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.”
Mashburn also said he would have to consider the circumstances of each case before deciding whether to prosecute. He warned, “If there's occupants inside, like a home, and they say, ‘No, you're not coming in here,' you can't just force your way in, no matter what.”
Allen, a furniture repairman, is fixing the door and door jamb himself. “That door was laying sideways and twisted,” he said. “Normally, the glass door is locked. I didn't take the time to lock it when I left here …. I'd have let the folks in if I'd been here.”
Guest for the night
His next-door neighbor, Nikki Winters, 63, did let in four people the evening of May 31. One spent the night.
Winters and her son were huddled underneath a mattress in a hallway when they heard a knocking on the door that leads from the house to the garage.
“Then the door opened and … a man said, ‘Is anybody there? Can we come in?'” she said.
Three people — a younger couple and a man with them — had gotten lost and saw that her side garage door had blown open. They went into the garage, and a woman, a hotel worker, followed them.
Winters, a secretary for U.S. Attorney Sanford Coats, said she let the four under the regular-size mattress with her and her son. The power already had gone out.
“It was pretty crowded. We were crowded together,” she said. “I had a battery-powered radio and we were listening to that, trying to see what was going to happen next, and just hoping and praying that it went past or went over us. … Oh, the wind was terrible, and the lightning, just constant. … It was just terrible. We were under the mattress for … probably about 15 minutes or so until we were sure it had gone by.
“It was so flooded out there that they were just wet, top to bottom,” she said.
She said the three people who came in first waited until there was a break in the rain and left in their pickup. They thanked her. She said she doesn't know their names.
Winters said, “The other lady who had come in behind them … was just scared to death to try to make it home. … Finally, we just decided … that she should just stay here for the night, and so she slept on our couch that night. … We got out some blankets and a pillow and stuff and she left early the next morning because she had to go to work. … She thanked us again, too. ”