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Editor’s note: ITS Plank Owner Brock Carter wanted to share his experience during the massive tornado that devastated Oklahoma a few short days ago.
As a citizen of Southwest Oklahoma City for 20 years, I’ve seen numerous tornadoes and many of them firsthand. I was a mile west of the 3 May 1999 tornado that, until now, was the most deadly tornado in Oklahoma. There’s a saying that Oklahomans go out on the front porch to look for the tornado when the siren sounds, I can tell you that is absolutely true. I can also tell you that when I stepped out on to the front porch to survey the site of the 20 May tornado, I decided to flee for my life.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had produced several warnings of a possible severe weather outbreak for the three days leading up to and including 20 May. Just the day before, on 19 May, massive tornadoes ripped through parts of Edmond and Shawnee, Oklahoma, resulting in loss of life. On the morning of 20 May, most Oklahomans had hoped and assumed the worst was over; we had no idea how wrong we were.
Beginning at approximately 1400hrs CST, local weather stations began constant coverage of increasingly severe storms developing to the southwest of Oklahoma City and Moore. They had essentially appeared out of nowhere and were growing in size.
By approximately 1425, the local weather stations were alerting citizens of a storm developing very rapidly west of Newcastle, OK (further west – by-southwest of Moore). At this point I decided to leave work and sprint home to be there when it came so I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not my family close by or my dog were in danger, and if they were, if I would have to struggle with gaining access to those areas after a disaster.
On the far too long drive home, the radio channels were permanently on the weather and we were being fed reports that the meteorologist was absolutely certain this was going to develop into a tornado. I drove on the interstate and traffic started to thicken as I accompanied people wanting to do exactly what I was doing – get home.
As hail and massive downpours began to sporadically interrupt the drive, more and more vehicles began pulling over to seek shelter under the overpasses above the interstate. I drove on, exiting just a couple hundred yards east of the 7-11 where 4 dead bodies [source] would be pulled just 20 minutes after I passed their location.
Later on, I would be able to recognize the path of the tornado covered part of my path exactly, delayed by less than half an hour. I had to drive further west to reach my house so I was forced to drive towards the developing storm. 2-miles out from my house I heard the news come over the radio – tornado on the ground approximately 5 miles from my location.
At this point things became increasingly concerning. Pauses in the rain and hail being abruptly interrupted by massive downpours and hailstorms gave an incredibly eerie feeling. The wind began to exhibit reckless patterns that triggered the worst of assumptions in my head.
From here on I drove unlawfully fast to get to my home. Once I turned into the neighborhood, the highest parts of what would become the tornado’s funnel were visible. It was still very light outside in the west so you could make out plenty of detail. I had ignored the assumption that the massive dark wall just out of sight was the tornado simply by telling myself: “there’s no way it’s really that big”. I was wrong.
Once I got my garage open and entered the house I put the dog’s harness on (to include a carabiner so I can positively attach him to me), my helmet on, and got the storm shelter prepared. As the sirens blared, I pulled the “Oklahoman Doppler” as I call it and exited the front door to get another glimpse of the storm. My heart sank.
Adrenaline immediately flooded my system and I can positively confirm that the fight or flight mechanism took hold. To the southwest of my position by no more than 2-3 miles was the largest tornado I have ever seen. At this distance I was able to take in the enormity of scale to the point that, for a split second, I stood just in awe.
Imagine never having seen anything taller than a two story building in your life, ever, and then one day stepping out of your front door and seeing the new World Trade Center. It was, purely by definition, awesome. Debris was being flung around like pieces of dirt. The energy of the funnel was gravitational — you could sense it. In the half second it took to process what I saw, I recalled the words from the 3 May 1999 tornado: “if you’re above ground, you’re going to die”.
In an instant I raced back into the house, grabbed the dog, locked up, and fled out the garage door. I hit the garage door remote in my truck and sped away. I would later return to find that before the garage door even had time to fully shut, the power to my block had gone out; the garage door was halfway shut when I returned home. That’s how close the tornado was when I chose to hastily egress.
Let me first tell you that the choice to flee was not a professional decision. It was instinctual as much as it was a gift from God (to whom I made many pleas as I fled). But once the choice was made, I was committed. I knew I wouldn’t survive above ground and I couldn’t get underground, so I bailed. As I drove away, the scene around me became surreal. Trees danced to the point I would’ve thought I was hallucinating under any other circumstances.
I knew the general direction and path of the storm based on radar imagery from the phone and news reports. My plan was to cut west by a half mile and then run north. As soon as I exited my neighborhood, I noticed vehicles stacked up in the northerly direction I was trying to travel I can’t control other drivers so if they’re panicking, I knew it would be a bad situation if they stayed still and I couldn’t get around. Due to that, I hit the secondary route by pulling an immediate u-turn in the 4 lane street and heading back east; this wasn’t ideal but if I wanted to turn north it was my best bet.
As soon as I reached the street to cut north I did so without haste. I cut through a typically empty street that circumvents the traffic lights and popped out on the desired street. With a speed limit of 45, I can tell you that I did much more than that during this period. Once I made it a mile north I bore west two miles to get north of and behind the tornado – knowing that it was travelling east by north east.
I passed two stationary emergency vehicles during my high speed egress and neither of them chose to pursue me – they understood and would likely be on my tail if the storm got closer. Again, I cannot recommend my particular actions so please don’t take this as an endorsement by anyone, especially ITS.
For the entire duration of this three mile journey, I was in constant fear for my life and I have no problem admitting that it’s not okay to be controlled by fear and it’s equally foolish to ignore fear and pretend it doesn’t exist. I had a near constant visual of the tornado funnel and it began to grow to the point that I was unsure if I’d see 21 May 2013.
As I drove on, the winds became more aggressive, at one point scooting my vehicle over as I did north of 70mph. It is a strange feeling to move laterally due to incredible winds bearing directly towards the funnel as your twin turbo V6 is screaming to keep you moving. Once I was able to move behind the tornado I stopped and pulled into a church parking lot. That’s where I took this picture that you may have seen on Reddit Monday night.
At this point, looking at the NOAA trail and knowing my location, I can tell you I was 2 miles west and approximately 2 miles north of the storm – giving me the rough approximation of 4 miles away from the funnel, and my house being approximately 1 mile or less.
I can also tell you that I assumed my house was gone and that I would have to search for neighbors when I got back. I texted the lady to let her know I had grabbed the dog and was out safe, but that the path of destruction looked too close for comfort and that I feared for the worst. I would later find out when I returned home, my house was spared suffering only minimal damage, and that in immediate walking distance, all hell was unfolding.
As soon as I felt comfortable that the immediate threat had subdued and that follow on tornadoes weren’t a threat, I drove back into the fight. I want to specifically mention at this point the shear speed by which first responders were on scene. I was no more than 4 miles from point of impact at any time and I was constantly pulling over to allow emergency vehicles to get in there. I’m also confident that debris was still landing when they reached the scene of impact. From that point on, for the next 6 hours, the sirens wouldn’t stop.
Back at the house I was able to confirm my property was okay and that there was no fatality-inducing damage to my immediate neighbors. I put the dog in his crate, confirmed no further threats of storms again, and drove towards the impact point. I didn’t want to impede the rescue efforts but wanted to help, so I stayed off the main roads and kept to the neighborhood streets. As quickly as I could get there, the main streets were blocked off. The track of the tornado was apparent due to the sheer devastation of its path.
Just a mile east of my immediate location was a facility called Orr Family Farm; news reports would later say that 75-100 horses at that location were either killed or put down as a result of the tornado. As I recognized I would only be a hindrance to coordinated SAR efforts, I retreated to a friend’s house close to the action. I used my crank powered weather radio to keep abreast of the tornado’s path and, somehow, text messages and some data were coming through my cell phone. I got messages out to the appropriate parties that I was okay.
Just the Beginning
Even though I was beginning to wind down, the tornado was increasing in damaging size. Reports would funnel in via radio and social media that the tornado was growing to almost two miles in size. Friends and family east of my position were still in harm’s way, and you feel incredibly helpless compared to an F4/5, 200+mph natural disaster. Since power was already down and the cell towers were being flooded with data we were getting whatever info we could at snail-like pace. Part of preparing for the day was keeping my phone fully charged throughout the day, so I was fortunate enough to have juice until nearly 2130 hrs (it’s the iPhone, so, I count that as impressive even though it’s really not).
Over the next hour we kept getting worse news. The talk of leveled buildings that I knew well was terribly unsettling, though it wouldn’t compare to the news of dead bodies being pulled from the 7-11 I had passed not 20 minutes ago — including a mother and her 7 month old child.
As I finally got news that my eastern most family members were okay, I was able to finally unwind by a fraction of a percent. Having been around for 3 May 1999, though, I knew that the worse had just begun. Seeing ambulances going to a scene really tugs at you; seeing emergency personnel with their heads hung low hurts worse.
More and more news began to come in and we heard that more than one elementary school had been hit. Reports would soon note that an unconfirmed number of children were found dead at an elementary school, some reportedly having drowned after the tornado passed. The sky was so mockingly peaceful against the chaos on the ground that looking up made you angry; this was nothing to nature but a phenomenon it does well – we were like ants.
A half mile north of my position was the local western triage site. Emergency vehicles were a constant presence and in the now calm skies, helicopters buzzed feverishly. To the south I could see a helicopter repeatedly attempt to touch down, presumably to medevac; each attempt exposed the pilot’s increasingly aggressive resolve to touch down as his commands became more succinct and deliberate. I became angry at the world again – let the damn chopper land. After the exhaustion of checking on loved ones and watching an endless flow of emergency vehicles pour around us I began recalling my preparation and what we needed to do.
Within an hour of local touchdown, we had confirmed the following threats: drinking water for areas immediately around ours were considered unsafe due to a water treatment plant going down, looting was reported via news purportedly via police (take it with a grain of salt), power was off and we didn’t know when it would be back on and loved ones may need assistance. Here’s what I did to prepare for that moment from months to minutes before:
Physically Fit: Anyone will tell you that if you can’t save yourself, you can’t save anyone else. You cannot reasonably expect to be able to run three miles into a disaster zone to extract loved ones if you can’t run one mile without stopping or move any amount of weight. Don’t put the responsibility on adrenaline alone – that’s a lie to make you feel comfortable. Get uncomfortable. I was prepared to sled drag and/or carry out my loved ones because I trained for it.
Food: I had MRE’s that would provide 4 days food for each member of my family, plus a lot of dry goods and a method for fire. We also had enough dog food to last for weeks.
Water: We had cases of water to provide us with drinking water along with water treatment options (purifying bottles, steripen, pills).
First Aid: Bet your ass I had an ITS trauma kit strapped to the front of my Kifaru Koala for immediate response. Debris can open your body in a split second and I had the means to stop major bleeding for myself and a loved one.
Fuel: I had reserve cans of gas in the garage to fuel the truck as needed, but I also topped the truck off the previous few days and instructed the lady to do the same.
Comms: I have a weather radio to receive, but I’ll be honest and tell you that I don’t have a well prepared comm plan. That’ll change as of today.
Tools and Defensive Capabilities: I had my multitool, numerous lights, my Bark River Bravo 1 and my defensive pistol on my person. The last thing I’m going to do is become overly defensive in such a situation – the focus is on recovery and rescue – but I’m also not going to put myself in a situation where I cannot defend myself. All of these were in my Kifaru Koala right behind my ITS trauma kit.
Mental Strength: Part of being able to survive disaster events is being able to survive the initial shock and stay on top of your emotions. You need to organize your responses so you can navigate secondary and tertiary threats. Physical fitness does a lot for this, but more than anything it takes preparing yourself mentally to see the worst of events unfold and still remain actionable. One of the top resources I can recommend is a book titled “On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace” by Lt. Col. (Ret) Dave Grossman and then Navy SEAL CMDR (RET) Mark Divine’s SEALFIT instruction which has an intense and purposed focus on mental strength. I fully credit my ability to think through the situation even with the tornado staring me down due to the benefits of his instruction and the books of Lt. Col. Grossman.
ITS Tactical: It’s probably pretty obvious since this is where I’m sending this article, but ITS is the prime type of community and info source to keep yourself in a preparedness state of mind. I can recall reading an article on each of the topics I mention here on ITS. It’s solid info, use it.
After Action Report
Lastly I want to say that I witnessed the selfless actions of our first responders and those of neighboring states and cannot be more impressed. I’ve heard of teams from Texas responding within minutes and mobilizing to come help – I’m sure it’s the same for many other states. There was a constant reminder from all media outlets for civilians to stay back and out of the way while first responders worked and I believe that was the absolute right decision.
Those teams were a tremendous asset and saved countless lives. Reports have come in that overnight, 101 survivors were pulled from the rubble. I’ve also heard of donations from around the country coming in – as a citizen of this community I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Seeing these families walk around with nothing left intact, sometimes including loved ones, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild and the generosity of this nation in times of disaster can be truly impressive. I escaped the situation remarkably better off than so many, so please don’t look at me as a victim.
Keep the true victims in your thoughts and prayers as they try to process what’s being called the most destructive tornado in the history of the United States. I can’t confirm that title right now through a credible source so I’ll only say that having lived here for almost 20 years, I fled an area I knew well to return to a hell I couldn’t imagine.
How You Can Help
Donate $10 to relief efforts by texting:
- STORM to 80888 Salvation Army
- REDCROSS to 90999 American Red Cross
- FOOD to 32333 Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma
- CONVOY to 50555 Convoy of Hope
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For the purpose of your article this comment is irrelevant, however; it should be noted that the Moore, and De Leon, tornado were artificial. If you live in OKC the pic at the top of this page shows an electron beam out of the NW. This is the instigator. For De Leon there were 3 of these, more than 12hrs before the strike, which altered the entire metro atmosphere into a vortex. It was neutralized by another beam immediately after the strike. If you want to watch these for a headsup in your neighborhood I recommend COD Radar online.
Amazing account, thank you for a great article. Question for the author: You mentioned your storm shelter in the "Contact" section. Is this an above-ground safe room in your house?
It's difficult for people (like myself) who don't live in an area affected by tornadoes to understand how people prepare for something like this. We tend to assume that everyone living in tornado alley has access to an underground shelter, but that obviously isn't the case. I'd love to know the motivations/concerns for building or not building an underground shelter.
Amazing account, thank you for a great article. Question for the author: You mentioned your storm shelter in the "Contact" section. Is this an above-ground safe room in your house? It's difficult for people (like myself) who don't live in an area affected by tornadoes to understand how people prepare for something like this. We tend to assume that everyone living in tornado alley has access to an underground shelter, but that obviously isn't the case. I'd love to know the motivations/concerns for building or not building an underground shelter.
That has got to be one of the best written, well laid articles ever...Thanks for posting! Glad you're okay and able to share this with us!
Living in the midwest in Indiana most of my life and many other places that tornados rock a lot of worlds for the worst. I can tell you this article rocks for the better! Great job!!!
Being prepared for them is a yearly thing for me and my wife and no matter where you are they can hit you so going to post this article about this through Facebook.
Living in the midwest in Indiana most of my life and many other places that tornados rock a lot of worlds for the worst. I can tell you this article rocks for the better! Great job!!! Being prepared for them is a yearly thing for me and my wife and no matter where you are they can hit you so going to post this article about this through Facebook.
I'm from Oklahoma City. Just want to say we're doing good here and thanks for all of the help and support from everyone across the country.
I was at work when the tornado hit, and I decided to make this image as a reminder to myself and so other's can see how close it came to me.
I'm from Oklahoma City. Just want to say we're doing good here and thanks for all of the help and support from everyone across the country. I was at work when the tornado hit, and I decided to make this image as a reminder to myself and so other's can see how close it came to me. http://imgur.com/68cd2u0
I would like to point out that the texting to donate does not send money directly to this relief so if you are wanting to donate directly to this disaster you will need to do it via check or in person with cash.
Thanks for the recount. As an Oklahoman I know what you went through, however, not to the extent of the storms like the May 3rd or May 20th tornadoes. The one that went through Edmond started somewhere near my house and the storm trackers were not yet prepared for it and I had no idea what was in store, not easy to get a 90 lb lab to calm down inside a safe room.
I would like to point out that the texting to donate does not send money directly to this relief so if you are wanting to donate directly to this disaster you will need to do it via check or in person with cash. Thanks for the recount. As an Oklahoman I know what you went through, however, not to the extent of the storms like the May 3rd or May 20th tornadoes. The one that went through Edmond started somewhere near my house and the storm trackers were not yet prepared for it and I had no idea what was in store, not easy to get a 90 lb lab to calm down inside a safe room.
Thanks for such a detailed and marvelously written article. You put us all at the scene.
When I read stories like these from Tornado Alley, I can't help but recall the eight months I spent living in Israel. The kibbutz where I worked had a policy of building bomb shelters within a couple of hundred feet of where anyone lived or worked. And we weren't even in what was considered a dangerous area.
Perhaps the schools in Tornado Alley need something similar, underground shelters that are within seconds of almost every school child. With a bit of work, even existing schools could be retrofitted. If building under classrooms is no longer possible, build just outside them with a slide and stairway exiting directly from classrooms into the shelter. And with those slides, kids would love the drills.
Thanks for such a detailed and marvelously written article. You put us all at the scene. When I read stories like these from Tornado Alley, I can't help but recall the eight months I spent living in Israel. The kibbutz where I worked had a policy of building bomb shelters within a couple of hundred feet of where anyone lived or worked. And we weren't even in what was considered a dangerous area. Perhaps the schools in Tornado Alley need something similar, underground shelters that are within seconds of almost every school child. With a bit of work, even existing schools could be retrofitted. If building under classrooms is no longer possible, build just outside them with a slide and stairway exiting directly from classrooms into the shelter. And with those slides, kids would love the drills.