On May 3, 1999, 44 lives ended as a result of an EF5 tornado tearing a path through Oklahoma communities.
But also on that day, 15 years ago, my life truly began.
I had started in a new job as the Emergency Services Director of the Heart of Oklahoma Chapter of the American Red Cross five weeks and one day previous to May 3, 1999. I was 24 and had no real idea how to run my part of this non-profit and volunteer dependent organization.
The American Red Cross was and is one of the world’s most respected and longest running non-profits with chapters all across this country. Because of the size of this organization, the agency is very bureaucratic; no matter where you are in the U.S., the Red Cross handles things the same way. Same paperwork, same standards, same response. However, I knew of hardly any of the long-standing policies and procedures that these chapters maintained.
So when the EF5 tornado hit two of my counties, flattening homes and causing millions of dollars in damage to communities that I was responsible for responding to – including Moore, Newcastle and Oklahoma City – I winged it.
The memories I have from that night are as real as if they happened yesterday. After sheltering in my closet, I left for the chapter headquarters in Norman and my husband headed to south Oklahoma City to see if his parents and brother and sister were alive.
Communication was very difficult, but at about 8 p.m. I heard that my in-laws were alive and well. Their home was standing, though heavily damaged. I later learned my husband and his family pulled survivors out of the rubble that night.
While they were helping survivors, I was busy managing volunteers. There was a shelter to set up, food trucks to man, damage assessments to be done and workers to help. Although it was chaotic, our small staff made it happen.
At midnight I headed to the Emergency Operations Command Center in Moore. It was eerily quiet as I drove up I-35 into the black night. There were no lights on anywhere, starting in north Norman. I headed to downtown Moore to search for the EOC but was having trouble finding my destination.
The most haunting image I have ever seen happened when I arrived at the Moore Fire Department and Police Station. It was a ghost town. All hands were on deck in the most heavily affected neighborhoods so the station and offices were empty.
I parked my car and opened the door to head to the police station to ask where the EOC was located. As I put my foot on the concrete, I saw a trail of blood leading from the parking lot to the door of the police station
It was clear someone badly injured had sought help at the station. I followed the red trail to the door and then realized there were two trails: one from the parking lot to the door and one from the door back to the parking lot. The injured person also found the station deserted. I imagined the injured person knocking on the door for help and then realizing there was no one there to help. I imagined the person hobbling back to his/her car and trying to find help from someone else. I still don’t know what happened to that person.
I left the station and finally found the EOC. I spent the entire night there as the only woman and by far youngest member of the crisis team. We planned and shared information. At dawn, I headed to the First Baptist Church of Moore, which took a hit but was still standing and functional. On the drive there I saw the damage in the light of day and nearly drove off the road. Even after seeing graphic images on the TV, seeing it in person was an entirely different experience.
The next few days blurred together. There was not a lot of sleep happening and I managed to unknowingly break most of the Red Cross’ rules. I also found out the hard way why those rules were in place. They had clearly done this before, and I obviously had not.
My co-workers and I bonded in a way that can only happen with a shared intense experience. I saw images that are burned in my memory. I talked to survivors and to families who lost loved ones. I helped people recover, and I taught volunteers. I accepted donations and ran errands.
But as all of these things were happening, something was happening to my heart. I was devastated by the disaster and proud of how we helped. But more than that, I was angry that it happened at all.
My boss, Kristin Collins, had been inviting me to church before the tornado. I always politely declined. I did not grow up in church, and although I believed there was a God, I had never read the Bible and didn’t know much if anything about Christianity.
And now I was angry with a so-called God that could allow such an awful event to happen to the community I loved. I told Kristin one morning that I would go to church with her to see what kind of God could allow such a thing to happen.
I went to her church the first time and was prepared to shoot holes through the theology and be done with religion once and for all. But instead, that Sunday morning in May was the first time I ever really felt like God was speaking to me. I was still angry and didn’t understand the “why” of the tornado, but I wanted to go back to learn more.
So, I did. Week after week. And then in the fall I joined a “seekers group” for people who were seeking more about God and Christianity. It was a safe place for me to go ask my questions and grow my understanding of God, the Bible, faith, prayer and other Christians.
Slowly my anger began to fade. As it did, I realized there was a God-sized whole in my heart. I began to learn and grew to understand that God didn’t cause the tornado. Instead of being the cause of the tragedy, He was the cause of Oklahoma’s amazing outpouring of love and support to all who were affected.
I began to look back at my life at the moments were God was at work. I didn’t see Him at the time, but I could look back and see He was there all along.
Seven months after the tornado and after learning about God and the Bible and myself, Kristin and another friend and I walked to the highest point of the building we were in, and I prayed to ask Jesus to become my Lord and personal savior. I accepted the forgiveness he was offering and gave my life to Him. Three months later I was baptized.
Now, 15 years later, I look back on the day of the tornado and think of it as the day my life began. It was the day God finally got my attention to seek him. I know now that God’s heart breaks when tragedies like tornadoes occur. And then he uses the terrible events for good, just like he promises us. I’ve seen this happen over and over and over. Death, sickness, disaster, accidents. All of them break God’s heart, but He uses them all to prove that He is good.
While our hearts ache in these sad times, if we look hard enough, we can see that God is at work. He is in the kindness of strangers, the love of first responders and volunteers and in the hope of survivors. He is there to help us through the worst of the worst, and He always gives us the best of the best.
I would never wish for a disaster like a tornado to see God’s hand at work. But I am so glad that He used such a terrible tragedy to save a sinner like me.
Michelle Sutherlin is a NewsOK contributor and a middle school counselor in Norman, OK, who works with students ages 11-15 daily. She is also a mom to two boys, Ryan (12) and Will (9). She and her husband have been married for 16 years. For more articles about parents and middle school, check out her blog.
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