We were only about forty minutes into my great nephew Josh’s Northeast Academy Sunday afternoon Baccalaureate ceremony at Oklahoma City’s Greater Mount Olive Baptist church, when my sister Barbara, sitting next to me, whispered this. As proof, she presented me the National Weather Service-issued communiqué on her smart phone.
“But I just walked in here from outside and the sun is shining,” I said, incredulously.
“Don’t matter,” she said. “There’s a tornado coming. Don’t you hear the sirens outside? They gonna have to stop this.” My only sister has lived in Oklahoma City all her life. She would know. I’d heard a faint high pitched whine in the last few minutes, but figured it a kink in church’s sound system.
No sooner than Barbara mentioned tornado, a church staffer stepped to the podium to serenely deliver the news: indeed, there was a tornado, just a few city miles away in fact, on Memorial Road. He directed robed graduates and audience alike to calmly make their way to a windowless foyer at the church’s rear-—instructions which, to me, succinctly translated into, ‘Get your ass out of this building and into your car.‘
Presumably, Gerald, my “big” brother, who’d also flown in from Los Angeles for the graduation, interpreted the man’s words the same way. I found him standing at the edge of the church’s parking lot, gazing up at now dark clouds in the distance.
“Man, this is something!” I said, equal parts excited and nervous. I knew it was silly, I told him, but I felt kind of guilty: on the flight here, I sentimentally wished for some of the temperamental, cosmic Oklahoma weather we’d grown up with, where there could be a weather system buffet of sunshine, thunderstorms and a brilliant rainbow, all in a matter of twenty minutes. However, tornado wasn’t on my wish list.
Gerald didn’t hear me. Continuing his survey of the heavens, he mumbled something about a “hell package.” “Hell package? What the hell is a ‘hell package?’”
“No—HAIL package,” he corrected me. There could be some hail in those clouds, he cautioned, and insurance on his rental car didn’t include the “hail package.”
In Oklahoma, hail—golf ball, occasionally even grapefruit-sized—is a property-damaging nuisance. Accordingly, it’s also a selling point in local advertising. Earlier, I’d seen a car dealership’s TV commercial, trumpeting cars kept under canopies as “Hail-Free Hondas.”
Not having the “hail package” on my rental either, I suggested we take the cars to the Skirvin Hotel, downtown, where I was staying, and that we get them there in a hurry.
As we rolled out of the parking lot, it began to rain. (Barbara, my niece Karen and her two kids, had long gone, running to their car as if they were being chased.) And the ominous tornado sirens, which stopped when we exited the church,had started up again. By the way, you can’t hear anything spookier than tornado sirens. They reminded me of air raid sirens heard in those old World War II films.
The few cars on the road moved fast and frantically toward their destinations. In stark contrast, I noticed people in shorts and flip flops sauntering into 7-11s or sitting in the drive thru at a Sonic’s, like nothing was going on.
By the time Gerald and I reached the Skirvin, it was raining cats and dogs but thankfully, no hail. A valet opened my door and I ran for cover, but Gerald, looking for his wallet, thought he might have left it at the church, and yelled that he was driving back there. If this were a movie, my brother would be the guy who gets eaten up by the monster (he was okay. He found his wallet, too).
On the TV in my room I learned that the tornado we ran from had actually landed in the suburb of Edmond; another twister reeked havoc in Shawnee. Oklahoma City proper, once again, was spared. The joke is that the BEST way to avoid a tornado in OKC is to live on the city’s predominantly black East side, because a tornado isn’t brave enough to go there. Prideful talk.
The next morning was absolutely gorgeous. Even so, the local TV weatherman—technology is a mutha–advised that at about two in the afternoon, everything would change. Sure enough, about that time I was in deli section of the city’s new, modern, vast and only Whole Foods market, when I heard thunder. Then came heavy rain, followed by a pinging sound from the store’s metal roof high above. “What’s that?” I asked a female store clerk. “Oh, that’s hail.” Shit. My rented Altima, in the uncovered parking lot, was on its own.
And then came those damn tornado sirens.
Cradling deli food and bottled water, I made a brisk trek to the nearest check out counter. “I’m sorry sir,” said the young lady behind the register. “I’m not allowed to check out customers under these circumstances. There’s danger outside….”
That instant, before I could gangsta my way out, over the PA system a male voice interrupted Credence Clearwater Revival on the store’s sound system: “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s been a tornado warning. We’re asking that all customers and employees immediately go to the back of the store, into our designated safe area.”
You gotta be kidding me. Not again.
Earthquakes Vs. tornadoes. In L.A., I’ve had that conversation a million times. Give me a tornado any day, I’ve always said. One, you can predict them. Two, you have someplace to go to escape them.
But I didn’t come to Oklahoma City to die in the back room of a Whole Foods. Hail, uh, HELL no. On cue, a particularly angry clap of thunder seemed to counter, “YOU MIGHT HAVE, YOU NEVER KNOW.”
In our makeshift bunker, a decidedly well-heeled collection of college students in tattered vintage rock tees and middle aged designer-jeaned housewives texted and tweeted, saying little to one another. Most were calm; others were clearly scared out of their wits. I was a combination of both. Somebody cracked that at least we wouldn’t starve.
Remarkably, almost as soon as we were herded into the space, the determination was made that all was clear. I paid for my food and dodged rain drops to the car. No hail damage! Now if only I could make it back to the Skirvin. Half way there, it began raining so hard that I couldn’t see beyond the front of the car. I pulled over and waited a few anxious minutes before I was able to continue.
I wanted to kiss the usually cheerful young hotel valet when I finally arrived, but then, I know the difference between raindrops and tears. “Sir, a tornado just landed in Moore,” he said, solemnly. “It took out my brother’s house. They can’t find my sister-in-law.”
I sat amazed on my bed just ten miles from Moore and watched live CNN footage from what looked to be another world. People kept describing the scene as resembling a bomb site, but when she wants to be, Mother Nature is infinitely more relentless and unsparing in her destruction.
By morning, it was clear: on May 20, 2013, the little city of Moore, Oklahoma had been hit by one of the mightiest tornadoes in years. More than 1.3 miles wide at its peak, the tornado blew winds estimated at 210 miles per hour. It stayed on the ground for more than 30 horrific minutes, killing 24 people, including 10 children and injuring 377.
The following evening, high school graduation ceremonies took place, accommodated by mild, pleasant weather. There was joy and laughter—my great nephew could not have been happier–but it was hard not to think of those suffering the aftermath of the tornado not far away.
A day later, at the airport headed back to L.A., I spotted “Today Show” weatherman Al Roker making his way to a departing flight. Like many of the national media’s A-list, he’d come to cover the tornado. In baseball cap and jeans, Roker looked weary and not to be bothered.
In the hours after the tornado hit, I remembered an exasperated TV newsman rhetorically asking what the people of Moore, Oklahoma had done to deserve such tragedy, referring to the fact that since 1998, the same region had been hit by tornadoes some five times now. He didn’t mean any harm, but I felt the statement was unfair to the people.
However, I figured the sooner I was on anything smokin’ back to L.A., the sooner this place would have one lesssinner for which to atone.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]