There’s nothing more exciting and, might I add, riveting than a continuing education class. Except, of course, leaving the class. It only takes running home during the lunch break to recall that there’s a whole big world outside of the conference room which is at least 120% more fun than the lectures. If it’s a beautiful day, and you know returning to the seminar means hours of inactive sitting and slightly monotonous recitation from an outline or power point, your soul dies a little, and you are tempted to commit truancy in a way you haven’t experienced since high school.
I only had 20 minutes before the lectures resumed, so I was in a hurry. In addition, it was perhaps the first nice afternoon since I’d arrived in Oklahoma City. As a rule, I research and over prepare. Two words: lists and spreadsheets. The handy dandy internet told me that according to historic weather data, the highs would be 72-80 and the lows would be 50-60 degrees during my stay. I assumed that the lows accounted for evenings and early mornings, and packed only 1 long-sleeved shirt and a jean jacket. However, my first couple weeks in Oklahoma were almost all in the lows. Some mornings were even in the 40s! I was frustrated that I was so unprepared, and the cold got in my bones and made me cranky. I thrive in heat and humidity, so I bought a coat and a second long-sleeved shirt.
Magnolia is a spoiled dog, and she is accustomed to either doggie daycare or a work-at-home mom. I felt bad being away all day for class, but the conference room was only a 5-minute drive, so I knew I could make it back to the apartment during lunch. When I drove up, I noticed a storm tracking van parked on the street outside my apartment. I’d heard rumbles on the local news about a bad storm, but in Houston we have some pretty killer storms, so I wasn’t altogether perturbed. Maggie and I went out to take our walk, and the storm tracker guys were just waiting. The storm was supposed to hit in the middle of the night, and they were in place by noon. Huh.
The storm tracking van reminded me of the Little Mermaid song:
I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty
I’ve got whooz-its and whatz-its galore
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty.
The van was wrapped in a cheap decorative plastic which did not indicate any particular news outlet, and had odd extensions from the roof and trunk to measure and assess the storms. I couldn’t help wondering how bored they were just waiting for a storm that wasn’t supposed to happen for another 12 hours. I’d never seen the van before, so I knew this wasn’t their neighborhood – what if they had to go to the bathroom? I told myself that I was going to take a picture of it and talk to them when I got home after the continuing education class, but by that time it was gone. Some of my neighbors talked to the guys, and reported their warning of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and golf ball sized hail. Well, shoot. That was a bigger deal than I thought it was.
Due to my earlier thoughts of Little Mermaid, another phrase from the movie crept into my brain: “There’s a hurricane a comin!” Except the ship in the movie was on the ocean, and I was on the great plains. Tornado; not hurricane. My thoughts started to organize. First: provisions. I needed to go buy some red wine. In hindsight, I should also have gotten some staple items that did not require refrigeration or electricity to prepare. Second: what do I do if it gets bad? My neighbors disabused me of my misguided notions that an interior closet would be adequate, and told me to take the dog to the basement. I forgot to ask how I would know if I needed to go down there. Third: new car plus huge hail equals BAD. I fretted for a while, emailed my landlord to ask about covered parking in the area, then talked to my neighbors. One lady offered me her covered spot for the night, but didn’t guarantee that the structure would survive the storm. Sounded perfect.
Maggie and I woke up at 2 am to utter silence. I checked the local news with the expression “eye of the storm” flashing through my mind, but the storm was still on its way. In my sleepy mind, “eye of the storm” turned into “eye of the tiger,” and there’s no getting that song out of one’s head. We went back to sleep, but woke up again before 5 am to a raucous squall. It was a light show, with sound effects including thunderous bangs and the distinctive tings of ice hitting surfaces. The power blinked several times, and appliances added loud angry beeps to the soundtrack. Maggie was surprisingly calm, and eventually we managed to get back to sleep. It was still raining when we woke up to a dark gray morning, and the power was out. I was a little alarmed that I couldn’t check the weather to see what was going on, and more than a little annoyed that I couldn’t make coffee. After a few hours, my power came back on, but I was lucky in that regard.
In short, I was completely unprepared. What a reckless fool. So, in response to my imprudence, I prepared my own continuing education class about tornadoes. Prepare to be riveted.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, the key is to GET IN, GET DOWN, and GET COVERED. Get as far inside a strong building as possible, and stay away from any doors and windows. Get to the lowest floor (underground is preferable), and cover yourself to protect from any falling or flying debris. Any kind of vehicle, including a mobile home, is not a safe place.
The ODEM and Red Cross agree that you should prepare in advance by keeping informed about the weather and identifying safe locations before the tornado hits. You should also secure any items that might be carried off by the wind. The Red Cross indicates that people should know the difference between a tornado warning and a tornado watch: warning means possible; watch means happening or imminent. The way I remember the difference is when a cop gives you a warning, it’s not a real ticket, but if you watch him/her fill out the ticket, you’re screwed.
The Red Cross indicates that people (and their pets) should move to the shelter before the tornado hits, and if possible, watch for tornado signs such as dark greenish clouds (due to hail), a wall cloud (lowering base of a thunderstorm), and clouds of debris. At this point, you’ve just got to wait it out in safety for as long as the danger persists.
After the storm, you should let family members know that you are safe. The Red Cross has a Safe and Well website where people can register after disasters as well as search for loved ones who have checked in. The Red Cross’s advice for the period after a storm boils down to common sense and the golden rule: don’t be a jerk. However, I respect the need to reiterate this guidance – not only is common sense a relative concept, but also it is understandable that people may temporarily lose their sense of reason, and may respond emotionally or irrationally to an emergency. Fear and grief can be palpable and controlling. Therefore, it is recommended that if your home is safe, stay there so that emergency crews can do their jobs; alternatively, if you’ve been evacuated, stay away until permitted to return. In addition, keep informed of the weather in case further storms are on the way, render aid where needed until professionals arrive, and take pictures of the damage for insurance purposes.
The morning after the storm, I bought more peanut butter, and downloaded a local news app onto my phone. I walked Maggie, and surveyed the damage. Trees were ripped apart, with limbs the size of my torso violently fractured from trunks. Some trees were uprooted altogether. Fences were knocked over and some homes and businesses were without power until that night or the next day. Roof panels and even electric crosswalk signs were torn from their rightful places. Business signs and awnings were slashed and cleaved from buildings.
On a side note, it is beyond my understanding why people in Oklahoma install awnings. Their useful lifespan is similar to an umbrella which inverts at the slightest breeze. It is their preordained destiny to catch the winds of a tempest and blow away!
A couple days after the storm, I saw a crane lifting a massive trunk from where it rested on a residential roof. I was on the way to one of my favorite parks for a jog, and witnessed even more damage within the park grounds. I had a sense of relief that the downed trees in the park did not injure any person or property, but also a sense of loss due to the advanced age of some of the fallen. Several large branches were severed from a broad, old willow, and I noticed a note taped to its trunk: “PLEASE TRY TO SAVE WILLOW! DAUGHTER PLANS WEDDING UNDER IT THIS FALL!!” Over a week after the storm, it was not uncommon to see limbs, cut up trunks, and other storm debris waiting to be picked up along curbs. The last time I went to the park, I checked on the willow. The broken limbs were neatly trimmed to stumps along the great trunk. Looks like it survived this time.
The newsman said there will be another storm tomorrow. He casually noted that May is the season for storms, and they will start to increase in frequency and severity. The nature of his tone, and the similarly relaxed response from the anchors conveyed not just the spoken message, but also the expectations of people who live in this area. I am accustomed to heavy seasonal flooding because of where I usually live; they are accustomed to fierce winds and hail. I am used to the threat of nature as creeping, invasive, and ultimately escapable or avoidable. But those who live in this area are familiar with the threat of nature as an irrational battering hammer, with disproportionate and mostly unpredictable strike points. If I lived here more than a month, I might also get used to the violent hand of nature, but I don’t know if I could ever be comfortable with it.
There will be a storm tomorrow, and another next week. What will I do differently from the first storm? A lot. Because now I know, and knowing is half the battle.
– Your huckleberry
P.S. – I relied on websites for the Red Cross and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management as sources for what to do before, during and after a tornado. Any errors, omissions, and opinions are mine.