Why I Live in Oklahoma
"Oklahoma City sees more tornadoes than any other city, so, again, they're used to this kind of thing. And when they move there they know what they need to do. Kids learn at an early age what a storm shelter is, what a tornado warning is, and what you need to do when it happens. So they're the most prepared folks for this time of year and this type of storm activity. But when the storms happen and when they're this violent, it makes you wonder why on earth would people live here. But people do..." - Janice Dean, Fox News
"A super cell has formed in Newcastle. The cloud is very low. This is going to turn into a tornado." That's what Gary England at News 9 started telling me at 2:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon. "Here we go again," I thought lightly. All storms that hit the South OKC/Moore area (where I live) start in Newcastle.
The tornado formed, grew, and gained speed rapidly. As multiple storm chasers surrounded it, they began calling out streets within 15 minutes of my house. Then within 10 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 3 minutes--and then the power went out. Shelter time.
As I sat in the closet under the stairs, I was getting text updates from Larry O'Connor, who was following the News 9 live stream and giving me street names. My radio was barely getting reception because of the electrical storm surrounding the funnel, so I couldn't hear if the danger was getting closer or farther away. When the radio did have reception, I could hear the storm chasers reporting houses being ripped apart. "This thing is picking up houses," said one. "The debris cloud is just getting bigger and bigger. This is ripping through residential areas. Massive destruction," reported another.
It's a special kind of anxiety sitting in a small dark room listening to a live account of your neighbor's houses being destroyed and wondering if yours is next. The tornado mercifully missed me by a little over a mile. That may seem like a long way, but in tornado time--especially one that is a mile wide--it's really not.
Another storm cell immediately appeared in my area. Swirling dark clouds floated over the roof of my house within 15 minutes of the tornado passing by. That cell, thankfully, dissipated and never formed to inflict more damage. As soon as it was clear that my car wasn't going to get picked up by a tornado, I jumped in to check on friends' and loved one's houses and charged toward the damaged areas to help dig for survivors. Oklahoma first responders were already on scene, and the damaged areas were blocked off to outsiders to keep the area clear for emergency vehicles and to keep civilians safe from downed power lines and debris.
Around the damaged areas, cars were pulled over in random places and neighbors were standing in the streets. Some people were just walking around, others just sitting on the ground. There was a constant sound of sirens. After watching a dozen emergency vehicles swarm around the scene, it was clear the best place to be--since I couldn't physically help--was off the streets and out of their way. I watched probably 50 emergency vehicles fly be me in less than 10 minutes, going in all directions. Police cars would cross each other going north and south, east and west; it seemed like insanity.
Friends of mine were missing and found, and others gave me accounts from within the destruction area. One friend of mine at the Warren Theater texted me: "We just got 14 out of 18 people out of the heart clinic next to the theater but unsure about the rest. Then sent dogs in. We can't get in there."
More and more I kept hearing reports and seeing images of hundreds of citizens--not first responders--digging through the rubble trying to find neighbors and perfect strangers. As devastating as the destruction was, seeing dozens of my fellow Oklahomans in plain clothes standing on top of debris digging out perfect strangers gave good feelings a chance to compete with the understandably bad ones.
That's why Oklahomans live here (outside of the awesome cost of living): We pull together. Within an hour of the tornado's destruction, News 9 announced it would be taking donations for victims. Within 30 minutes of that announcement, cars were lined up for blocks to donate food, water, clothing, and money. Thousands of dollars were raised within an hour and the generosity only kept growing. By the time News 9 had to shut down the donations area for the night, the cars were backed up for a mile, money raised, and a large energy corporation had announced it was donating $1 million to the cause.
In the midst of that one fundraiser, news agencies, city officials, and state officials took every chance they could to tell eager Oklahomans that they did not need any more volunteers. "Everyone wants to help," a local anchor said. "Right now they need thoughts and prayers."
"Manpower is not an issue," local news agencies kept declaring.
Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan reinforced this by telling Oklahomans that a few churches who were providing shelter and reunification sites needed generators but not bodies. Any time an official or news anchor approached the public with a need, it was always followed up with multiple reminders that no more volunteers were needed.
A friend of mine who is an RN wrote on Facebook: "So I tried volunteering as a first responder at Moore Warren, tried the Healthplex in Norman, tried the ER I work in up in OKC and everyone is fully staffed and fine."
This type of attitude does not just happen during tornado season. During some of the incredible blizzards that Oklahoma has suffered, some causing dozens of deaths, I had friends and family who got in their giant pickups and went out on the road just to pull/dig people out and help them get home. One friend commented to me that there was a "traffic jam" of citizens trying to help other people on the roads in devastated areas. So although the tragic loss of life leaves a devastating sting, we'll pull through. Our community always does.
In the midst of unthinkable devastation and loss, after we turn to our God in prayer, we can turn to our neighbors and think, "You're doin' fine, Oklahoma."
For those who would like to help my community:
Text STORM to 80888 for Salvation Army, REDCROSS to 90999, FOOD to 32333 for $10 donations.
Animals: Oklahoma Humane
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Photo credit: CBS11
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