There are some events that are so horrific — so real — that they live on in your mind forever. The shooting and subsequent death of JFK, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the day our nation came under attack by terrorists on 9/11. For me, there are a couple more major events I’d add to that list, maybe the most important of which would be the May 31, 2013 “super tornado” that ripped through my hometown of El Reno, Oklahoma.
Measuring 2.5 miles across, this grandaddy of all tornados killed eight people including veteran storm chaser, Tim Samaris. The twister was unpredictable, and Samaris and his team found themselves trapped with no exit. Their vehicle was picked up by the tornado and thrown roughly a full half mile, killing all three passengers inside.
I remember the events of this day vividly, as I watched the storm unfold in real time from the safety of my computer in Minnesota. I still wonder why I happened to be tuned in on this particular day, to this particular storm, from 700 miles away. I honestly don’t know. I’d heard that Oklahoma was under watch for potentially serious storms, but I hadn’t given it much thought during the day. In fact, I’d spent the entire day at my son’s school as we hosted an author event for children’s author Derek Taylor Kent who had graciously given of his time to provide presentations for nearly half of my son’s school. I returned home around 4:30 in the afternoon and pulled up the live stream from newscaster Gary England at Oklahoma City’s CBS Affiliate. I’d only just learned how to do that — watch live storm coverage from my computer in real time — when major storms hit nearby Moore, Oklahoma only a couple of weeks earlier. What I never expected that day was to see my hometown in the heart of seriously storm coverage. I couldn’t pry myself away and, for the next two hours, I was horrified as landmarks I knew well were mentioned repeatedly as part of the storm’s path of destruction.
The storm that ravaged El Reno eventually moved east along I-40 and Route 66 in the direction of Oklahoma City. It bypassed my childhood home by quite literally less than two city blocks. In fact, it must’ve either shifted or lifted because it had been on a direct path. My old neighborhood received much of the debris, but thankfully none of the devastating destruction. Not a full two miles directly west, it leveled the nearby vocational-technical school. Two miles sounds like a good distance away, but it really isn’t.
If there was any “good” that came out of this storm, it’s that it ran parallel to the center of town, rather than ripping right through the center. That doesn’t mean that homes weren’t destroyed and people injured. In fact, there were many, many, many El Reno residents who lost everything. But it does mean that it ran through a less densely populated section of the town — the outskirts — and thousands of lives were spared as a result. Had the storm shifted approximately one mile, it would’ve run through the center of town and very possibly wiped it off the map. Even still, residents in the town-proper dealt damage like holes ripped through their roofs from baseball to grapefruit sized hail.
Margaret Mitchell said, “Hardships make or break people.” If this is true, I can only say that Oklahomans — and El Renoans in particular — will never be broken. In times of adversity, they band together and lend a hand to those in need. They rebuild what is broken and they replace what is lost. They are, in fact, a true example of what it means to be “Oklahoma Strong.” I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned through my childhood in El Reno as they are are what has made me into the resilient person I am today.
Many prayers and blessings to El Reno and the residents of Canadian County as they mark this unfortunate anniversary of our state’s history.
For more on the El Reno Super Tornado, check out the National Geographic special which documents the events of that day in shocking detail. It’s impossible to wrap your mind around the type of storm that would cause such horrific destruction, but it’s well-worth the time to watch.