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!
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.
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.
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.