In many ways I am the worst kind of survivor—the kind that does nothing to save my own life, but instead is unknowingly steered away from danger and death by no act of my own. On April 19th, 1995, I missed being in front of the Alfred P. Murrah building by only minutes, only because of a phone call my mom placed to me as I was walking out the door, asking me to come sign dental insurance papers. I arrived with the first fire truck to see the chaos and devastation, thankful not to be a part of it.
Eighteen years later, I would come face-to-face with another killer, this time in the form of not a bomber but a tornado. This is my account of what happened on May 20th, 2013, and more importantly, the spiritual lessons God helped me draw from the most terrifying moment in my entire life.
Monday was a typical day—hectic, with too many things crammed into the span of 12 hours. I had an appointment that morning to get my hair cut. I chatted with Steve, my hair guy, about the minor tornado that went through Edmond the night before, and the subject moved on to other things. By the time I left, I was already behind in my day but that was how most of my days went.
Sean, my husband, has Mondays off, so he was home as I worked in my bedroom office. A little after two he hollered that he was leaving. He always picks up our son, John, from school so that I can have a little extra work time before I go get our daughter, Cate, from her school, which releases an hour later.
I was immersed in work, trying to catch up on time lost that day, when the first weather alert went off on my phone. I glanced at it. It said “severe thunderstorm warning.” Outside it was sunny and bright, but we’d been warned the night before that today was a “red alert” day, meaning there was a high probability of a tornado outbreak.
It was nothing new in Oklahoma. Red alerts are rare, but we’ve had them before and we know what to do. Storms start bubbling up in the late afternoon, and you keep your TV on and watch what’s going on for the rest of the night.
I remember thinking that at 2:20 p.m., the storms were bubbling early. Typically it’s 4 p.m. or after before they start “firing,” as we call it.
I was in the middle of finishing a thought for the book I was working on, so I spent the next ten minutes tying that up, then went to our living room to turn the TV on and see where, exactly, the severe storm was. I knew it wasn’t over me. Bright light glowed in from every window.
I grabbed my coffee from my desk and went to the living room to turn on the TV. It takes about fifteen to thirty seconds for our TV to power up so I just stood there waiting, sipping my coffee. When the picture finally came on, the head meteorologist that I always watch was talking fast and showing pictures of the radar. I wasn’t tuned into what he was saying as much as how he was saying it. His face was tense. His tone was serious. I set my coffee down and tried to figure out where this storm was. The first word that raised a red flag for me was “Newcastle.”
When you live in Moore, there are key towns you listen for, knowing that if it’s over this or that place then you’ll probably be next. I still wasn’t alarmed. Newcastle just meant we’d be next if the storm was moving Northeast, which most did. I stood there waiting for the radar to come up again when I heard him say, “This thing is passing over I-44. Right now. It’s passing over I-44!”
I remember thinking, What is passing over I-44? Then I heard him say “tornado.”
I stood there frozen, in total shock. There was a tornado? I thought it was a storm. There was a tornado? On the ground?
“Folks,” he said, “this is taking the exact path of May 3rd of 1999.”
And that’s when utter fear struck me. I knew I was in its path. The neighborhood that I currently lived in had been wiped off the map on May 3rd. My mind raced. If I was in its path, so was our church, John’s school and Cate’s school. Whether Sean had stopped at the church (where he worked) on his way to get John or not, he was in the path. My entire family was in its path and none of us were together. I tried to call Sean but his phone rolled to voicemail over and over.
“It’s on May Avenue! May Avenue!” the meteorologist shouted. May was just three miles to the west of me. I don’t exactly know when or why I called my mom, but I was on the phone with her, panic building in me by the second.
“Mom, I don’t know what I should do. Should I go get Cate? Should I get her? I don’t think I have enough time. Do I have enough time to get her and get home?”
Looking at the projected path of the tornado, it was headed straight for Cate’s school, which stood right in front of our neighborhood. “What should I do? Mom?”
She was watching the news with me at her house in Edmond. “I don’t think you have time. It’s at Penn and 134th.” Cate’s school was right in its path, one half mile away. “You need to find shelter.”
I ran outside briefly, but I knew…all my neighbors who had tornado shelters were at work. The tornado sirens started blaring. Plus, how could I go underground when everything that mattered to me in the world was right in the path of this tornado, above ground?
“Rene,” my mom said, “it’s time. You need to make a decision and do it. I don’t think you have time to get to Cate.”
“My neighbors aren’t home.”
“Then get in your bathtub.”
But that was one of the last things I’d heard the meteorologist say—if you’re not underground, you’re not going to make it. “This thing is a monster,” he said.
“OK, I’m going,” I said, and hung up with my mom.
I first ran to my computer to send out an urgent prayer request and then ran to my son’s bedroom to get a mattress to put over me in the bathtub but I couldn’t lift it. From the living room, I could hear the meteorologist shouting, “Get underground! You must get underground!” Something told me to run outside, try again for a neighbor. The sirens were screaming and to the southwest was the darkest, blackest cloud I’d ever seen. It literally swallowed up the light.
I looked toward the DeMents two doors down and their garage door was open. The wind was blowing and I ran, ducking because it sounded like hail had started. Serena, the mom, waved me in. “Hurry!” I ran down into the cellar. Inside were Serena’s four children, one of whom was Cate’s best friend.
“Where’s Cate?” her daughter asked, wide-eyed.
Grief swallowed me. Serena had been vigilant and gone to get her girls. She’d been watching the weather. I’d gotten caught off guard and now Cate’s life was in danger. My husband. My son. They were all out there, above ground.
The hardest thing I’ve ever done was descend into that shelter knowing the whole of my heart and life was right in the path of a tornado that they said we wouldn’t survive if we weren’t underground.
I tried to hold it together. It wasn’t going to help matters for me to get hysterical in front of Serena’s four children. Her husband, Bob, was trying to track it on his computer, but we couldn’t get a signal. Then, like that, the quiet hum of electricity was gone. All the lights went out. The air got very still and quiet. Bob said it was time to close the door.
I sat there in the dark, with one lone flashlight glowing, trying to utter silent prayers against my frantically beating heart. I pleaded with God. “Lord, my whole life is up there! Please keep them safe! Please help us all!”
There was a peace there. I couldn’t explain it. I just knew that I had absolutely no control now. I was safe, yes. But if my family died, I didn’t want to be here. Yet it was where I was and God was where they were and I knew that ultimately, they couldn’t have been in better hands. What was I going to do to stop a tornado? I was helpless here in the cellar but just as helpless out there facing the tornado. I could do nothing but trust the God whom I knew loved me and loved my family.
We could hear something outside now, maybe the tornado, but it was hard to know. After a few minutes, which seemed like an hour, we emerged to absolutely no destruction. I ran down to my house to try to call Sean, but there was no signal and there was no electricity.
When I ran back outside, Serena was talking to a neighbor further down that I didn’t recognize. As I approached them, there was a look on Serena’s face that I couldn’t interpret. I looked at the man and I said, “Where did it hit?”
“It came down 134th,” he said. “It hit a school.”
I lost it. I was distraught as I ran to my van, shaking as I peeled out of my driveway. I drove two blocks to the path that led to the back of Cate’s school. I ran down the path and could see the gym was standing but the gym blocked the entire school. I couldn’t see a thing until I rounded the gym, breathing hard, my lungs on fire and my legs cramping from the run.
There the school was, standing, totally intact. The man, I thought, had gotten wrong information.
I tried all the doors, hoping to get in, but they were in lockdown. I finally found an open door and ran toward the 5th grade hallway. I hurried to her room. Her teacher was standing in the hallway with the other teachers. Their electricity was out too.
I thanked them as Cate ran into my arms. She didn’t seem scared but looked happy to see me. I told her to grab her things and that we would go. With no electricity, we had no idea if there were more storms behind this one.
As we walked out the front of the school, I saw the first signs of tragic news. Firetrucks, ambulances and police cars raced by, over and over and over. As we walked to the van I heard the sirens wailing, and they didn’t stop. I knew that wherever it hit, whatever it hit, it was bad.
Now the question was, where was my husband and son? We raced home in the van and to my everlasting gratefulness, they were now home. Sean’s phone had died and he didn’t have a clue what was happening until the sirens went off. He went into the middle school and the secretary said, “Sir! A tornado is coming!” Sean ran down to John’s classroom and found him, with his classmates, huddled under their desks in lockdown. So he huddled with him and was there when the electricity went off.
After some discussion, we decided to leave our house. The sirens from the emergency vehicles still sounded, as if the whole world was lost. We still didn’t know what ultimately happened because we had no TV, phone or internet. But whatever happened, we knew we should probably just get out.
Easier said than done. It took us almost an hour just to get out of our neighborhood and to the highway, which was only three miles away. It was like the apocalypse. As cars fled the scene and emergency vehicles blocked the road, doctors and nurses ran by foot toward the chaos. Dozens and dozens of them ran toward something awful. Photographers ran too. And then regular people were running, trying to get, I knew, to those they loved. Along with the surreal scene, there was an odd smell in the air.
As we headed north, toward my parents’ house, we saw emergency vehicles from all over the state coming toward Moore. It wasn’t until I got to my parents’ house to see the television coverage did I know the full extent of the damage. It was unimaginable. I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing—schools gone, entire neighborhoods gone. And the destruction was only one half mile from my house.
Over the next few days and weeks, I contemplated all of this. I struggled, mostly, with an unbearable guilt, for not being on top of the situation and going to get my kids out of harms’ way. Why hadn’t I turned on the TV sooner? Been more vigilant?
I also had to face something else—survivor’s guilt, I guess they call it. At the moment that the tornado was headed straight for all that I cared for in life, I sent out that quick email to my writers’ group, asking for them to pray for our safety. Later, when I saw the map of where the tornado had gone, it clearly showed its suddenly turn east. If it hadn’t turned, it would’ve hit us. But how could I celebrate and praise God when the turning of that tornado left others dead? Of course I was thankful for my family’s safety, but I also grieved for all those lives lost, most especially the little children.
It was a private time for me of both praising and grieving and everything in between. I recalled a scripture I’d read and meditated on a few years ago when I was developing a story idea. It was from I Kings 19:11-13. The Lord said to Elijah as he was hiding in a cave, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
It helped me understand God was not in the tornado, but He was there nevertheless, in the gentle whispers and quiet peace that couldn’t be explained. Around this same time, I read a devotional by John Piper where he talked about death being the final act of worship we have on this earth. How we leave is just as important as how we arrived. There were a lot of heroic moments on May 20th—men and women, even children, who chose to sacrifice their life to try to save someone else. My friend Angela, a teacher at one of the schools that was destroyed, flung herself over her students and shouted the Name of Jesus over the roar of the wind. If she was going to go out of this life, she was going to do it shouting His name. She lived through it, but many did not. Another friend of mine, who recently moved to Moore from out of state, said she was amazed to watch people climbing out of the rubble and praising God, though they’d lost everything.
I am proud to be living in Moore, among truly heroic, truly godly, truly beautiful people. I recently heard someone say, “Oklahoma ain’t for sissys.” That cracked me up. Oklahoma now holds three tornado records: highest wind speed (May 3rd, 1999, Moore, OK), largest tornado at 2.6 miles wide (May 31st, 2013, El Reno, OK) and most destructive tornado (May 20th, 2013, Moore, OK). But I think we’re better known for the kinds of people who live here.
So maybe I am the worst kind of survivor, the “lucky” one some might say. But the truth is that none of us survive this world. We’re going out of it, one way or the other. Someday we have to say goodbye. When it is our time, it is our time. What will you do as your final act of worship? I hope we all choose to live our lives well, be present in every moment we’re given, and know that even in the mighty storms of life, God is there. You can hear Him. He is the gentle whisper. You are loved. Will you love Him?
If you would like to help the relief efforts in Moore, OK, please see this website for suggestions: