STORM'S PATH HAS NO PITY

By Tony Thornton Modified: May 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm •  Published: May 1, 2009
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photo - Tornado damage: Regency Park housing Addition looking east from Sunset   towards Moore's First Baptist Church, and the traffic on I-35.
Tornado damage: Regency Park housing Addition looking east from Sunset towards Moore's First Baptist Church, and the traffic on I-35.
Editor's note:The following story was originally published May 16th, 1999 in The Oklahoman

In Jo Jamison's back yard south of Amber lie two overturned but salvageable bench swings. Next to one of them, the clothesline is ready for action, and two Bradford pear trees have shed their annual blossoms.

Three bundles of shingles sit atop Jamison's roof. They represent the only repair work required at the 94-year-old woman's home.

From such humble origins sprouted what is being called the most powerful recorded tornado in American history. Thirty-eight miles, 85 minutes and at least one wind speed of 318 mph after it first touched ground, the monster - "twister" hardly seems adequate - had killed more than 40 people, injured hundreds and destroyed more than 2,200 homes.

But you'd never know it from looking at Jamison's home or the barns and farmhouses scattered several hundreds yards apart along State Highway 92 in north-central Grady County. The lack of damage belies the terror that followed after the tornado left.

"I guess I'm lucky to be alive," Jamison said, repeating what thousands of other Oklahomans have uttered in the past 12 days.

It was by far the strongest of at least 50 tornadoes that struck Oklahoma over nine hours May 3 and 4. A tour of its path quickly gives a sense of the strength and width it gained while developing in pastures and wheat fields before unleashing its wrath on heavily populated areas.

Here then, are some observations of the F5 tornado's route.

South of Amber to Bridge Creek

As the storm approached her house at 6:25 p.m., Jamison paced the floor and peered out her front door. There was too much nervous energy to hide in a bathroom, as her friends and son suggested in several phone calls over a 10-minute span.

Minutes earlier, a tornado had destroyed hangars at the Chickasha airport, then had ascended back into the clouds. When it came down again a few hundred yards west of Jamison's home, it was a new tornado, starting out as an F-3 on the Fujita scale.

Compared with what would come minutes later at Bridge Creek, the damage seems more akin to a nasty little wind gust.

"You just can't explain these things. Hope I never have to explain another one," Jamison said.

Some 300 yards north, large metal strips have been ripped from her neighbor's barn, but the home next to it is undamaged. The cows long since have returned to grazing, oblivious to their luck of not living a few miles northeast.

The tornado quickly grew to three-fourths of a mile wide, peeling inch-thick asphalt from a rural road five miles east of Jamison's home. In the same area, a bulldozer pushes furniture, walls and the remains of a barn into one huge pile for burning.

"I'll be doing a lot more of this before it's over; I know that," bulldozer driver R.L. Cole said.

Homes are sparse here. The most evident damage is to trees and barns. Along one section-line road, the occasional beer bottle and other litter have some new friends: 5-pound sheets of twisted barn metal.

A mile north and farther east of Amber, broken trees stretch for more than a mile, evidence that the tornado grew wider as it approached Bridge Creek.

Bridge CreekM

At the unincorporated community's southwest edge, a tattered Confederate flag, a complete roof and a wooden sign bearing his name and mailing address are the most visible evidence that someone once lived on David Hopkins' lot.

From a hillside gravel road above Southern Hills, one can see for miles the scorched earth that used to be trailer homes on three-acre lots. The vista wasn't always so clear. Until May 3, large trees hid most of the homes. Those still erect are sticks poking skyward. A tapestry of insulation, paper and clothing of many colors hangs in their barren limbs.

Southern Hills is wiped out. Five people died here. Among those who survived, tents and Winnebagos are the new homes for several.

At the end of one unnamed gravel road, the Valdez family guards its remaining possessions as they wait to hear from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The family had no insurance, and family members fear FEMA is going through its homeless list alphabetically.

The family was watching TV when the phone call came at 6:45 p.m. telling Angelica Valdez, 20, that the fury was bearing down on them. She ran to the middle of the mobile home, looked outside and saw that the trailer 100 feet west was being destroyed. There was only time to yell a quick warning and hide under a bed.

The southern edge of what by now was an F-5 picked up the trailer and set it back down, obliterating the room Angelica was in when she looked out the window. Somehow, it barely scratched the 12-foot satellite dish next to the home's west walls.

The family escaped unharmed. "A lot of people tell us it's a miracle that we're alive," said Angelica's sister, Sandra.

To mark their property, Southern Hills' survivors have erected spray-painted signs from anything they could find: wood siding, tin strips, trees, the remains of a pickup. "Keep off!" one warns.

Wes Early has two such signs. One reminds visitors it's his property, while another points to the ditch that Early jumped into to survive as the black beast passed.

Dead animals still litter yards and ditches at Southern Hills. A rooster here, a dog there.

East of Bridge Creek's school, which was spared, Andrew Dawkins spray-painted what he wants done with his home: "Bulldoze."

Farther east along Bridge Creek Road, Bobcats grab chunks of concrete, bricks, steel, wood, sofa cushions and car parts, then place them in already 10-foot piles.

South and east in Bridge Creek Heights, only a few of the dozens of cedars and walnut trees that once shaded Tonja Hix's entire yard still stand. But the home was untouched.

"We were lucky. Our friends lost everything," she said.

Less than a mile west, seven people died in the Willow Lakes trailer park addition.

Within her community, Hix muses, the tornado was especially cruel in that it took the most from those who could least afford the financial hardship.

"We would have been able to rebuild, yet we hardly lost anything," she said almost apologetically.

Hix and her daughter waited out the storm in a closet. She realizes now that while that might have saved her from most tornadoes, only dumb luck spared her life.

"It wasn't going to matter where you were at. If you were in its path, that was it," she said.

As the southern edge of the mile-wide stretch of violence passed by her home, prayers she hadn't recited since childhood came to her lips.

"You can't believe the things you promise God in those 20 seconds," Hix said. "You might not have been to church in a while, but when you're in fear for your children's lives, those prayers all come back to you."

As the howling grew faint, Hix looked outside. Or tried to. Swirling grass and mud had rendered the sky dark green.

Bridge Creek To the South Canadian River

A mile northeast of Bridge Creek comes visual evidence of profiteering. A fresh sign advertises bulldozer contracting for hire.

Damage is sporadic for the next six miles, in which the tornado seemed almost to lose interest. It narrowed to a quarter-mile wide and dropped to F-2 intensity - a mere 113-157 mph - before crossing the turnpike and the South Canadian River into northwest Cleveland County.

Once past the river, downed trees are everywhere, a few homes are demolished and roof damage is prevalent on homes, barns and a riding stable near SW 157 and May Avenue in Oklahoma City. Still, it seems as if the storm took a 12-minute breather after Bridge Creek before unleashing a blitzkrieg.

Southwest Oklahoma City

South of SW 134 and west of Pennsylvania, half of the 100 homes in the Country Place addition are gone - or soon will be. Homes in the southern part took the full brunt of the storm. The addition, with homes ranging from $120,000 to $125,000, is 3 years old. Many of those destroyed were still under construction.

"We had two people who closed on their house Friday, and then this happens on Monday," said Scott Frakes, a sales director for the development's builder, Ideal Homes.

It's easy to tell which homes will be bulldozed. They're the ones on which an insurance company's name has been painted into the brick in foot-tall letters.

One man died in this addition on SW 136 Place, five houses down from where Bill Warmker was taking a nap minutes before he lost his roof. The phone woke him just in time for him to put the van in the garage, then call his parents and tell them he loved them. He suspected it would be his last phone call.

Two blocks away, one home is reduced to its slab and its mangled contents. Its bathtub remains virtually intact, except for the splintered 2-by-4 that now pierces one corner. The home's occupants hid in that tub and escaped unharmed.

"It's stories like that that remind you there is a God," Warmker said.

The tornado reached 1 1/4 miles wide here before narrowing as it crossed Pennsylvania, almost as if zeroing in on Westmoore High School and the Eastlake addition between SW 134 and SW 125. Some 200 homes were destroyed here, with a similar number damaged.

Southeast of the intersection of SW 119 and Western, Jim Wilkerson points past the rubble where his porch used to be. Replacing his home is the least of his worries. Wilkerson's wife of 51 years, Aleatha "Lee" Wilkerson, died when their patio home collapsed on them as they clutched each other in the bathtub.

Wilkerson remembers telling his wife not to worry - he was sure it would go east of their home. At worst, he told her, we might lose the roof.

"The last thing she said to me was, 'What's that noise?' That's when we got in the tub. We were side by side. I knew we were in trouble then," he said.

It was 7:20 p.m.

The Wilkersons' son, Jimmy, and 14-year-old grandson, Seth, were the first to arrive a few minutes later, running from their own destroyed home six doors down.

"It's all just kindling now," Wilkerson said, pointing to the piles of debris that were his and his neighbors' homes.

Though it took his wife, Jim Wilkerson vows to rebuild. He'll have an easier time than most. He and his son own a construction company.

"This is home," the son said. "We have to rebuild. We have no other options."

Moore

After ravaging Westmoore High School, the Emerald Springs Apartments and the Greenbriar Eastlake Patio Home addition where the Wilkersons lived, the tornado's strength and appetite grew.

Meteorologists said the tornado resumed F-5 status near NW 12 Street and Santa Fe Avenue in Moore. The evidence can be seen at a Moore church that was literally scraped off its foundation. All that remains is the concrete slab.

Shortly after slamming into the church and a group of neighboring businesses, the tornado swept into one of the most densely populated areas in Moore - Regency Park.

Filled mostly with older homes, the tornado cut a path nearly a half-mile wide. All that remained at most home sites were a few standing walls. Others were completely blown away. Tracking northeast, it just missed an apartment complex. But it wrecked hundreds of homes and a school before crossing Interstate 35.

By this time, the tornado had lost some of its punch. But it was still an F-4 and had plenty of fury for its next target, the Highland Park addition.

After ripping through the southern edge of the Moore business park, the twister jumped over Interstate 35 and slammed into a hotel and an apartment complex. It worked its way through the housing addition, ripping up hundreds of houses, damaging First Baptist Church and demolishing an oil well service company.

Still nearly a half-mile wide, the tornado destroyed some homes on rural property before making a sharp turn north along Eastern Avenue and rebuilding to F-4 level.

At Moore's north edge, the nine-hole Lakeside golf course is a desolate wasteland. The clubhouse is gone, and the putting green bears gashes three inches deep where the tornado peeled the turf. It's inconceivable that new branches will sprout on the bark-free trees left standing. Motorized golf carts were swept away, but many of the batteries that made them run are scattered on the fairways. Earth is torn back to reveal irrigation lines.

Clearly, this will never be a golf course again.

The toll in Moore: seven killed; 894 homes, 275 apartments and 50 businesses destroyed; at least 4,000 other homes damaged.

Southeast Oklahoma City

Finally, a sign of mercy: The tornado bypassed Crossroads Mall and concentrated its 200-plus-mph winds on a rural stretch between Eastern and Bryant.

Along SE 89, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway has erected a 250-foot microwave tower to replace the crumpled mass of steel that lies in two pieces. The tornado disrupted the railroad's communications for all of Oklahoma.

On Bryant, trash trucks arrive every few seconds to the tornado debris site immediately south of Oklahoma City's main dump. There workers will sort through the remains of more than 1,000 homes for recyclables.

Across the street is a trucking company where two people died.

Thirty-foot trees lining Interstate 240's north service road act as backstops for strips of sheet metal, fencing and other debris.

At Sunnylane, the tornado narrowed to less than a quarter-mile briefly, saving the Dolese concrete block plant from utter destruction. Instead, the monster braced for one final, four-mile attack, turned north again and spread its fury over two housing additions between SE 59 and SE 29 and between Sunnylane and Sooner Road.

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