Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tornado Survival

It's been over twenty years since we survived the big tornado of Laverne, Oklahoma. My wife and I were living out near the panhandle to be close to her parents. One evening we were at home and there was just an odd feeling in the air, it had the feel of tornado weather. If you haven't lived it, I don't know how to describe that weather, other than the air is heavier, it looks stormy yet clear. You often have feeling of impending doom.

Out by the panhandle we were between all of the sophisticated Doppler radar systems that all the Oklahoma City News stations bragged about. We were used to it and all the old timers had their own "old fashioned ways" of monitoring and predicting the weather. On this day, I knew there was a risk but I had gone out back and couldn't see anything in the air. It was still light, so there was a good deal of visibility, but the trees blocked the line of sight to the south.

Then I started hearing weird traffic sounds. Now any traffic sounds were weird at our house since we lived on a very quiet side street. But I looked out and saw a couple of cars driving like a bat out of hell. Neighbors wee running out to the middle of the street to look at the sky. SO I did the same. That's when I saw the huge funnel cloud heading directly at us.

IN movies tornadoes seem to happen instantly and move so fast you have no warning. This has never been my experience. From a distance they are cone shaped clouds that seem to slowly advance one direction or another. The one thing we all agreed on was this big cloud was barreling down on our little town. My wife and I grabbed the dog and drove a block away to get her father, who was about 88 years old at the time. Naturally he had all the doors locked and latched from the inside and could not hear the knocking. Neighbors were running to tornado shelters and yelling for us to join them a the cloud seemed to be almost right on top of us.

We could feel the pressure of the wind currents and knew this neighborhood would be rubble in minutes. So I ripped the screen door open, breaking the latch and unlocking the front door. My father in law was standing near the door. To this day I don't know if he was in the process of answering the pounding or if he was standing nearby and ignoring the knock.

Without waiting for his protests I simply grabbed him and put him in the car. My wife had moved over to the driver's side and I piled in the back. The swirling black could was upon us! There was no way we could get her father to the storm shelter more than a block away so we decided to do the one thing you are told to never do, we had to out run it.

Mrs. Cris peeled out and started whipping through the maze of turns you face when leaving a housing addition. She was in a full panic and I am alternating between watching the dark cloud and her erratic driving. She got us to the highway and asked the fateful question, "Which way?"

We could go North, but that was the direction the storm was headed. We could go West or East. Out of habit I said East, since that was the way to the farm, which was familiar shelter to us all. She gunned the big Oldsmobile and all eight cylinders were kicking in when I had to talk her down from her panic. "Storms move slowly. We were ahead of it, we can move at two to three times the speed of the storm, so calm down and slow up a bit. We were at more risk of getting killed by the car than we were from the storm. I felt I was the voice of reason and sanity.

Then I looked back at the tornado and saw it had turned as we turned and was headed across country, right at us. It seems all calm and rationality left as I yelled, "Forget that crap! Drive faster!!"

We did outrun the storm. We got East of it and stopped at the top of a little hill with several other neighbors that had stopped along the highway to watch the twister pass. Keep in mind in the flat plains of Western Oklahoma you can see for miles and miles. It is not like other parts of the world where a half mile to a mile of visibility is the norm. From a good hilltop you can see 25 miles in Western Oklahoma. We saw the funnel cloud had stayed on the ground for miles. It turned just South of Laverne and stayed on the ground as it headed North East. It blew apart trees along the creek, ripped the grass out of pastures so it looked like a road grader had passed, it even blew down the old garage at our farm and tore a bit of the roof off of the machine shed, but all in all we were lucky.

The Laverne tornado was a video highlight on national news for the next week and then was forgotten by most everybody. Can you believe that? Most everybody forgot it ever happened. Nobody was killed, a town disaster was narrowly avoided so it was not memorable. Except I'll never forget the run for our lives.

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