Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Whew! That was Scary!: Life on the Rowdy Oklahoma Plains

(I kind of feel like a whiner posting this but it WAS an amazing experience!)

Mark is an amazing meteorologist.  I can recognize weather when I see it.  He can tell you it's coming before it shows up.  He talks about "mare's tails" (a type of cloud) and high pressure domes and he can see a faint something on the horizon that means we shouldn't bother to wash the car. 

Yesterday, as we were poking around town trying to sqeeze the most out of our long anniversary weekend (and pouting that I had to leave ON our anniversary), he spotted some clues:  It was 101 in Enid but, up the road in Wichita, it was cool.  "This is going to be bad", he declared confident of his conclusion.  He eyed the clouds and told me I'd better get on the road before the storm came.  I sulked a bit but I left.  It was almost time to go anyway. 

As the Western sky grew an ever-deepening shade of steely blue-gray, I drove out of town headed East.  Ahead, to the Northeast, I could see a rain shower.  It didn't look like much:  puffy white clouds on top of long quenching streams of rain falling from the sky to the parched, thirsty ground.  I felt confident that I could get past it before it disrupted the freshly-washed finish Mark had put on my car. 

The "wet" pavement ahead kept turning out to be mirages as I drove on, confident. 

About 20 miles outside of town, right before the Garfield/Noble county line, the rain caught me.  Then the wind gusts started lashing out and I felt like I was riding on roller skates with a sail.  Bits of paper and debris blasted across the road in front of the car as the strong gust front took hold.  I felt lucky that there were no other cars near me as an unexpected gust could have put anyone in another lane in the blink of an eye.

I slowed way down and finally turned South on the county line road out of a true concern that the wind could roll my car off the road.  Even with my back to the wind, the car rocked and heaved upward.  I remembered all the cars we saw in the rubble in Joplin after the F5 tornado hit there.  Many had been launched into the air and thrown violently back down to Earth.  They said that a lot of the cars laying smashed on the ground had bodies in them.  This must have been how those people felt at the beginning.

I surveyed the flat terrain in all directions and drove on a little further down the gravel road looking for shelter.  I grew up in Oklahoma, I know that a car is not safe shelter beyond a certain windspeed.  In every direction were flat fields.  The ditch beside the road, a mere depression, wouldn't really help me much. 

Within a quarter of a mile I found my hidey hole:  A 36" diameter drain pipe that went under the road.  I parked with my driver's door right above the culvert and planned to dive into the pipe if need be -- fully willing to share the space with any raccoon or other creature that might already inhabit it (hoping that snakes didn't figure into the equation).  I kept scanning all around me for the tornado I felt must be near.  It felt as if I was in the the vicinity of a couple of them.

My hidey hole.

I watched the trees and the tall grass bend as the fierce wind beat them.  More bits and pieces of things blew by at rapid speed.  Lightning flashed regularly.  My cell phone threatened to die.  Ugh (my car charger takes almost an hour to revive it if it goes completely dead).  I called Mark to tell him where I was so he would know where to start looking for me if I blew away.  He said the storm I had originally been trying to avoid had just blown forcefully through Enid.

To the Southeast, I could see the clouds get caught in a downdraft, be dragged downward, flow along the ground, and then start to rise with an updraft.  Two fields to the West of me, a whole field of dust swirled upward into a funnel shape that died down and then reformed several times.  I've seen enough tornado footage on the Discovery Channel to know that tornados start from the ground and go up -- or at least, you can't see them until they start to pick up debris. It looked like a funnel TO ME.

What I saw was bigger than this stock meteorology photo.

Then the wind shifted and started blowing strongly from the East.  Soon after, the wind died down.  Mark encouraged me to get on down the road ahead of the storm that had gone through Enid but hadn't reached me yet.  So I headed East again. 

Three miles down the road I came over a slight hill and found myself gazing across an amazing scene.  Three tractor-trailer trucks were overturned and laying in the road at what must have been the point of the strongest winds.  Two had blown over from where they were parked on the north shoulder.  The third had apparently turned off to the South on a gravel road like I had.  It had been toppled by the wind from the East that came at the end.  One of the truck drivers was trying to retrieve belongings from his smashed cab, another held an ice-pack made from a plaid shirt to his head, the third had been laid in the back of an SUV that had stopped to help, his feet sticking out of the open back, his legs wrapped in plastic for warmth. 

Not one of this trucks I saw.  This is a stock photo.  But this is the gist of it -- times three.

I stopped to take pictures of the semis (alas, the pictures got erased by a little tantrum my phone threw) and then continued East.  Within two miles, I caught up with the storm.  The same strong wind gusts and rain started to beat against my car again.  Still shaking from my first encounter with the storm, I decided that I was too shaken up to endure any more wind and rain.  How stupid would it be to drive back into the storm I had just come out of?  I turned around and headed back to Enid.  This turned out to be a good decision as I would have been driving through severe thunderstorms for the next three hours if I'd continued toward home. 

On the way back to Enid I saw two cars with their side windows blown in.  They were also limping back to Enid (I know they had turned back toward Enid because it was their driver side windows that were broken so they must have been going East for the wind from the North to have broken the windows).  Most of the road signs were blown down.  Pieces of corrogated tin barn roofs were strewn along the side of the road.  No barns were in sight to indicate where this material had come from.  I passed two ambulances and half a dozen emergency vehicles from the local rural fire departments as they headed out to where the semis were.

Someone's barn roof.

Break-away highway sign.

I have tried to research the windspeed at which car windows break.  To no avail.  I did, however, learn that windows in houses start to break in winds around 80 mph.  The severe thunderstorm warning for the area I was in warned of 75 mph winds.  Winds in Lahoma, on the other side of Enid, were clocked at 96 mph.  I'm also not sure at what windspeed highway signs are designed to collapse (they have break-away latches on the posts).  Let's just say it was windy.

When I got to the hotel (where Mark was waiting for me), the hotel manager tried to tell me that, if the weather got bad, I should go to the middle of the first floor.  "Thanks,"  I told him, "I know.  I grew up here."  Which doesn't make me immune to shaking for a couple of hours afterward!

I know the signs well enough to have recognized "tornado green" in Southern California.  In 1990, when I was living in Irvine, California, I looked out my window into a rain storm and noticed that the sky was that shade of green that means "tornado" in Oklahoma.  "Nah," I thought to myself, "Couldn't be.  There aren't tornados in California."  Turns out there was a very rare tornado about a mile and a half away.  I had recognized the color. 

Another Enid girl, Mark's cousin Ann, was driving North to South on I-35 (6 or 7 miles East of where I was) during the same storm I was in.  She felt confident that she saw a funnel in the direction of where I was.  She would know.  She's an Oklahoma girl! 

In retrospect, I'm proud to be an Oklahoma girl and proud to have acquired enough knowledge to have done the right things.  I have always told my girls, as each of them has gone through a childhood phase of being terrified of storms, that they don't have to worry, that I know what to look for, and that I will tell them when to worry and I will keep them safe if things get bad.  I am confident that I know what I need to know to do so.  I also know that you have to be below ground level to survive an F5.  May I never have to use that knowledge!

That is definitely the last time I try to outrun a storm on my way out of Enid!

1 comment:

  1. Whew! I'm so glad you're safe!
    Really excellent journalism, by the way.


If you have something mean to say, please say it nicely!