“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living
It is incredibly hot, I am sweating profusely, and I am afraid. My muscles are taut and my back aches from the strain. The sweet little dog in my lap senses my anxiety and stares at me with a knowing look. Our storm shelter is very crowded but eerily quiet; all the adults are praying. The fear is palpable.
I’ve been in this shelter built under our garage floor before, but this time is different. This time the sweetie is with me, his first time to be in the shelter. Typically he is working twenty seven miles away so I tackle the ice storms, blizzards, earthquakes, 80 mph straight-line winds, destructive hail storms, and the horrific tornadoes that wreak havoc in central Oklahoma.
Another reason this time is different is because this tornado is two blocks from our home, and we can hear it howl.
You gain new respect for your own personal space when you are in a metal box underground with three other adults, four children under the age of ten, (two of whom are crying) an 80 pound Labrador retriever, a 24 pound terrier who has left a gift on the floor, a trembling Chihuahua, and one very nervous cat. Did I mention she still has claws?
It was not our turn this time, but tornadoes strike so often here you feel that sooner or later your number will be up. Tornadoes have begun their yearly rampage through my state; it’s practically a rite of passage. This is something I loathe, dread, and take damn seriously.
Oklahoma City is the epicenter of “tornado alley” in this country. Yep, just south of OKC, in Norman, the Oklahoma University School of Meteorology and the National Storms Laboratory pioneered state of the art tornado forecasting and tracking.
We have storm chasers reporting with moment to moment updates like nowhere in the world. When I was in England I met a man from Spain who asked where I was from. When I said Oklahoma he replied “Oh, you have big spinning wind?” Yes, that would be us.
May is different here. We huddle in front of the TV frequently in the spring; glued to the screen waiting, watching, and listening for news of a new mesocyclone descending with the potential to leave devastation in its wake.
We totally get the meteorology lingo; we know what the “dry line” is, what “PDS” means, what a “sink drain” refers to, and the difference between an F-2 and an F-5. We surely know a wall cloud when we see one and we keep an eye out for circulation.
And, we know precisely what that moment feels like when you must make a decision about what you will do, where you will go. You have about fifteen minutes to gather yourself, your family, and pets. It is not a drill; it is the worst reality. We central Oklahomans do this over and over again in the spring.
The meteorologist points to a graphic showing that at 6:30 the tornado will be four miles away, at 6:45 it will be three blocks way, and at 7:00 the stupiddamnshitty thing will be on top of you! So you gather the pets, wallet, water, boots, bike helmets, blanket, iPhone, iPad, flashlights, and head for a windowless room to put as many walls as you can between you and the funnel.
Before we got the storm shelter I would announce (despite Sweetie’s protests) that we were packing it up and heading to Baptist Hospital. Under Baptist there is a long underground tunnel locals take shelter in during tornadoes. There you’ll find people of all ages and their pets lining the halls, waiting, listening and wondering what will be left of the life they have built when they emerge. Just a typical spring day in Oklahoma City.
These non-relenting tornado strikes are like episodes of atrial fibrillation that keep knocking the breath out of you time after time. Folks show the stress; they now have that post-tornado face. Locals know the look; these are the faces of grave loss, whose lives are forever changed. They go through their days unable to come to grips with what has blown their lives to bits. Whether or not your home is hit, the big wind opens a wound of uncertainty in your spirit.
We never dreamed that horrific 1999 scenario would be repeated May 20th, 2013 to practically the same degree, same location, and same sad path. In-ground shelters are selling like hand warmers in the tundra. And, the brand new neighbors who just moved here from Hawaii and shared our storm shelter last Sunday—-they have already installed their own underground shelter.
“…I’d been caught up in some wild cyclone, like Dorothy throw into Oz, with not a good witch in sight to save me.” ― Sarah Dessen, Keeping the Moon