Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Night of the Twisters

So I'm finally sitting down to write about what happened a few weeks ago. It seems so crazy that I've spent this long "dealing with it", as those that were actual victims of the storms are moving on and rebuilding their lives.

As everyone knows, Joplin, MO was hit by one of the worst tornado's in recorded history 3 weeks ago. And honestly that hit home with me even more than the countless small towns that are hit in my own state each year. Joplin is on the way to my grandparent's house in Springfield, MO. I've been stopping there at the Steak 'n Shake and QT for 30 years. I know it. So I was on edge, especially knowing how close it came to my grandparents.

The following Tuesday, May 24th, was shaping up to be the midwest's version of "the perfect storm". For a week there had been buzz of something major happening. And I happen to have a wonderful friend IRL, Nathan (@natecast on Twitter), who was very serious when warning his friends to prepare for the worst. Nathan loves weather, is fascinated with the graphs and models and hook echos and all that stuff...but he's far more than "amateur" in my book and rarely over-hypes anything.

That day it was cloudy in the morning, cool outside. By noon the sun had come out and the air was so thick you could hardly breathe. Everyone who has been around tornadoes know this is a very, very bad sign. Nathan began sending regular updates to his friends telling us an approximate time of arrival of severe weather. The National Weather Service told residents of the OKC metro area to stay off the roads between 3-6pm. And the State of Oklahoma closed early and sent home non-essential personnel. Schools were closing early.

All that backstory so you know how serious it was. All day, I could only concentrate on where we should go. Few people have basements in Oklahoma, our house is no exception. Our normal spot for tornado safety is the master closet or pantry. But I had a very, very bad feeling about this. And I wanted to be underground. All day I worried, wondered where the right place was. Was I overreacting?

Our good friends B&D have an underground storm shelter in their garage. They had extended the offer to take cover any time, but I knew that Nathan and his wife and daughter were already planning on going there. I texted B, she said to come on over. So at 3:00 I picked up the boys from school and began to get ready to ride out the storm.

By 4:00 tornadoes had already started firing west of us. And the largest was tracking right toward our house. B&D live about a mile north of us, and I took the kids and headed over. John couldn't leave work, and we assured him the right thing to do was stay put on the east side of town. By 4:00 it was too late...he'd be in the middle of the storms if he left.

By 4:30 the rest of us were at the house and Nathan began to get very nervous. He felt like it was the right time to get in the storm shelter. At this point Owen was glued to my hip, unwilling to even move to the other hip he was so tense and scared. Colt was sucking on his paci, running his blankie through his hands. He doesn't normally have those items during the day but I was so grateful I brought them. He was glued to my leg.

Speaking of, I had packed for the apocalypse. I think Brooke must have thought I was INSANE when it took two trips to come into her house. Everything from electronics to snacks to an entire pack of diapers and wipes, extra clothes, jackets...I think I truly was prepared for our house to be demolished. Also, I think I was planning for a roomy basement instead of a cellar to take cover in.

Anyway, the storm shelter. We decided to head down. And immediately I felt a rush of emotions. As we lowered Colt inside and I saw him staring up at me, I began to get very scared. I crawled in, they handed Owen to me and I began to get a whole new kind of emotion. Panic. Panic that we were really down here, that it was so bad and unpredictable outside, and panic that suddenly 3 women (one pregnant) and 5 children were in the ground in a concrete shelter only 3 feet wide. And the guilt I had was immense. If I had realized how small it was, I would have never put B&D in the position I did. That shelter is for THEIR family's safety and it wasn't clear if Nathan and Derek would even fit.

So imagine, fear, panic, guilt all hitting me at once...and after a few minutes down in the ground, my kids hot and sweaty and glued to me, we realized we couldn't breathe. There was a small air hole, but no circulating air. It was in their garage on one of the muggiest days I've ever felt. Of course we were all in jeans, long sleeves and tennis shoes (because if there is debris you need to be covered) so we were pouring sweat. The door on the top of the shelter was a sliding door built into the garage floor. And all I could think about was that if the tornado hit the house and debris piled on top of the shelter, it would be hours before anyone arrived to dig us out. My heart was racing.

L, panicked and pregnant, voiced her fears first. She'd been the first to get in and was farthest from the opening of the shelter. As her anxiety grew, it became even harder to get a breath. And she had to move. We maneuvered around and I concentrated on getting her to the other end. I moved into her spot. I lasted about 7 seconds before I felt exactly the same way. Thoughts of my children melted away and all I could think about was getting air. I was prepared to leave the kids there and take shelter above ground. It was a drastic, terrifying, completely self-involved feeling I had. I was out of my mind. B moved into my spot. Owen and I stood and stuck our head out of the shelter, hoping Nathan and D would give us the all clear before everyone had to hunker down.

And eventually they did. The tornado had been skipping around but it was now far enough east that we knew it had missed us. All told we were in the shelter for somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. But it felt like an eternity. As everyone was getting out, again I looked down and saw Colt staring up at me. All 5 kids had been so quiet and so sweet and calm...I was embarrassed that I had panicked like I did.

So we moved inside, hung out for about 30 more minutes before feeling safe enough to head home. John was taking shelter at his work as the storms moved his way, and my mind was with him while he did. The kids calmed down, Colt discovered B&D's iPad with "Phineas & Ferb" episodes. Owen gave my arms a rest and played with his friend W. Nathan continued to watch the weather, and every now and then as footage of damage was aired, I would look over and see him with his eyes closed. Almost like he was in prayer or disbelief. I knew that he was processing as many emotions as the rest of us were.

By 5:30 I loaded the kids up and headed home. I called John to tell him about the experience...how close the tornado had come and how I felt like a complete failure as a mother with my reaction inside the shelter. How I felt such heavy guilt for imposing on B&D. And then I turned on the news. And saw that the tornado had destroyed structures just 3 miles north of our house. And worst of all, they were asking for search party volunteers to look for a 3-year-old boy who was missing.

His name was Ryan. His pregnant mother had done everything we're supposed to do when a tornado is headed our way in Oklahoma: she got in the bathtub of an inner room in the house, covered herself and her THREE children with a mattress and waited. And the tornado demolished their home...sucking her three children out of her arms and tossing the family like rag dolls around the neighborhood. His older sister was in critical condition when they found her, his mother unconscious, his baby brother was killed. And they couldn't find Ryan. When they did find him 3 days later, it was too late.

I cannot get over the fact that this woman lived my nightmare. She lived what I'd feared and prepared for all day. Her babies were taken from her in the worst way. And then I knew...no matter what had happened or how I'd reacted, everything I'd done that day was the right decision. Taking them out of school early, imposing on B&D, getting underground...it was all the right decision because a mere three miles separated me from my nightmares coming true.

I have continued to think about that. I've lived in Oklahoma my entire life, had close encounters with tornadoes before. It is part of who we are as Oklahomans...our memories and experiences are dotted with devastating effects of mother nature. But I'd never lived through a storm like that as a mother. It's brought entirely new meaning to preparations and disaster plans. While on my way to get the kids, I'd called my mom and mother-in-law and sister to let them know where to meet should the storms hit and take out cell towers. So that we'd all know we were ok. So we'd know when to start looking for someone. It seemed so reactionary and over-the-top at the time, but it was necessary. I have to start thinking like that.

I will always be grateful for B&D not hesitating to open their shelter to us. For B remaining calm and collected in the shelter making the kids laugh while I freaked out. For D and Nathan taking care of all of us as they watched the weather move through. And John is so grateful that he knew we were taken care of, that we would be safe even if the tornado was right on top of us. It's just awesome to have friends who love you like family.

I continue to pray for the victims of the Oklahoma storms that day, and for Joplin and Alabama and Mississippi, too. And certainly Ryan's family as they recover from losing their two precious sons. This has been a terrible season. We're on a waiting list to have our own underground storm shelter installed because I want to be underground. No matter how hard it might be, I need to know my family will be underground, and not being ripped from my arms.

Motherhood changes everything...I just didn't realize all the ways it would.
**Thanks for reading! I know it's long, just needed to get the story out there.**


Leah said...

I'm so glad you shared this story. Wow, it really is quite amazing, and I suppose being from Oklahoma, you have had your share of tornadoes.

The same day this was happening in Oklahoma and Missouri, we also had a tornado in Minnesota. (Although I don't think MN has the capabilities of having storms like you do) But I was so relaxed about it because I live in an urban area, and urban areas hardly ever get hit. I even left my kids napping in their cribs as the tornado siren went off. (I still have so much guilt for this) Luckily my Mom who lives two hours away called me to let me know the tornado was headed my way. We all have basements in MN, luckily, so we headed there, and neighborhoods just 2 blocks from my home were completely destroyed.

You are so right though. . . having children just puts everything into a new perspective.

Thinking and praying for all the people who were touched by these terrible storms.

happymomof2 said...

OH WOW! That is quite a story you shared, I cannot imagine going through what you all went through. We live in KY and from time to time we too have tornados, thankfully we have a basement. Hope you all get your shelter soon!

SassyIfLady said...

Wow, your blog post gave me goose bumps. What a difficult day. I use to work for the Red Cross and I've seen lots of tornadoes and the horrible damage mother nature can do. It def. showed me that I wasn't the one in control...I'm glad you and your family was safe. Take care of yourselves! I have family in KY and Indiana and they've been in their basements more this year than ever before. Glad you're well.

Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan said...

Thank goodness we've got such good friends. I was just as terrified that afternoon as you were. Thanks for writing this, I hope it helped to get this off your chest.

Edwina Sybert said...

Aw… I’m stirred by this whole experience. It shows camaraderie and the importance of preparedness. Though some good friends took you in, the thought of not having your own shelter room at the time must be terrifying, especially for you, as a parent. I’m sure you’ve had one installed now, as you wouldn’t let them experience this again. Not when you can do something, right? :) -->Edwina Sybert