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Oklahoma tornadoes: May 31 tornado panic led people to flee cars for the homes of strangers

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said breaking into a home may not be illegal if fleeing danger, but he advised against it.
by Nolan Clay Modified: June 15, 2013 at 11:43 pm •  Published: June 16, 2013

As tornadoes danced around one south Oklahoma City neighborhood May 31, people stuck in a traffic jam fled their cars for the only shelter they could find — the homes of strangers.

“I've never seen nothing like it,” said Delton Allen, who watched the chaos after coming up from a neighbor's full basement.

“They had no place to go. The streets were blocked. The limbs were already flying out of the trees, and one had crashed across a car,” Allen, 69, recalled last week. “People were just scrambling back and forth across the street. I could just see the panic. … It was hailing and the wind was tearing things up.”

Allen and his wife live in a well-kept house along a four-block stretch of SW 72 between Blackwelder Avenue and Douglas Place.

He returned to his home May 31 to find his solid wood front door kicked off its hinges. Nothing was missing.

“We found nothing even moved or anything,” he said.

Extreme, unusual fear

Allen's experience is another example of the extreme and unusual fear several Oklahomans felt when major storms developed May 31, so soon after an EF5 tornado devastated Moore and south Oklahoma City.

Some fleeing the tornadoes May 31 took shelter in drainage tunnels. For 12 people, that was a fatal mistake. Others became stuck in their cars on the interstates, one of the worst places to be when a tornado strikes. Some drove the wrong way on the roads to escape.

Normally, breaking into a home is at least a misdemeanor crime. Prosecutors said Friday it may not be illegal if someone is escaping a tornado.

“It depends on the facts,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said. “Certainly, you would have to consider the fact that the people who broke into these homes were under duress and under the belief of imminent death if they had not taken the action they did.”

Prater advised against it, though. “Well, of course not, because the homeowner doesn't know what your intent is,” he said.

No charges filed

Prosecutors in Cleveland County have faced the issue already. No charges were filed against people who broke into a business May 31, Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said.

“They were going to pay back for the damage to the door they went in. … They didn't think they could get out of the way so they were seeking shelter and went into a business. They didn't take anything,” he said. “They self reported. … They stuck around after the storms.”

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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