WOODWARD — Matt Lehenbauer loved to chase storms.
Last April changed that.
Lehenbauer has seen a lot of tornadoes as the emergency management director for Woodward County and the city of Woodward.
But what happened April 15, 2012, was different.
“When it's people you personally know and you know they were injured or were killed and their homes were destroyed, it changes your outlook on life and on everything,” Lehenbauer said. “I've always taken my job seriously, but I take it 10 times more seriously, to the point it's paranoia and fear. I've never feared tornadoes ... but now it scares me.”
On April 15, 2012, an EF3 tornado struck Woodward just past midnight, killing six residents, including three children, and damaging about 213 homes and businesses. About half sustained major damage or were destroyed.
A year later, residents continue working to recover and to rebuild.
Jean Schwab soon will move into her new house, built on top of where her destroyed home once stood.
The night of the tornado, Schwab's adult children came to her house and woke her up. They rushed to the storm shelter in her backyard. A few minutes later, a tree flew through a bay window and into the bedroom where she had been sleeping.
“As they were shutting the lid on the cellar out back, you could see bricks beginning to fly,” she said. “It was that close.”
Schwab has spent the past year in transition. Filing insurance claims has forced her to try to remember what was once in each room of her home.
There were an incredible list of specific questions. How many towels did you have? How old were they? How much did they cost? Things a person doesn't think about until everything is gone.
Schwab's insurance policy wouldn't cover all the damage even though her home was destroyed. This was a surprise to her, but her company gave her an amount she was happy with. “I thought I had 100 percent replacement, but I think what we found out locally was a lot of people were underinsured,” she said.
Several people were uninsured and continue to pay mortgages on houses that no longer exist.
Most mortgage lenders require borrowers to purchase and maintain homeowner's insurance in order to protect the lender and the borrower from loss of the collateral, according to the Oklahoma Insurance Department. However, it is a contractual requirement, not a legal one.
Schwab doesn't pretend the past year has been easy. She used to allow herself “pity parties,” setting a 15-minute timer and crying and screaming as much as she wanted for 15 minutes.
“But when it dinged, I was supposed to go do something else,” she said.
The tornado reminded Schwab how much she wanted to continue living.
“We had two sets of fathers and children killed, and like I said, that makes my loss minuscule,” she said. “We just do what we need to do. It is what it is.”
Near the fence in the northwest corner, amid dirt, tufts of grass and bits of wood, a black-and-white sign reads “STORM SHELTER,” acknowledging the newly installed storm shelter sitting in the ground.
It might seem insignificant if you didn't know that, about 30 feet from that sign, three people lost their lives to a tornado.
Frank N. Hobbie II, 26, and his two daughters, Faith Dean, 7, and Kelly Marie, 4, were residents of the Hide-A-Way manufactured home park. They were asleep when the tornado struck the manufactured home park.
Their black stone graves are at Elmwood Cemetery in Woodward, decorated with flowers and mementos. A Tinkerbell wallet and a small figurine of Ariel from the “Little Mermaid” is near the girls' heart-shaped graves.
Another resident, Steve Peil, 63, died April 16 at an Amarillo, Texas, hospital after he and his wife were injured in their home at the mobile home park. He was a Vietnam War veteran who many knew as “Mickey Mouse.”
The six people who died that night all lived in manufactured homes.
About 10 miles southwest of Woodward, Derrin Juul died as he tried to save his two youngest daughters from the tornado speeding toward their home. Their home sat about 20 feet from a storm shelter with about a dozen steps down to safety.
He and his daughter, Rose Marie, 10, died that night. Juul was a Marine who worked at an oil services company as a nitrogen pump operator. Rose Marie was remembered as a friendly and energetic girl who played recorder in band and was a good singer.
That night, the tornado was quick. It struck about 12:18 a.m. By 12:25 a.m., it was gone.
Most of the storm chasers had been sent home because the threat had diminished. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Woodward at midnight. The storm was moving faster than usual, and emergency workers were trying to determine whether there was a tornado on the ground.
Once it hit, Lehenbauer looked over the damage and feared that more than 100 people would be dead. During the first few hours after the tornado, he called the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and said he would need refrigerator trucks to handle the number of people he expected to recover.
He was speaking from the city's experience.
On April 9, 1947, the most deadly tornado to ever strike within the borders of Oklahoma hit Woodward, according to the National Weather Service.
At least 107 people were killed in and around Woodward. The tornado was massive, up to 1.8 miles wide, and traveled at forward speeds of about 50 mph, according to the weather service.
Lehenbauer can't pinpoint one specific reason that fewer people died in 2012 than in 1947.
“A number of the people that were in the path did get the warnings, either through our phone notifications system, a weather radio or social media, and those that didn't get them directly, got phone calls and were told, ‘It's big, bad and ugly, get to cover now,'” he said.
Most of it is awareness. More people have access to information about weather, including television and online news reports, weather radios and apps on smartphones.
Lehenbauer regularly uses Twitter and Facebook to alert residents. He also can send text and voice messages to phones across Woodward County when severe weather hits. It's this type of system that's important in initially notifying people of what's coming.
A year ago, much debate existed among residents about what happened with the tornado sirens. Some said they went off. Some said they didn't. Misinformation was reported across various media outlets.
A year later, the story is clearer. The tornado was southwest of town when it knocked out the city's main power substation, radio station towers and a large cellphone carrier's main system. This meant it took out 75 percent of the town's electricity, the radio stations used to alert residents and cellphone service for many residents.
The sirens used to run on electricity, so when they were sounded, only three or four went off.
One siren sits outside a city building, dented and partially filled with dirt. The tornado ripped this 600-pound yellow rusted machine out of the ground. Some reported hearing the siren go off as it flew through the air.
Thanks to a $350,000 donation from an oil and gas company, along with some public funding, the city was able to install about 27 sirens that have battery backups in case the power goes out. Most cities have old sirens that have been in commission for 30 years to 50 years.
Lehenbauer said people can't count on sirens as their first line of defense.
“If you can hear sirens in your home anywhere in Oklahoma, that's a bonus,” he said. “But we always recommend three ways to get warnings, and the sirens should be the last on your list because they can fail.”