Some of you may wonder why when it comes to tornado outbreaks, I get on my high horse and urge everyone in the affected areas to stay alert and have a plan of action, which includes taking shelter UNDERGROUND when the sirens sound or a tornado warning goes into effect. You may notice that I live in Utah, and prior to that spent my first 35 years in Northern California, neither one being a place where tornadoes are a concern. (There are extremely rare exceptions to that, but those are an entirely different story). As my husband is a traveling salesman, whose territory included Kansas and Nebraska up until a few years ago; we have had plenty of experience with tornadoes and attempting to avoid them. We had had some close calls and unwanted contact with them, but would be diligent in going hundreds of miles out of our way to avoid them, when possible. The story below, though; is the reason I will always be outspoken and a die hard advocate for underground shelters in tornado alley. Alot of people want to politicize it, for one reason or another. Well, believe me, when an F4 tornado has just passed you by and missed you by about a mile or less; the last thing on your mind is politics! The ONLY thing on your mind is, "Why am I not in an underground shelter?"
The date was February 10, 2009. It started off the same as many another day in the vagabond life of a traveling salesman (or a traveling salesman's wife, as the case may be). It didn't seem like it might be our last day on the planet. We got up and prepared to pack our things and check out of the hotel we were staying in in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. We were traveling westward toward home, after having traversed the country to attend meetings. Our next stop was scheduled to be Amarillo, Texas. We were aware that bad weather was forecast for the area late in the day: severe thunderstorms. Tornadoes were not foremost on our mind (or anybody else's really); because although Oklahoma is right smack in tornado alley; tornadoes typically happen in the middle and late end of Spring: April, May and June; definitely NOT in the early part of February. And we did plan to be clear of the area by that time, anyway.
As my husband was in the shower, I was "playing" on his computer. I looked over attractions in the area, as it is not an area we get to very often at all. My husband loves to take photos of wildlife, and we often go to zoos or wildlife parks. We had been to nearly all of the zoos in that State. Well, lo and behold, I discovered a wild animal park that we had not been to yet; and it was just a bit south of Oklahoma City. Not the direction we had planned to head in, but not a big deterrent. My husband insisted we go there, once I told him about it; as we had no idea when or if we would be back in that area. So we went to the GW Exotic Wildlife Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Not one to be rushed, my husband spent the afternoon taking photos and getting an individual behind the scenes tour to take more photos. I watched the sky getting nasty and was getting a bit concerned. Finally, towards the end of the afternoon, he was finished and we were ready to go on our way. As we started to leave the gift shop/office area of the facility, we noticed the television playing live news on tornadoes that had just hit Oklahoma City; and we both stopped and walked closer to the tv screen. The employees said: "You're not going towards Oklahoma City, are you?" Well, that was the direction we needed to go in to get back on our trajectory and told them so. They said they would not advise that as Oklahoma City had just been hit by several tornadoes and more were being spotted right now. We decided it might, indeed, be a bad idea to go that way. So we walked outside and looked up. It did not look good at all. We were right off the main north/south freeway. There was also a small country two lane highway heading east/west. We knew from watching the news moments earlier, that there was a forbidding "Dry Line" just west of us, which ran north/south all the way from Texas, on up through Oklahoma and beyond. Along that dry line, massive tornadoes were starting to form. There was just no way to get "through" that dry line, without possibly running into one of them, or at the very least baseball-sized hail which would destroy the vehicle.
My husband voted to take the small country highway east/west. My husband is the decision maker in the family. However, I stood rooted firmly where I was at staring at the intended route. There were at least six massive supercells mushrooming up tens of thousands of feet into the sky lined up neatly along that route. I said: "No". I felt there would be no protection for the car, and there was bound to be baseball sized hail at this point. I suggested we go a bit further south along the freeway and hole up in the next city. So that's exactly what we did. Now as it turns out, the Stormchasers chose the route my husband wanted to take, in search of their tornadoes. If only they had followed my advice, instead....
So we got back on the freeway, heading south. Before too long, we came to the town of Ardmore, Oklahoma. We stopped at the McDonald's got a quick bite to eat and made our plan. Things looked very, very bad in front of us; so we agreed we'd stay at the hotel back at the last exit. We checked in to the brand new, fairly solid looking Springhill Suites by Marriott, much pricier than the hotels we will normally stay at, but these were special circumstances. They had no ground floor rooms left, as many people were holing up like us. So we took what they had and hauled our stuff up to the room. We settled in and sat back to watch News and Weather Alerts with radar maps. No sooner did we do that, then a massive supercell appeared on the radar and was heading exactly in our direction. We hurried back down to the lobby. The sad fact, and one I find totally unacceptable, is that 99.9% of all hotels do not have storm shelters. I mean real, UNDERGROUND, storm shelters. They may have a meeting room or hallway they designate for shelter. You notice my emphasis, always, on UNDERGROUND. This is because I already knew, even prior to this experience; that if you are hit directly by an F4 or F5 tornado, NOTHING is left above ground. There may be the occasional exception, and tornadoes do skip around; but certainly nothing you can count on. Well, in this hotel the hallway was it. So we watched the tv in the lobby for a few minutes, heard the instructions of the hotel employees, which was just to gather in the hall. The radar showed it bearing down on us and it was close enough that the employees could not tell if it was going to hit us or just barely scrape by us. We all took shelter (misnomer) in the hall; where the lights were flickering on and off. I was in a panic and my husband had already lost patience with me being such a snivelling coward and panicky. IF I had known what the flickering lights meant, he would have really been embarrassed, because I would have been screaming my head off! Those flickering lights are the signature of a tornado coming through and knocking out transformers as it does so. Well, after standing there a few minutes, hearing horrible noises, but still we were there and not dead; we finally started making our way down the hall again to the lobby. By this time all power was gone, and it was quite dark. Everyone sat in the lobby, in the dark. We were looking out the window towards the freeway. Soon, emergency vehicle after emergency vehicle with flashing lights, could be seen coming off the freeway exit ramp directly in front of us. I had never seen this many emergency vehicles in my life. We sat in the dark that way for some time.
Finally, the hotel employees told us that they had heard that on the other side of town they had power back on, in case we wanted to go get something to eat. This, combined with the fact that the severe weather had now pushed eastwards, prompted us to go get in our vehicle and set out to forage. We turned on the car radio to a local station and the first words we heard were Lone Grove, about 12 people killed....Lone Grove sat about a mile or so to our west, and possibly closer as we were east of the actual town of Ardmore, since we were right at the freeway. I burst into sobs as the reality of the situation struck home; what a close call we had had; but these other people, just right next door to us had not made it through. The tornado had started in Texas and cut a diagonal swath north and east, going right through the small town of Lone Grove, Oklahoma and cutting across the freeway and through parts of Ardmore and on out into the country; coming close to the town of Gene Autry. It was determined to be an F4 tornado; meaning if you are not underground, you are doomed. All that night emergency personnel tried to clear the roads just so they could get to the devastated town of Lone Grove. The following morning as we were leaving the hotel, the press from around the country was checking into our same hotel to cover this tragic event. The stories coming in were absolutely heartbreaking. A high school basketball game had been about to take place when the tornado warning hit. The school didn't have a bona fide shelter, so the opposing team hunkered down in the locker room and the Lone Grove team was sent home. Some of the kids upon reaching home, didn't have a home, or didn't have parents anymore. A mother and daughter had been holding hands when they were torn apart and the mother was killed. One man in town with the rare underground shelter stuffed in three or four times what it really could hold, and saved all of those lives. It had crossed the freeway right in front of our hotel, too, killing a truck driver. My heart goes out to the victims' families.
So now you know why I harp on UNDERGROUND shelters in Tornado Alley. And the other thing you should know, is I am a tornado magnet. Do NOT take my advice in a tornado outbreak. The Stormchasers really should have been following my lead.