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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.

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