An Oklahoma Mom Shares Her Tornado Story: "That Was the Park Where My Kids Played"

When the tornado hit, Oklahoma mom Mari Farthing took her kids to an underground hole for shelter and waited.

How can I talk about anything else?

That was my bank. The 7-11 where I buy gas. The hospital where I take my kids to see their pediatrician. The bank where I cashed a check, just after 2pm. The bowling alley where we held my daughter's birthday party. The theater we visit for date night.

The park where I take my kids.

 

Oklahoma Tornado Tragedy

The kids at Veteran's Park in Moore, Ok.

The park that is 3 miles away, that was hit by a tornado that was possibly 2 miles wide, with a 2.5 mile wide debris ball surrounding it. The park that's essentially no longer there.

I picked up my kids from school along with a confused, scared mess of other parents. The school went into lockdown, but we fled for home, literally 500 yards down the street, dodged the rain running to the car, pulled into the garage and over the storm shelter as the hail started.

Shooed the kids in the house to get long pants, a bottle of water, a snack, their backpacks of "necessities" still packed from storms the day before. They came back with their jeans, shoes, blankets, a sleeping bag, pillows, 2 cans of soup, pudding, crackers peanut butter and an orange.

I knew we had a good 10 the 15 minutes before heading to "the hole" (that would be the tornado shelter, but let's not blow too much sunshine; it's a hole.) so I packed a laundry basket with our stuff, snapped a picture out the window and called my husband to tell him we were going underground. This storm spun up so quickly there was no way he could make it home to be with us. Not ideal but we would both be as safe as possible. He would weather the storm on base.

The storm is coming. We are going underground.

We had storms the day before; we endured a little hail, and watched ducks weather the storm in the bushes at our mailbox, though just east of us Shawnee was hit pretty hard. But it's easy to be lulled into thinking that things won't be that bad where you live when they weren't that bad the day before. It's easy to scoff at the weather reports when they seem to be filled with hyperbole and brimstone. This is Oklahoma after all; we get a lot of weather warnings and there are a lot of them that never happen. But sometimes, the storms do happen. And for all the jokes and lighthearted fun we poke at our weather people and storm chasers (Gary England drinking game, anyone? Mike Morgan's sparkle tie?), we do listen. And we respect the power of weather.

Oklahoma Tornado Tragedy

Trying to maintain a sense of levity in the hole.

I packed the kids in the shelter behind me, crawled in and crouched on my makeshift bench. I set up my laptop on the top step, listening to the crashes and pings against the garage door. Kept up with the chattering on Facebook, so very grateful for friends and family who checked in and kept me mentally occupied to stop me from freaking out. I couldn't get my weather radio to find a signal so I relied on my laptop, prayed the internet would stay connected, searched for the live stream of TV coverage so I could keep up with the storm. My daughter said "I'm scared, mommy" and I said "of course you're scared; this is scary" and that seemed to calm her. Me, too -- at least a little bit. When the pings got loud and the wind rattled, I pulled the door completely shut twice. It's a frightening sound when it latches. I'd open it again when the claustrophobia would overtake me, to get some fresh air.

We tracked the storm as it neared us, not really understanding how bad it was, how much damage this monster storm was causing in my town. The storm continued, cutting its path and swinging south of the base where my husband was. I knew then that we were safe and we could probably get out. But I didn't know what else to expect when I did. We stayed underground probably much longer than we needed. That storm had popped up so fast, would another follow? Was it really past? I could still hear thunder and lighting. How do I know it's really safe?

I helped the kids crawl out, pulled out our necessities (funny how few things we feel we really need in a situation like this), pulled that shelter door closed and flinched at the sound it made when it latched. Much better to hear it from the outside. Got back in the house. Turned the TV back on to see what was going on, called my husband when the phone lines cleared to let him know that we were out of the hole and safe. The base was in lockdown; clouds were rotating overhead. He promised to stay safe and come home as soon as he could. Walked around the house to check the destruction and make sure that the roof was undamaged.

Called my mom in Wisconsin to let her know we were okay.

Saw the damage on TV. The wide swath cut through town. I couldn't recognize familiar landmarks and it left me speechless. Saw the schools that were hit, one of which was completely leveled; the other one where a friend worked, where her kids attended. Is she okay? Are all those kids okay? Because when I picked up my kids, all the kids in school were "sheltering in place," meaning doing what we were taught to do as kids... kneeling in the fetal position, facing the wall, hands over their heads. 

It was too much. I started crying. I'd never seen such destruction so close. We've endured storms before, but this one was different. My kids, still amped from adrenaline, just turned to stare, not knowing what to make of it. It was just too much. We were safe; I was relieved. But oh, the damage. I thanked them for their hugs, and my son sang in my ear, a Bob Marley song: "... everything's gonna be all right ... everything's gonna be all right ..." ... the same song that I sang while I was in the OR getting prepped for my emergency C-section with him. Meaningful lyrics.

When my husband came home I was standing in the kitchen. It was time to make dinner, but we didn't have water, I wasn't hungry. I moved on autopilot and stalled. When he hugged me, I didn't want to let him go. We compared stories of what we'd heard, made an easy dinner for the kids. We were too confused to eat.

Oklahoma Tornado Tragedy

After the storm, the clouds.

We were glued to the coverage all night. Had to turn it off and watch old sitcom reruns at some point, when it got too overwhelming. We've still got no water because the water treatment plant was hit, but I can't even complain about that. Watched the rescue efforts turn into recovery efforts and cried along with the reporter who told us about the story. Heard that school would be cancelled the next day for the district -- our school wasn't damaged but so much of our town, our people, have been. We struggled to really grasp the breadth and depth of the situation. At some point, we ate because we needed to. I don't remember what. 

I spent hours on Facebook and Twitter, reposting requests to help find loved ones, local businesses and churches that opened up to help shelter those in need. And then seeing all of the people from all around the world tweeting their support for Oklahoma. Sending donations and putting out requests for more. Asking for information on those displaced families that they saw on the newsfeed. Celebrities, people with no direct ties to the state save for being human; having compassion. Understanding that when people are hurting, other people help. We listened to the sound of the sirens of the emergency vehicles responding to help. Those sirens sounded for hours. We wished that we could run down and help but knew that staying away from the area was the best thing we could do to help right now.

The day before, we had come outside after the storm that didn't require a trip underground, and we counted the hailstones -- quarter sized but relatively small by Oklahoma standards. My husband took pictures of the ducks waddling out from the bushes to play in the street puddles. The kids ran around, waving at neighbors and collecting hailstones, letting them melt in their hands.

Today was different.

If you feel compelled, please help. Contact the Red Cross or the Salvation Army and donate. They need money more than anything. Donate blood if you are able. And please send your prayers, kind words and thoughts to Oklahoma.

Mari Farthing and her husband Tony relocated to Moore, Oklahoma in 2001 courtesy of the United States Air Force. When Tony retired from active duty, they became official "Oklahomies." She is a writer, editor and mother of two, a frequent blogger, occasional public speaker and novice runner. Mari's blog can be found at www.marifarthing.com, or follow her on Twitter, @marifarthing.

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