Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A special anniversary

Today is the 6th anniversary of the day that changed my life forever. It was the night I survived an F5 tornado. I learned just how easily my safety and security could vanish. As I huddled in a tiny coat closet with my dog, the tornado ripped my house apart. If you're interested, here's the brief version of my story.

I noticed how dark the sky was in the south as I headed home from work that Monday evening, but this is, after all, Oklahoma, so I was used to that. When I got home and turned on the TV there was a tornado on the ground down by Amber and it was headed NE towards Chickasha. After it hit Chickasha, it kept heading NE towards Bridge Creek, where several people died. We lived in Moore and if it stayed on its current course, we would be in its path. My husband tried to get me to leave the house and meet him for dinner, but I honestly didn't think there was anything to worry about. It was many miles away from us and tornadoes don't stay on the ground THAT long, and besides, what's to say it wouldn't change course and I wouldn't be driving into its new path? Like a lot of people, I was complacent. I'd lived in Oklahoma my entire life and had never had a tornado scare before. Well, as this monster of a tornado got closer to south Oklahoma City and Moore, I put my mom's dogs (that I was dogsitting) in my husband's closet, and went ahead and got in the coat closet (right next to hubby's closet) with my own dog "just in case." And I sat there in the closet for almost 20 minutes (MORE than enough time to get in the car and leave), and I eventually heard a low rumble, sort of like a freight train. As it got louder I realized how stupid I was for not leaving and I really began to be afraid. I started praying quietly. I heard glass breaking and the aluminum mini blinds rattling, but I was still in denial. I actually thought to myself, "Well, I guess we'll have to replace some windows." The rumbling got louder and then I heard loud little debris projectiles hitting the closet door and walls. The rumbling got louder. I could hear my mom's dogs barking and my own started frantically trying to claw his way out of my arms. Then the closet walls shifted and leaned a little so that one wall was about a foot off the foundation, and I could see sunlight coming in under that wall. The rumbling and noise was deafening and I started praying as loud as I could. I prayed that if this was really my time, God would just take me quickly and not let me suffer with horrible pain. And then all of a sudden, the walls stopped shaking and everything went eerily quiet. I sat there for a little while wondering if it was over and then slowly I started hearing voices of neighbors yelling to each other. I tried to open the closet door, but there was so much debris it would only open a few inches. Momentary claustrophobia made me determined to get out of that closet NOW and not wait for someone to dig me out, so I somehow forced it open enough to get out, and what I saw made me gasp. Looking through where walls used to exist on my own house, I could see that my neighborhood was totally devastated.

I knew my husband would come looking for me so I concentrated on getting the dogs out and then found a safe place to sit down on my next-door neighbor's slab. That's right, SLAB. Their house was sheared off at the foundation, pipes and all. We were lucky, I suppose. We still had some interior walls, and that's what protected me and the dogs, but the roof and 95% of the exterior walls were gone. And there's also the amazing fact that I didn't have any injuries other than minor scrapes and bruises (which later took the shape of paw prints). My next-door neighbor had to be treated at the hospital for debris puncture wounds in her legs and she was carried out of our addition on a DOOR because the ambulances couldn't get in, but we saw her a few days later and she was fine. And people just a few houses away from us weren't so lucky and they died. There are tons of minute details I remember about that night. I remember how my car was covered in so much debris and fiberglass that it looked like it had been burned. I remember how all I wanted to do was take a bath. I remember meeting neighbors that I'd lived by for five years and never known, and how everyone banded together to try to help each other. I remember asking one of those nice neighbors to help me carry my husband's guns to his truck (I didn't want it on my conscience if a looter killed someone with one of our guns.) and she said to me, "Oh, I can't be caught with a firearm." I didn't even ask... I remember a policeman walking through the neighborhood yelling at everyone that we needed to leave and find shelter because another storm was headed our way. Go where exactly? But you know what one my best memories from that night is? I saw my husband turn the corner sprinting up our street, and when he saw me he slowed down and I could actually see the relief on his face. He came up and just hugged me tightly and I thought to myself "Wow, he really does love me." And then I finally let myself cry. Wow. And just think, that's the BRIEF version.

Lessons learned

The healing process for me has been extremely long and difficult, and I've even done individual counseling and a support group. My friend Jamie recently asked me what happened to the fun girl she used to know? I didn't answer her out loud, but I was thinking, "She must have died in the tornado." I suppose a lot of people have had moments in their lives when they believed they were about to die, and I hope they don't do as I do and live with fear and anxiety, but instead realize how precious life is and how it should be lived to the fullest extent. I'm trying to get there, and it helps a little bit now that I have my son to consider now, but it's still difficult and something I will probably always struggle with. We now have a storm shelter and that helps, but if we have enough advance warning, we will get in the car and leave. But please, if you learn anything from my story, let it be this:

1) If a tornado is heading your way, get fully dressed. Bra and everything. Seriously. Don't go to Walmart braless the next day because the person you are staying with is 2 sizes smaller than you.
2) Wear real shoes. Don't wear house slippers. Trust me, slippers are not your friend when you are climbing over debris.
3) Ladies, keep your purse with you. Don't ask your husband and his best friend to go dig in the debris of your former home the next day in the general area of where you left it.
4) If you have dogs, put a leash on them BEFORE you take shelter. Don't wait until afterwards and have to fashion a leash out of some man's necktie that you found on the ground.
5) If you have jewelry that's important to you (and I say this only if you have tons of warning time because your life is way more important than any jewelry) wear it or put it in your purse because it really sucks when you can't find your engagement ring or your family heirlooms in the debris.
6) If you have kids, put bicycle helmets on their little heads. I'm not speaking from personal experience on that one, but that's what I've been told and that's what I would do now to my own child.
7) For God's sake people, if you have 30 minutes notice that a ginormous tornado is heading your general way, get in the car and leave (in a safe, calm manner, of course). Drive to an underground parking garage or drive way the hell away from the storm's path. But don't be in denial like me and think it won't get you. You just never know.


Anonymous Rox said...

I was in Lawton when that one hit. I had taken a nap (I was about 7 mnths pg at the time) & when I woke my husband was pulling in from work - early and it was really really dark out. He asked me if I had heard about "all of the tornados". That system formed literally over my head. We turned the TV on & watched that monster for hours - there was a helicopter following it. I remember Moore county getting hit harder than most. You were very very fortunate.

11:37 PM  

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