John Sutter visits a block in Oklahoma City hit by two major tornadoes
The nameless neighborhood suffered major damage in 1999 and 2013
One 94-year-old woman waited out the first tornado in a barn
Residents are left wondering if they should leave a place in the cross hairs of disaster
Nancy E. Davis crouched alone in her white barn as a tornado tossed off the roof and peeled back the walls.
Maybe it was luck that saved her then, in 1999. Maybe it was fate.
But that memory, of a tornado that leveled her home 14 years ago, came rushing back this week when the 94-year-old learned that another twister barreled toward her. Her ears popped from the pressure change. A dark spiral descended from the clouds.
When it hit, the tornado was so loud that you couldn’t hear a person speak. She thought maybe the storm had kicked the Earth off its axis. Maybe the world was spinning too slow, she thought. Or too fast.
“I just knew it was going to happen again,” she told me on Wednesday, two days after the second storm. “That it was going to run right through us.”
Sadly, she was right. Davis, a spry woman with curly white hair and blue-gray eyes, lives on a square-mile block of land in southwest Oklahoma City that took a direct hit from two major tornadoes: one in 1999, which generated winds estimated at 302 mph and left dozens dead, and Monday’s twister, which killed 24 and caused an estimated $2 billion in property damage. If you look at a map of both storm tracks, they make a flimsy “X,” like the shape of a chromosome.
Where the paths cross, that’s where Davis lives. It’s a neighborhood with coordinates but no name. Locals refer to it simply as SW 149 and May Avenue. It’s a place of odd coincidence. May is the month when both tornadoes hit.
“We are the epicenter,” said Mel Miller, a 55-year-old who was helping a friend search for her belongings. “We are like the bull’s-eye on the target.”
I flew into Oklahoma City on Tuesday afternoon, the day after the storm, wondering how two twisters of such magnitude could possibly hit the same block. And, more important, how people would react. Would they dig in their heels and stay? would they say enough is enough? What does the constant threat of storms do to a person? I’m not completely new to that last question. I grew up near this city. I did tornado drills in school, climbed into a closet full of suitcases and photo albums when sirens went off, and stood on the porch watching storms roll by when they were at a safe-ish distance.
Tornadoes are part of life here. I get that. Every place has its risks, and here they happen to fall from the sky. And tornadoes do present advantages of sorts: They come with warning, unlike earthquakes. They’re more targeted than the shotgun spray of hurricanes; a tornado may pulverize one house and strip only the shingles from the one next door.
But when I arrived this week, I stepped into a bizarro version of home.
From the plane, I saw the path of the storm, which marched like a lead-footed giant across southern Oklahoma City and Moore.
The sky was purple and yellow, the air deadly still.
It was a surreal, eerie scene. It didn’t make sense anymore.
I drove toward 149-at-May, the block twice in the cross hairs, from the north, leaving behind geometric subdivisions with sturdy brick fences and names like “The Legacy” and finding a post-apocalyptic mess that’s almost impossible for a brain to compute: metal draped like laundry over power lines; homes turned to matchsticks; trees snapped at the ankles; dead horses, one floating in a pond; the smell of natural gas and freshly cut wood; hunks of yellow and pink insulation floating through the air like jellyfish; cars turned into aluminum cans; fence posts laid flat.
“All this land right here, this is the hot zone,” said Kevin Shelley, 35, pointing to an unrecognizable heap of junk. It was his house – which I didn’t know until he told me.
Shelley was at home playing video games as the storm built steam on Monday. A friend called to alert him.
Like a surprising number of people in Oklahoma, Shelley didn’t have an underground tornado shelter, so he jumped in his car and took off. How did he know which way to go? Well, he’s seen tornadoes here before. “It’s pretty much historically proven that it goes – pshhh! – right here,” he said, motioning from his house toward others to the east, toward Moore. “It’s the landscape, I guess. It’s pretty much the exact same path the ‘99 storm took.”
The paths of the two storms are remarkably similar. In both cases, the tornadoes dropped out of the sky just west of Shelley’s neighborhood. The 1999 twister snaked to the north and east; the 2013 tornado tracked more eastward.
Scientifically, that’s pure coincidence.
Tornadoes are common in Oklahoma because the state, and others in tornado alley, sits at the confluence of three air masses: wet, hot air from the Gulf of Mexico; dry, hot air from for-real Mexico; and cold air from Canada. But within that context, it’s just chance any one spot would get pummeled twice in 14 years, said Rick Smith, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman.
“There is nothing – meteorologically or scientifically – that would favor one particular area over another.”
Still, Shelley’s not sure he’ll risk rebuilding here.
“It’s a bad area. It’s Tornado Alley, man,” he said. “That’s the path. That’s where they go. It may not happen for five, six or seven years. But it’ll do it again.”
Others had similar reactions to the second storm.
“It’s a sad situation,” said Abee Zarkeshan, 58, whose house was destroyed on the east side of this large city block and who isn’t sure he’ll rebuild. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to trust this area anymore. I’m really not going to trust it.”
Zarkeshan came to the United States in the ‘70s from Iran and lives on the same road as his best friend, who also emigrated from that country. Their daughters, Mahshied and Laila, both 13, dug through the rubble of their homes on Tuesday evening. Mahshied was looking for her lip gloss collection. Laila, wearing a Superman T-shirt, helped.
“I’m kind of a goo hoarder,” said Mahshied. “I like anything that’s a goo that’s girly.”
They found only one stick of lip gloss, and it was missing its cap.
No one wants dirt on his or her lips, so Mahshied planned to throw it out.
The square-mile block near 149-at-May turned into a high-stakes game of scavenger hunt on Tuesday and Wednesday, with residents picking through what was left of their homes and looking for weirdly specific items. Some people had lived through both storms. Others moved here after the tornado in 1999.
Amy Richeson, 25 never thought too much about the previous tornado. She and her parents moved in after the 1999 disaster. But, even as a little girl, she was always first to jump into a closet during a tornado watch or warning.
So the family built a safe room in their house here. They didn’t want to take any chances. The room has walls that are as thick as a small person’s hips. It has three locks and is part of the foundation, she said.
Richeson was one of several residents who helped me see the beauty of this place before the storm. Located on the outskirts of the city, 149-at-May had horses, goats and at least one donkey; it had tree-lined driveways and several acres per home. Pockets of neighbors knew each other well; others said the only good thing to come out of this week’s tornadoes is that it forced them to walk around and talk to each other. Everyone seemed to be outside helping someone else – a trained and awesome response in a place that, from tornadoes to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, has seen so much tragedy, so many neighbors in need of assistance.
A tornado bearing down, a mom in labor
“Minus the tornadoes, it’s just perfect for us out here,” she said.
Kay Taylor, 63, lives two houses over from Richeson and next door to her aunt, Davis, the 94-year-old who lived through the first twister in her barn.
A lively woman with short-cropped white hair, a baggy T-shirt and jean shorts, Taylor is an obsessive collector of just about anything. She was moved to tears when about a dozen people from the school where she once worked as a counselor showed up at the site of her home to help her sift through the mess.
They dug out $650 worth of pennies, a collection of gumball machines, ladybug figurines, DVDs, furniture and books, including one titled “When God Doesn’t Make Sense,” which was at the top of a pile.
“This is Tornado Alley,” she said. “So I guess this is just part of one of the alleys.”
On the afternoon of the tornado, Taylor and her aunt and four other neighbors, including a woman nine months pregnant, hid in the storm shelter Davis built after the 1999 storm. They were safe in that small hole underground, which Taylor said filled with small flakes of debris floating in the air, almost like confetti.
It was there that their ears popped and the world got so loud it was silent.
They emerged from the cellar to find their community changed. Taylor started looking for her two Labradors; one was injured and bleeding and the other missing. She still hadn’t found the dog, a chubby blonde lab named Gracie, on Wednesday.
“It quit raining. It was just really eerie,” she said. “Really dead.”
For Davis, the 94-year-old, it was the second time she would emerge to that scene.
I would never blame a person for wanting to move away from the 149-at-May area after one storm, much less two. It’s hard to say how you would react until you live through such a tragedy, but as I talked to residents here, I kept thinking that I probably would want to get away from this place – from the haunting images of destruction. One man’s driveway was stained with blood from a dead horse. Trees were stripped to their bark, or toppled. It will take a long time to get back to normal.
Moving seems like the rational response to so much destruction, to having your life crumpled and twisted not once but two times.
But, wearing the same clothes she was in when the storm hit two days before, which a friend had washed and pressed, Davis told me she wants to rebuild, even at 94.
“I may live another year, who knows?” she said, laughing.
She has the shelter she built in response to the first tragedy to thank for that.
And so do five of her neighbors.