As I entered the barn, I did what I had done since the day we purchased the farm. I thanked God for giving me my dream. How I loved that barn. It was almost 100 years old and boasted almost 4000 square feet to its two story wood frame. Every time I entered it, I felt my entire body relax with the sights, sounds and smells of the past and present sweetly coming together.
The morning went by with the market animals picked up on time and the chores done quickly and easily. I settled in my favorite chair in our comfortable living room for a relaxing cup of coffee. As I sat there sipping my coffee, I looked around the room thinking about how much I loved the farm. It was truly the place I had dreamed of all my life. Some of my happiest moments since moving from California five years earlier to Oklahoma had been spent on this farm.
Suddenly, my calm was shaken by the blaring of our weather radio. Since weather warnings were not an uncommon thing for the Oklahoma plains, I went into the bedroom fully expecting it to be the typical wind or storm warning. This time was different. There was something ominous in these warnings. I switched the radio off and went to the television knowing our local news would be giving the needed details. Yes, there were chances of multiple tornados but nothing solid yet. I shut the television off and called my husband. He assured me everything was fine and so we both continued our day as though it was.
I went about my housework feeling a growing uneasiness. The weather seemed more brooding outside and the air in the house felt thicker by the moment. Within hours Bob called to say all schools were closing and he was leaving work to go get the kids and head home. Even though there were no sightings in our area, the schools were taking the necessary precautions. I felt sick but Bob assured me he and the children would be home soon.
My oldest daughter Rachel and her husband Joel had purchased a new home just a few miles east of us. Today was to be their moving day. I decided to help pass the time, I would drive over and see if I could help them unpack. I called Bob to let him know where I would be and asked him to call me as soon as he and the kids got home. He assured me he would.
At my daughters I busied myself with the things associated with moving. She and I cleaned and unpacked boxes while Joel transported their belongings from the old house to the new one. Soon we received a phone call from Bob. He and the children had started the nine mile journey home when a tornado touched down in town. They quickly took shelter at the first house they came to. This would happen twice more before they were able to make it home safely. The kindness of strangers would prove to be immeasurable throughout that day and the days to follow.
We decided it was best for me to stay where I was until we knew for sure it was safe to travel home. As I felt the knots in my stomach getting larger and harder, I cleaned and unpacked with a vengeance. Shortly after the last phone call from Bob, the power went out. The cell phones would no longer work. The tornado sirens in town began to wail. I yelled for my daughter to get into the bathtub and cover herself with blankets as I ran to the sliding glass door in the dining room. As I stood there peering out into what should have been the blue sky of early dusk, I lost my breath. All I could see was the blackest, thickest, widest tornado even my own vivid imagination could not have dared to dream. I ran to the bathroom and told Rae, “I think we’re in trouble honey.” We both ran to the hall closet and closed ourselves in while praying that this would be the safest place. My chest began to hurt from the pressure of the tornado passing. We continued to pray.
After what seemed like hours the sirens stopped. Rae and I left the closet upon hearing a knock at the front door. A neighbor had come to see if we were okay. As we talked Joel drove up. Jumping from the truck he came running into the house crying. He had been on his way back to us with another load of belongings when a tornado had stopped him. He had taken shelter in the home of strangers. His greatest fear was that of losing his wife as he saw the huge monster heading our way.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not heard from Bob. The phones were not working and all I could think of was getting home. Joel wouldn’t let me go alone so the three of us got into his truck and headed west to the farm. We had only gone two blocks when the siren began its horrible wail once again. The police flagged us into a safe house refusing to allow us to continue on. As we took shelter with strangers I prayed for the safety of my husband and children.
Hours would pass before we were allowed to continue our journey back home. Joel refused to take the dirt back roads that would quickly lead us to our farm. He felt it best to stay on the paved roads as much as possible. I was frustrated with that decision. Later I would learn of two more tornados passing through those back roads at the very moments we would have been on them.
When we finally came to our road I saw the first images of the destruction. It was now after 10 pm. The sky was black and the lights that normally dotted the county roads were all gone, destroyed by the tornadoes. There were police and fire trucks everywhere. The eerie lights from those vehicles along with our truck headlights illuminated more than I wanted to see. We would have to drive one mile down the dirt road before getting to our house but I already knew. I could see pieces of our barn and home along the road. I began to hyperventilate.
Pulling in front of what was once our home, now crawling with emergency workers and neighbors; I jumped from the truck and ran to the edge of the front lawn. Even in the darkness I could see the barn was gone. The house looked like something from a Halloween horror movie. It was battered beyond recognition with doors and windows gone and lace curtains blowing from the inside to the outside. The wind howled through the empty shell. I looked across the driveway to see my husband’s car crumpled and destroyed. I dropped to the grass screaming thinking I would never see Bob or our children again. As neighbors tried to comfort me, I sank deeper into darkness, my mind swirling with the sight before me. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another breath, a familiar pair of arms enveloped me. Bob held me close as I sobbed with relief. One by one our children joined him by wrapping themselves into the family embrace. They had arrived home minutes before the tornado hit giving them just enough time to take shelter in our basement.
Sixty-six tornadoes would pass through Oklahoma on May 3rd, 1999 killing forty-eight people. It would be recorded as the most prolific tornado outbreak in Oklahoma history.