By the latest estimates, 41 people were killed by the huge tornadoes that struck Oklahoma City and its suburbs last Monday night. Some were crushed even as they tried to take cover – in cupboards, under mattresses or in bathtubs. Others were hurled through the air, sometimes for miles. One woman was vacuumed out through her car window when there was no room left for her to park beneath a flyover.
And then there were the animals. For me, it was a horse that provided the image that best described the sheer wickedness of the storm. Officials on Wednesday found it alive, but running in circles in some kind of demented anguish. Then they saw that its eyes had been sucked from their sockets.
For the survivors, there is the physical wreckage to deal with. The newspaper photographs, especially those from the air, show it plainly. Nothing prepares you, however, for the vistas of devastation as seen from ground level. In some areas, the topsoil has been scoured away to several inches deep. The trees, scraped clean like carrots for a salad, reminded me of pictures from the First World War. This landscape, though, had bricks, upside-down cars and carpets of soggy attic insulation. Christmas decorations too: as residents on Wednesday returned to Moore, a suburb pulverised by the biggest twister of the 18 that rampaged through 11 different counties in this state (others struck Kansas the same evening) they salvaged what they could from their wrecked homes. Almost everyone, it seemed, found their fake Christmas trees. Mary Leas, 65, lost her roof but it was the crack in the cheek of her plastic Santa, still hanging on a guest-room wall, that got to her. She had had it for 40 years.
I found Jorretta Doyle, 67, staring in numb disbelief at the remains of her front room. She joked, before suddenly starting to cry, that it looked like a “used-car lot”. In it rested an almost comic jumble of two cars, two mini-vans and a red pick-up, standing vertically on its nose where her sofa used to be. All but the Cadillac, which was hers, had crashed like aeroplanes into her house from neighbours living two blocks away.
Men, if you didn’t already know it, are less sensible than women. The Doyle family was one of a few in the neighbourhood to have a storm cellar in their home. Jorretta had got into it early, but her husband, Jerry, had lingered by the front door to watch the tornado as it approached. He lowered the cellar trapdoor just seconds before impact.
Other families told me a similar story: husbands and fathers had been unable to resist watching the twister until the last moment.
Descriptions of the moment of impact had other common themes. There was, of course, the impossible noise. Many heard freight trains, others splintering wood or the breaking of glass. “It sounded like glass in a shredder,” said Chris Good, 25.
Everyone spoke of time standing still once the tornado was upon them. “I don’t know whether you go into some kind of shock, but when it comes, time seems to stop,” was how Bert Bryant, a retired lieutenant- colonel, put it. “It’s so intense, everything seems to go in slo-mo”. Outside the mess of his house an estate agent’s “For Sale” sign still stood.
I kept hearing two names. One was the Lord’s – this is the Bible Belt, and because this was His work – or if not His, then Mother Nature’s – and not the work of humans, like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, it was easier to bear; and He had saved them.
The other name was Gary England’s. When I asked 67-year-old Jo Hutto why she had thought to bury herself beneath a quilt in her bath, a decision, judging by the state of her house, that saved her life, she replied: “Gary said I should.”
Mr England does the weather for Channel 9, the CBS station here, as he has for 27 years, and he is revered. To understand why, you have to grasp how seriously the weather is taken in Oklahoma. It amounts, says Dennis McCarthy, head of the National Weather Service station just south of Moore, almost to pride. In Oklahoma, he explained, people actually treasure their tornadoes like other states treasure their football teams. “There is a sense of ownership of the tornadoes as something they just have to contend with. They know about them, and their point of contact is the TV people”.
It is TV, also, that provides most people with the early warnings. The twister that hit Moore at around 7pm on Monday formed 45 miles to the south-west nearly three hours earlier. New Doppler radar technology helped in determining its power, but human eyes still played the most vital role. Channel 9 has 12 pairs of spotters paid to track tornadoes as they develop, sometimes relaying live footage to the station. At the weather service, Mr McCarthy turned away from his computers and radar screens as the tornado approached Oklahoma City to listen to three ham radios above his desk which were screaming out the messages of his own spotters – he has 1,000 across central Oklahoma.
According to Val Castor, Channel 9’s lead tornado chaser, who drove his pick-up to within half a mile of this giant, there was a “circus” of cars in its wake. By his count, the tornado was tracked by 200 cars, including about 30 TV chasers and a handful of meteorologists. The others were thrill- seekers, “just trying to get in our way”.
But even with television constantly airing warnings – even showing continuous footage of the tornado from Castor and from its airborne helicopter – and a network of sirens sounding, still those 41 souls perished last Monday. “It was the first time I have said on air that to survive you will have to be below ground,” said Gary England. “I knew that this time people were going to die.”
Monday night was the “worst-case scenario”, agreed Mr McCarthy. “For some people who made it to a safe place, even that safe place wasn’t safe.”
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