Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 20: Day Of

Speaking from the heart, as I always do with this blog, I can admit to you that I haven't even known where to begin. When I step out of this lovely town that I was raised in and currently live in, and then tell people elsewhere that I live in Moore, I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices: "Oooh, you live in MOORE...." This is now followed by a barrage of questions, such as, "Were you impacted? Was your house damaged? Do you know people who lost their homes? Do you know people that died?" The answers to these questions, respectively, are yes; no; yes; no-but I know people whose friend or family member died. But the "yes" and "no" just can't even begin to sum it up. Most of us here have been wells of emotion, sometimes capable of talking for hours upon hours about the tornado last Monday, and sometimes not able to utter a word because we just don't know what to say. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm feeling. I know that we all have varying days here; Sunday, for instance, I remarked that I felt better than I had since the tornado actually hit, just to hear BJ reply, "Really? For some reason I feel worse today." I also know that we're all in it together, because that's how people in Moore are.

At times I have felt overcome by all of the terribleness that I have seen, and at times I have felt overwhelmed by all of the goodness that I have seen as well. Because I use this blog as a diary of sorts, I'm clearly going to use this as a forum for my own processing and observations, so feel free to read along or turn your attention elsewhere as you need. Breaking it down into chunks seems like the only way to surmount the insurmountable when it comes to all of the cleanup here, and I'm going to take a similar approach with my own account on this blog. Today I'll tell our story of the day of the tornado, May 20, 2013.

It wasn't a normal day for us. If it was a normal Monday, I would have been home with the boys. About 50 of 52 Mondays a year we aren't on a vacation somewhere, so Moore would have been our location. I certainly would have been at home because tornadoes were expected, and the local meteorologists had forewarned everyone to be in a safe place by 2PM. For us, that is at home because our next-door neighbors have an underground shelter and have generously volunteered us a guaranteed spot until we get our own shelter installed. As it was, BJ, the boys, and I were returning from a weekend vacation in Minnesota. We had left Heidi and Billy's house at 10:45AM and were planning to make it to Kansas City for the night. As we were approaching Ames, Iowa, a text rang in on my phone. I glanced down to my leg, where my phone was propped, and quickly read this text from BJ's mom: "Large tornado at 149th and May." I immediately tossed the phone to BJ and said, "Call your mom. Now." and repeated the text. 149th and May isn't exactly next door, but it's our side of town and way too close for comfort. BJ called Susan and began getting the scoop: it had just recently lowered, it was headed east-northeast into the metro, it was aiming for Moore. Beyond that, Susan couldn't say much because it was all so confusing as it was happening, and even the forecasters weren't sure which direction it was going at times. Frustrated, I picked up the phone and called my dad. Keep in mind, my dad spent an entire career in a law enforcement position; he was a rescue worker in the OKC bombing, he was in charge of recovery of bodies from the Eufaula bridge collapse, the guy has seen it all and he's always level-headed. He was level-headed when he answered the phone alright, but the tension in his voice was incredibly obvious as he was trying to make his way home to Moore without getting too close in on the storm. "Last I just heard it was just south of 4th and Santa Fe. Baby, it's headed down 4th street right for both of our houses." I took a measured breath in and said, "Okay." What else could I say? There was nothing to be done at that point. Dad promised to call as soon as he could.

I hung up with him and talked with BJ in the passenger seat. We shortly discussed the strong possibility that we were about to lose our home, that my parents were about to lose their home, and that we were both going to lose our dogs, who were at my parents' home. BJ reminded me that this was a best-case scenario for our families though: no one was home, so it couldn't hurt us. I didn't realize at the time that my sister had made her way into Moore to get my nephew, and that they were both on lock-down in his school. I tried to call my brother and sister but couldn't get through; phone lines were already jammed or blown down. So I called Sommer and said, "Congratulations, you just earned the best-friend role of talking to me until I hear from my family." Sommer lives in Massachusetts and had no idea what was going on until I told her. We talked for probably 15 minutes, me shaking the entire time (I'm actually shaking a bit uncontrollably as I type this), but gradually began settling down as I assumed we had lost our home, and certainly our neighborhood, and began accepting that possibility in my mind.

Calls from family members finally began trickling in. I learned from my brother that the tornado had been headed directly east, straight for our home, for about two miles before suddenly taking an abrupt turn to the north about a quarter of a mile from our house. I still wasn't sure what it meant for our house because the tornado was at least a half-mile wide at the time, but at least I could begin tracking it in my mind. He told us that it missed my parents' house to the north and that the dogs were fine. We learned later just how much they missed it by: 800 feet. He also shared the most important news, which was that my sister and nephew, who I didn't know had been potentially in harm's way, were a few miles north of where it crossed Bryant and were perfectly safe. And then right before my neighbor Julie's phone went down for good, I talked to her long enough to learn that our house had made it. She didn't know at the time how close it had come, but I could hear the shock in her voice that our houses were still standing. She described it as "intense" in the shelter: garage door shaking violently, what sounded like constant loud thunder coming from the ground, the drop in air pressure. It was close alright---missed us also by just 800 feet. Winds at our house had to have been over 100 mph. Our grill was damaged beyond repair, but nothing major was lost at our house. We knew our neighbors weren't so lucky, and they certainly weren't. A quick jaunt up our street and you'll find shattered windows and holes in roofs. Just a little further you see nothing but slabs with heaps of rubble on top, no walls standing. The northern half of the park just alongside our neighborhood is in smithereens. The playground had become a mangled mess of automobiles, houses, sheet metal, bicycles, laundry baskets, tires, trees, dolls, boards, chunks of pavement, children's motorized vehicles, and everything else under the sun. The trees were gone, the picnic pavilion was gone, it was just gone gone gone. BJ and I didn't know the scope of it for the next couple of hours. As we pulled into Kansas City I got a picture text of our park showing the state of it, and I knew for sure it was bad. I already knew it was going to be bad though; not only have I lived through an F5 tornado in Moore before, but I had also heard from about 15 loving and concerned friends and family members on the phone that it was "BAD." "Jenny," they said, "prepare yourself. This is really, really bad." Finally I unloaded on someone, I can't remember who, and cried in exasperation, "I get it! I know it's bad! It's bad! I get it! It's bad! This isn't doing me any good!" Add in missing children and a rising death toll, and it was all we could do to not come unraveled on the road.

We checked into the hotel that night and the clerk at the Comfort Inn had the lobby television on CNN, which of course was covering Moore. This was my first chance to see images, and I told the clerk that my neighborhood had been destroyed. Someone else overheard and soon they were both asking me questions as though I had been there; I told them what I knew and that we were just trying to get home. In bed that night, I didn't fall asleep until after 2AM. All I could think about were awful imagined scenarios in which I was trying to beat out the tornado, but I couldn't get both kids into the shelter in time and lost one of them. That was the first of several nights that I avoided bedtime because I couldn't help but lie there awake, horrified by the productions of my own mind. Ten days later I've mostly stopped doing that, but it replays all night long in my dreams. Literally, all night long I dream of tornadoes, picking through debris, coming out of rubble, outrunning a storm. It won't always be like this, but I need to keep figuring it out from here...

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