting up and natural gas was hissing into the air from where kitchens had been.  It was like walking through a war zone after a bombing raid.  Amazingly, people started emerging from the rubble without any injuries.  We helped dig a few people out of their hiding places, but in the end only one person on our street suffered any significant physical injury.  A young man from one of the hardest hit homes had a pretty bad head injury from flying debris.  We loaded him into the back of a Jeep that took him to the emergency vehicles waiting at the edge of the neighborhood.

windowslivewriterdotherightthing 6557tornado damage to house 1 How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

Where do you go when you have no home?

After 30 to 45 minutes, firefighters made it to our area on foot.  They told us to gather a few things and leave.  It was getting dark and it wasn’t safe with all the gas leaks.  Entire sections of the city were evacuated.  We grab a few of our belongings and started walking toward one of the neighborhood exits.  Our cars were trapped in the garage because the tornado had twisted the panels of the garage door.  On the way out, we started discussing where to go.  I had my cell phone, but the lines were so overloaded that it was practically impossible to get a call to go through.  We did manage to contact one family member to inform them that we survived.  We wanted to stay close by.  I guess it was just too hard emotionally to go very far at this point.  We decided to go to our pastor’s home in a neighborhood nearby.  We spent the first night on cots at his house without any electricity.

Daylight reveals the swath of damage left behind.

Of course, we didn’t sleep much that first night or for several nights thereafter.  We arose the next morning and walked to where we could see our neighborhood.  I guess we needed confirmation that it was as real as we remembered.  The damage was unbelievable.  The tornado had literally mowed a path across our neighborhood and the city.  We tried to get into our neighborhood to check on our home, but the National Guard was securing the perimeter to prevent looting.  They weren’t letting anyone in.  It was two or three days before we could get to our house.  In the meantime, a couple from our church picked us up and took us to their home which was outside the area of damage.  It was only a couple of miles away, but it seemed like moving from a primitive world back to civilization.  It was quite literally a different world.

Picking up the pieces that were left behind.

We were very fortunate.  My wife and I survived this monster storm without a scratch.  As I mentioned, others were not so fortunate.  Also, while our home was a total loss, about two-thirds of it was still standing which preserved a good portion of our possessions.  Most of our neighbors lost absolutely everything.  In the home where the young man was injured, a group of people from the owner’s workplace came out to recover what they could.  There were so little of her personal possessions to be found that they offered to help us.  I cannot say enough about the generosity of my friends, family members, and community.  It was truly amazing seeing how everyone pulled together to help those that lost so much.

What helped us survive and move on.

Losing our home was emotionally difficult.  It was a trying time in our lives, but it would have been impossible without the following:

1.  The strong support of friends.

For us, our friends were mainly our church family and my business partners.  I honestly do not know how people that don’t go to church make it through such difficult times in their lives.  It must be so much harder.  We were so blessed with the outpouring of support, money, and donations given to us and to others by our church family after the tornado.  My business partners and employees also helped tremendously.  I am forever indebted.

2.  Good homeowner’s insurance.

It isn’t until you need it at this level that you truly realize just how important good insurance coverage is.  Our insurance adjuster wrote us a handwritten check for the full value of our home while sitting in her car outside our destroyed home just a few days after the storm.  If you haven’t reviewed your policy lately, I highly recommend it.  Take it to a few different agents and let them analyze it for you for any weaknesses in coverage.  It is money well spent!

3.  A strong marriage.

My wife and I both had our moments after the tornado.  Fortunately, when one of us was weak, the other was strong.  This seems to be the way it usually works out in marriage.  Maybe this is by design?  For some in our neighborhood, the tornado was the final blow that destroyed their marriage as well.  I know two couples that divorced very soon after.  I can’t imagine adding this complication to an already difficult situation.  In my marriage, the tornado just drew us closer to one another.

Surviving a tornado is a powerful experience.

windowslivewriterdotherightthing 6557tornado damage to window 2 How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home Living through the tornado and its aftermath was one of the most dramatic experiences of my life.  I’ll certainly never forget it.  Of course, it gives me a good story to tell.  People are always fascinated with the details when they learn that I was in the bathtub when it hit.  Of course, you can’t go through an experience like this without learning a thing or two. 

I have written a follow-up article about the lessons I learned that will appear as a guest post tomorrow on The Next 45 Years.  I appreciate Alex giving me the opportunity to share my story with his readers. 

Please be sure to check out the follow-up article tomorrow and leave me a comment today to let me know your thoughts about my story.

 

The images you see in this article are actual photos of the damage to our home and neighborhood.  Some of them are a little fuzzy, but I still wanted to include them to give you an idea of the true power of these storms.

PinExt How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

43 thoughts on “How I Survived An F5 Tornado That Destroyed My Home

  1. Jeff, what an amazing story and one that was hard to read without getting chills and crying. Thank you for sharing it. I will look forward to your guest post tomorrow.

  2. Jeff-All I can say is wow. I grew up in Indiana and tornadoes were commonplace. We actually stood in our yard and watched a small one rip by our neighborhood. At the time we knew we were stupid. I now realize how dumb we really were.

    Great post.

  3. @Emily – I’m glad to hear that the emotion of the event comes across in my writing. It was hard for me to tell if I was conveying the power of the experience because my feelings about it are all so real.

    @B Smith – Tornadoes are wild and weird things. There were so many odd things we observed. For instance, in our kitchen the tornado sucked the fridge out of its slot so hard that the door sprang open with enough force that it wouldn’t ever close again, but a pot of soup sitting on the cabinet right next to the fridge didn’t move.

    @Mike – It is amazing how fast an experience like this can make you discover your religion! Also, I agree that the first comment was spam and it is gone now. Thanks for pointing it out and thanks for the Stumble!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  4. Jeff, what a terrifying experience! Thank God you guys emerged uninjured. Living in the midwest and the south we never really get used to these things, and hearing you recount what it is like to actually survive one made for an amazing read. I’ve seen twisters in the distance, but I’m fortunate to have never been in the direct path. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Wow, Jeff. That is an incredible story. I remember when those tornadoes hit back in 1999. Thankfully you were protected.

    It’s really important that people support agencies like the Red Cross so that they can help people come through events such as these.

  6. Jeff,

    Good things happen to good people. This is an amazing story of survival. It is also a reminder to us to live a life of contentment and to do something good for the world before we leave this earth. Our life has no insurance.

    I’ve stumbled it.

    Shilpan

  7. Jeff, that must be an unbelievable experience. Thank God that you survive, otherwise we will be robbed by much insights in this blog. I guess living in the near-death experience often makes us live better. As Morrie Schwartz said, “Learn to die, and you will learn to live”
    Does it happen to you too?

    Anyway, I stumbled this post, hope that it can reach as many people as possible!
    Robert

  8. @FD – I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    @Ron – The Red Cross does amazing things to help people after these types of disasters. They get my support!

    @Shilpan – You are so right! Our life truly does not have any insurance. This event reminded me of my mortality. We certainly need to use our time wisely.

    @Robert – It was unbelievable. It is sometimes still hard to believe that it happened and that I survived without losing anything more than some possessions. Having such an experience does help one to value life more. Thanks for the Stumble!

    I appreciate every one of your comments!

  9. It’s one thing to watch movies portraying natural disasters (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow, etc) but it’s much scarier to know that *real* people have experienced these things.

    Thanks for sharing your story – it’s a reminder to me (and perhaps all of us) to live each day to the fullest.

  10. @Zenplease – It was a difficult time. I talk more about this aspect of it tomorrow in my guest post on The Next 45 Years. I hope you’ll check it out!

    @Paul – I do hope that sharing this will help others to realize how precious life is and start living it to its fullest!

    Keep the comments coming!

  11. OMG! I just don’t know what to say — I need some time to digest this. . .
    When I was in Tennessee, a tornado hit our neighbor while I was at work. It was terrifying to see trees and houses down.

    Glad you are around now.

  12. @Mrs. Micah – Sorry to make you cry, but I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    @Akemi – Tornadoes are terrifying. There is no doubt about it. I’m glad to be around!

    Thanks for letting me know your thoughts!

  13. I have just recently started reading Lifeskill Network blogs. I am from Moore as well and so was surprised to see your post. The date May 3 will never be the same, will it? I teared up reading about your experience…it is something that those who experienced it will ever get completely over. I don’t think in all the years that I lived in Oklahoma that Gary England got flustered until that night. That’s when I got SCARED! Thank God you and so many others escaped harm! It was tragic to lose those 43 that night but so amazing that there weren’t more fatalities. I think that if it had hit in another part of the country where folks really don’t know what to do in a tornado that the count could have been so much higher.

  14. Jeff,

    This is a truly amazing story – and the destruction shown in your photos can only make me think of how lucky both you and your wife were to escape without a scratch. Look forward to reading your article on The Next 45 Years tomorrow.

    Peter

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  16. Jeff, this is a remarkable tale. Having survived Hurricane Andrew in south Miami back in 1992, I can attest to the mental strains an event like this has on your life. In the end, it made me stronger, and it sounds like it did the same for you. Thanks for sharing. I gave you a Digg. ;-)

  17. I must also repeat that this is a truly amazing story.

    We are lucky that our country has no tornados, so I have no experience of even a small bit sized one. I have only seen them in movies.

    To have lived through such a devastating experience is incredible, and must have made you a much better human being in every way. Perhaps this is what is showing in your super charged writing.

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  24. Jeff-
    Trying to get in touch with you about “I Survived” on Biography Channel. Your story is amazing. Would love to speak with you about appearing on the show.
    I hope to hear from you.

  25. wow
    i read this and tears just start rolling down
    im so happy you and your wife survived
    amazing
    i cannot imagine the fear
    i am from the Netherlands and we (thankfully) do not have tornadoes and such

    amazing story , i just happened to stumble here !
    Greets Dottie

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  29. I stumbled upon your story after searching “Survived Tornado”. I also recently survived an F4 in Alabama on April 24th, 2010. To read your story really caused me to re-live that night of the storm. Details of how you felt and observations you made in the aftermath are exactly how I remember them as well.

    Thank you and God Bless!

  30. Thanks for your story. My parents recently lost their home from a tornado in Piedmont, OK. It helps to hear how you were able to successfully recover.

  31. Jeff. I realize this post was written long ago, but I would love to ask a few questions about the products within your destroyed home. I am working on a Product design Thesis project at Parsons in NYC – I am questioning the possibility that a surviving/found product can have on the owners ability to sustain emotional stability after such tragedy. Also the impact of loosing everything and how you begin to rebuild your life and home space. If you are interested in answering a few question that would greatly help me out I would really appreciate the feedback in order to design something that really can have an impact.

  32. Jeff. I realize this post was written long ago, but I would love to ask a few questions about the products within your destroyed home. I am working on a Product design Thesis project at Parsons in NYC – I am questioning the possibility that a surviving/found product can have on the owners ability to sustain emotional stability after such tragedy. Also the impact of loosing everything and how you begin to rebuild your life and home space. If you are interested in answering a few question that would greatly help me out I would really appreciate the feedback in order to design something that really can have an impact. Thank you

  33. I was so moved by your experience i wanted material for a writing assignment so I googled and found your story by chance, amazing I live in new zealand have never experienced a tornado. thank you for sharing God Bless Heather

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