Thinking About My Okla-home

This is a post I’ve been keeping in my head for a few days now. I have so many thoughts and feelings that I almost don’t know where to start.

On May 20, one of the worst tornadoes this country has ever seen ripped through Oklahoma City, devastating the landscape and killing approximately 24 people, half of them children. All of my friends and family are safe, with some property damage, but everyone came out intact, which is all you can ask for with a storm like this. My family just installed a safe room in their house, which I’m sure they were in all day while the storm raged, and I spoke to my mom later that day about the storm as they were outside pulling broken trees together and clearing debris from the neighborhood. They suffered much less damage than most, but they’ll still be recovering for a while, I’m sure.

Now that I live in NYC, I had no idea a storm of this magnitude was coming to my hometown, and honestly, with the utter lack of warning you can get for a tornado, neither did they. The day before the tornado, the city saw a massive storm with 200-mph winds that tore down entire power lines and trees, already incapacitating much of the city. My best friends had to park a few blocks away from their apartment and walk back to get their things and dog, and then drive to stay with a friend. A few blocks in New York is nothing, but a few blocks in Oklahoma City is much less urban and much less safe. They’re fine now and can get back in, but it was not a great night for them or anyone affected.

And the next day saw one of the most tragic and deadliest storms the state has seen in years, comparable in so many ways to the May 3rd tornado. This storm blew through the city and surrounding areas, flattening entire neighborhoods and destroying multiple schools and businesses. Tornadoes don’t discriminate in any way. They touch down when and where they want, with no regard to whose lives they’re destroying, and they move quickly and brutally through their path.

When I was in elementary school, I remember the May 3, 1999, tornado night. I remember being afraid, not because of the storm (I don’t think I was quite old enough to grasp the gravity of the situation), but because it was clear my parents were very afraid. We gathered the cats and our dog into the cupboard under the stairs, previously filled with tubs of holiday decorations and other miscellany that was shoved into the hallway. The handcrank radio was going, updating us on the location of the tornado, since our power and phone lines had been out for a while and it was our only way of getting news. I remember holding my cat Bagheera in my arms, wondering if we were going to make it through the storm (which I still even now remember feeling as a very abstract idea, that we wouldn’t make it to the next day). I remember asking my mom if I could bite my nails since I might not get to do it again, which now I find laughably morbid, and I’m sure her reaction was a combination of confusion and concern, though she did say yes.

We made it, though, and once the major part of the storm had passed over us, we went out into the front yard to look for funnels and bad weather patterns in the clouds. It’s just a thing you do if you grow up with tornadoes and I don’t know what to tell you if it’s not something you’re used to. It does sound outrageous because it is outrageous and ridiculous, and yet it’s just a thing that people do. I was so young at the time, but I remember it all so vividly.

One of my best friends at the time lived in a small town nearby, and she told me the next time I saw her that the tornado had passed directly over their house. They didn’t sustain too much damage, and they were fine, but she said she’s never heard anything like the roaring vacuum sound of a tornado passing overhead.

We’ve lived through so many tornadoes since then, but the story is always the same. We get the notice about an hour, maybe 90 minutes in advance, and we have to hunker down where we are, in the innermost room of wherever we happen to be, whether that’s the bathroom of our college apartment, cupboard under the stairs, or storm shelter in a nearby building.

And now that has happened again, in the same pattern that tornadoes always take, the same route, the same damage–except this tornado was much worse than any except the May 3rd storm, and some are saying it was worse than that, or comparable. Lives were lost and properties were absolutely destroyed, but Oklahoma has once again pulled together. We know how to recover from a tornado. People are only as prepared as you can be for a tornado (which is not very and usually less than an hour’s notice), but we have recovery on point and are doing as much as we can. This time around we have so much support from around the country, especially financially, which is where the recovery usually struggles.

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Before and After, Moore, OK

It seems a lot of people on the Internet have taken to asking why we don’t have storm shelters, why we weren’t better prepared, and generally, why we choose to live in a place like that. The short answers are that

  • We do, but if they aren’t already built, it’s nearly impossible to put them in without incredible expense. Companies do make standalone storm shelters you can have buried in your backyard, but again, the cost is quite dramatic. The soil in Oklahoma is such that most buildings built before the last decade don’t have basements at all, with the exception of major buildings and businesses. Very few homes have basements because of the makeup of the soil–it’s just not feasible. And by the way, an F5 tornado doesn’t care about your reinforced basement, because it will rip your house off its foundation and then pull the basement with it. That’s just the way things are.
  • Tornadoes come up very suddenly and with little warning. In Moore, they had approximately 40 minutes warning, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this, but there are fewer dumber choices than trying to outrun a tornado. They move so much faster than your car can and will rip you right up if they catch you. Evacuation simply is not an option for tornadoes, and once the warning exists, you simply have to go to the nearest shelter and stay put.
  • Lastly, are you serious? Why do we choose to live where we do? Why do people in California live there knowing there are earthquakes? Why do people live near the Gulf Coast when there are hurricanes? Why do people not live in bubbles at all times? Don’t be offensive. You’re better and smarter than that. Do better, people.

This is just my personal, emotional answer (and if you want me to “set aside my emotions” for this argument, that’s not going to happen). If you want some more scientific and deeper answers to these and more questions, see this DailyKos post about tornadoes and specifically this one. It’s pretty fantastic, even from someone who’s not an Okie.

We don’t need criticism right now. There are always things that can be improved–I’m not under any delusions about that. But now is not the time to criticize. Now is the time to send money, to send goods, to spend your time helping. While you’re on your computer reading this, there are people who have lost literally everything, including their homes, and they’re starting over with nothing. So do what you can to help them.

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