Oklahoma tornadoes: Tornado turns Woodward residents' lives upside down

Five people died when a tornado blitzed the west side of Woodward, Oklahoma. It touched down about 12:20 a.m. as the last of several severe thunderstorms in several hours traversed that part of the state.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: April 16, 2012

Reynolds wore coveralls Sunday morning that he was able to salvage from the house, which was destroyed by the tornado. His daughter, home from college for the weekend, was home alone when it hit but sheltered in a safe room and was unhurt.

A neighbor called Reynolds to ask about her before Reynolds made it back to his neighborhood.

“He said ‘I'm going to go get her. Your house is gone,'” Reynolds said. “It makes you weak in the knees. You just don't know how to react to that.”

Classes canceled

Woodward School District Superintendent Tim Merchant said classes will be canceled Monday because of damage in the area.

“We still have so many families without electricity, and a lot of the roads aren't open for our routes,” he said.

Merchant said Highland Park Elementary School near Webster Avenue and 28 Street sustained minor damage to the roof. He said the main concern for staff will be attending to students' needs and providing counseling.

All schools will reopen Tuesday. Merchant said this upcoming Friday was originally scheduled for a professional day for staff only but will become a regular school day because of the storms.

Mobile homes

Some of the bleakest outcomes in Woodward had roots in the Hide-A-Way Mobile Home Park along 22nd Street north of Oklahoma Avenue. Two of the children killed by the tornado lived in the park, officials and neighbors said.

A pile of rubble with a destroyed sport utility vehicle and overturned car marked the home where the children lived, neighbors said. The storm plundered the park, ripping gaping holes in some homes, reducing others to piles of rubble, stripping a few away to leave only cinder blocks behind, and leaving some untouched.

Martina Mora, 43, was with her 2-year-old son in a mobile home next door when the tornado rampaged through the park. She grabbed him and hugged him tightly to her body.

“He's OK, thank God,” she said in Spanish.

Theresa Pettet, 45, rocked gently Sunday morning as she sat on her porch recalling the storm. Her toddler son played next to her, and two puppies wrestled at his feet. Their home was mostly undamaged, and Pettet's eyes welled with tears as she considered her good fortune as compared to some of her neighbors.

Pettet's hands quivered while she recounted trying to get from her home to the park's storm shelter with her family. The storm was too violent for them to make it, yet it spared their house as it barged through only yards away.

“We had to sit right here and ride it out,” Pettet said. “It's not but 50 feet. We couldn't get there.”

Grim task

By dawn Sunday, emergency crews had already finished the grim task of counting Woodward's dead and started to administer care to the injured. Codes in fluorescent paint marked driveways, propped-up plywood and other surfaces in front of damaged and destroyed houses that had been searched for survivors and bodies.

Swarms of law officers, firefighters, utility crews and other officials combed Woodward through the morning. Heavy construction equipment cleared streets, and state troopers blocked off streets leading to damaged areas as they warded off rubber-neckers who drove by slowly on open portions of Oklahoma Avenue.

State of emergency

Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency Sunday afternoon for Woodward and 11 other counties affected by tornadoes, severe storms, straight line winds and flooding that began Friday.

Fallin took an aerial tour of the city of about 12,000 by helicopter Sunday afternoon. She said afterward that emergency responders in the area were “remarkable” in their response.

“It's been encouraging to me to be here in Woodward to see just the immediate response by so many great Oklahomans and just how people help their fellow neighbors, their families and it was such a shock, I think, to the community to have a second storm come through right after people had gone to bed and a little bit unexpected from that stance, so it's remarkable that we didn't have more loss of life,” Fallin said during a news conference following the tour.

“We haven't seen any looting in this community. We've just seen people coming to help others and that's what makes Oklahoma very special is the great people that we have in our state,” she said.

“We're going to do everything we can to get Woodward back on its feet,” she said.

Woodward Mayor Roscoe Hill said during a live TV broadcast that many people joined in search-and-rescue efforts Sunday morning to help storm victims.

“It's really a devastating thing to our city,” he said. “I think the main thing is all you can do is pray for us.”

Overnight shelter

Twelve people stayed overnight at a shelter at the Living Word Fellowship Church, 1310 Oklahoma Ave., said Rusty Surette, spokesman for the American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma. More people came to the shelter Sunday looking for assistance, and others came looking to help.

Dan Rister, 27, his family and his home survived the storm unscathed. The Hide-A-Way resident spent much of Sunday trying to help neighbors sift through clothes, dishes, pictures, shampoo bottles, toys, wood, bricks and everything else while marveling at the scale of destruction a stone's throw from his own house.

“Somebody's roof almost became my roof,” Rister said.

American Red Cross crews and other relief workers patrolled affected neighborhoods, providing information, water and food to emergency workers and residents taking stock of what they had left.

Irma Sanchez, 43, clutched a crucifix and antique Bible on Sunday, pausing between sobs when carting what remained of her brother's possessions from a crumbling mobile home at Hide-A-Way.

She gestured at charring marks left on the Bible from a fire at a previous family home.

“It's always survived,” she said.

Sheet metal wrapped around trees like gum wrappers Sunday in Woodward, and crushed cars caked with mud lined the streets next to splintered wood and rusty nails on the ground.

But Sanchez and others searched for what could be saved.

“We're just going to try to salvage the clothes and see what we can do to get his stuff out of here,” she said.

Contributing: Staff writers Tiffany Gibson and Matt Dinger and The Associated Press.

NewsOK Weather Blog

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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