I spent the Memorial Day Weekend visiting with family in Oklahoma City, primarily an older brother, who is transitioning his CPA and tax law consulting practice to his oldest son and some good visits with our matriarchal figure, Ida Mae Wilson, quite lively at 105 and still living independently in OKC as well. She is our aunt.
(She was born the same year Oklahoma was granted statehood, 1907). We had planned the trip for some time. The itinerary came on the heels of last week’s tornadoes. Some notes and quotes:
• The tornado that ravaged the Oklahoma City suburb, Moore, a blue-collar city of about 56,000 was on the mind of most people. Twenty-four hours earlier, a tornado touched down in Edmond, north of OKC, about a mile from my brother’s house. Damage was minimal. President Barack Obama visited Moore Sunday, providing comfort and pledging support. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin hailed the president for his timely commitment of federal funds, how almost 500 FEMA officials are on site. The National Weather Service office is located in Norman, about 15 miles south of Moore.
• Last weekend, my nephew, who is taking over my brother’s business, and his teenaged son went to Moore. The phrase, “We’re here to help,” is emblematic of what’s happening there. People showing up to the Red Cross centers to help neighbors. Volunteers like Grant and Zach are assigned to families and they dig through the rubble of individual homes to find and salvage family treasures.
• Twenty-four people died, including 10 children. Some 1,200 houses flat-out vanished in the tornado that left 20 miles of destruction. Another 12,000 were damaged. On a nearby horse farm, almost 100 horses were killed. Since 1893, 22 tornadoes have struck Moore. The big tornado that hit the city May 3, 1999, was on the ground for 38 miles and left 36 dead. One citizen told the Daily Oklahoman: “Cul de sacs disappeared. Schools were wiped out. Kids are dead. I’m sick of it.”
• It was an Enhanced Fujita (EF) storm. Unlike hurricanes that are categorized depending on strength or science, tornadoes are graded from a destruction perspective and how it relates to human misery and cost. This was an EF 5, the worst. The “debris ball” from the storm in the clouds was more than two miles wide; the funnel on the ground, a mile wide.
• The majority of my brother’s CPA/tax clients are dentists. One of his clients had his practice damaged severely. He had a patient in his chair, mid-procedure, when the sirens came on and his office manager told everyone to evacuate. The patient asked, “Will I have to pay for a second office visit?” He replied, “The next one’s on me. Let’s get out of here!” The dentist and his son, also a dentist, later that day helped recover people from under the damage.
• While the term “rock star” is often overused to describe abilities or talent, it seems to fit the celebrity which accompanies the meteorologists at the Oklahoma television stations during April, May and June, aka “tornado season.” The TV stations have invested millions in ongoing new technologies and weather forecasting. The Doppler radar and computer mapping techniques are so pinpoint that street intersections are shown, some times with video. On this particular storm, the NBC affiliate, KFOR, was the leading authority. Mike Morgan informed viewers not to “analyze” the storm or consider it blithely, but rather take shelter “now.” The aforementioned dentist, like thousands of others, took heed. Quite like this straight-ahead news reporting of the weather of all three prevented more loss of life in comparison to Moore storm of 1999. I was standing in the Press’ newsroom when the Moore tornado was on the ground and CNN featured Morgan’s live reporting and KFOR’s video feed to the rest of the country and global audience.
• Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas church known for its extreme ideologies, showed up at the funeral of a 9-year-old victim. One of its ministers said the storm was in connection with Oklahoma City Thunder star player Kevin Durant coming out in support of Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player. “Do the math,” he told the media, somehow connecting the dots of gays and meteorological disaster.
Members of the motorcycle group, the Patriot Guard, showed up to keep the Westboro crowd in line. Ordinances were quickly passed to keep the two groups and mourners apart. A local bail bonds company bought advertising saying that if anyone got into a fight with a Westboro church member, they would provide bail free of charge.
Durant last week donated $1 million to the recovery.
• Storm chasers are big business. During this string of storms, and the ones that happened yesterday, remote country roads are usually clogged with storm chasers packing high-tech weather tracking equipment and video cameras. One company, Rapid Rotation Tours, offers storm chasing as a tourism business with several visitors from Great Britain. (Great Britain, incidentally, has the third most tornadoes behind the U.S. and Canada, but are not violent like North American storms.) They’re booking for 2014.
• One of the treatment centers is a movie house along I-35 featuring multi-screens and an IMAX. While citizens were being tended to medically and emotionally, the marquee featured the movies: “Mud,” “Pain and Gain,” “Oblivion,” “Peeples,” “Into Darkness,”
• Name drop coming. While going through security Tuesday afternoon at the Will Rogers Airport in OKC, I was standing behind the great character actor William H. Macy.
The security folk were having issues with his guitar as a carry-on; they were having troubles with my new shoulder. We chatted briefly, telling him how much I admired his films. (I almost said: “It’s Jerry Lundegaard!,” his celebrated character from the dark comedy, “Fargo.”) Macy was in Oklahoma City directing an indie movie with his wife, Felicity Huffman, an actress best known as one of the “Desperate Housewives.” They, too, volunteered at the recovery site and donated funds, according to media.
There is an indomitable spirit there, not unlike Wyoming’s.
Its history reflects a welcoming of immigrants (the Sooners of the 1889 land rush), how Indians settled there after the “Trail of Tears,” how the city was the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. For years, the license plate featured the slogan: “Oklahoma is OK.” Then, notes writer Rivka Galchen, someone attached an exclamation point (!) to the saying. It fits and it will survive, thanks to its people.