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Remembering May 3, 1999: Finding hope in nature's fury

On May 3, 1999, my search for God truly began. He used a terrible disaster to reach a sinner like me.
by Michelle Sutherlin Modified: May 5, 2014 at 9:33 am •  Published: May 5, 2014

photo - MAY 3, 1999 TORNADO: Tornado damage: Aerial view of Moore looking northeast from near 12th street northeast.  First Baptist Church is at top right.
MAY 3, 1999 TORNADO: Tornado damage: Aerial view of Moore looking northeast from near 12th street northeast. First Baptist Church is at top right.

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.

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by Michelle Sutherlin
NewsOK Contributor
Michelle Sutherlin is 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. She loves middle school students so...
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