May 20, 2013, dawned like any other late May day in Oklahoma. Our family was looking forward to the end of school. It was also the last of three days in a row of TorCon 8-9, and I was ready for this final day of high risk to be over.
A year before, we installed a storm shelter inside our home’s garage in Moore, south of Oklahoma City. For 17 years, we’d ridden out every tornado warning in the interior bathroom of our home, but we finally got serious about tornado safety. We had considered our options and chosen an above-ground shelter.
On May 20, my husband was at work, but I was home watching the skies. On a local station at 1 p.m., I heard words that made my heart leap, “There is a bad-looking cell forming by Bridge Creek.” The town of Bridge Creek, 30 miles southwest of OKC, had been hit hard by the May 3, 1999, tornado.
Getting My Daughters Home
Grabbing my keys, I sped off to pick up my daughters from their separate schools nearby. My first instinct was just to get us all home and avoid a lockdown.
In the office at Plaza Towers Elementary, I waited with other parents. When my daughter came in and saw that I was concerned, I explained that we were just trying to beat the lockdown and not to worry.
We zoomed over to the high school, and checked out my oldest daughter. As we drove home, I urged the kids to put on sturdy shoes and grab their emergency bags. We pulled into the driveway, dodging golf ball-sized hail, as the tornado sirens sounded.
Waiting Out the Storm
I sent the girls to the storm shelter, then I joined them and bolted us in. As we waited, we could feel a horrifying rumbling vibration coming up from the ground beneath us.
Debris started hitting the house, then escalated into a deafening roar. The children buried their heads against me, as the sound was excruciating. As the storm ground away at our home, we clutched together in our metal bunker and waited for it to pass.
Afterward, I unbolted the locks and peered out to see an empty sky above us and a towering pile of rubble. I texted my husband that we were okay, to his great relief.
Considering what we had just been through, our daughters seemed to be okay. I thought maybe I should take some pictures, but I made the kids stay close to the storm shelter because of sharp metal, exposed wood, and filth everywhere. My youngest daughter spontaneously began to cry, and I hugged her while wondering, “What do I do next?”
I looked East, and saw through where Plaza Towers should have been. I could see damaged houses on the other side. The sirens and lights from emergency vehicles in the schoolyard proved that a frantic search was underway, and we prayed that everyone would be okay.
We didn’t have to go far . . . but walking away from our destroyed home with my two daughters, along with the shock of the experience we had been through, made it seem like the longest walk ever. While we waited for my husband, I reassured the kids that everything would be okay – we had family nearby and someplace to go.
But my words rang hollow. Losing their home and possessions was a deep wound for them. I thanked God that we were together, we were safe, and we still had one vehicle. For the rest of our community, all we could do was pray, and ask others to pray for our town, too.
Surviving Was Only the Start
Surviving an F5 tornado was only the first part of our journey. The recovery period for us, and for our community, was a much longer leg of the journey. Most of us are still recovering in our own way.
We often talk about experiences we had over the years at the old house. Until the tornado, it was the only home our children knew. We don’t want to lose the memories of our first family home – but now we know that home really is wherever we are together.