“A gripping, heartbreaking and heartwarming account of the monster tornado that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma in 2013.”
--Daniel James Brown, #1 NY Times bestselling author of The Boys in the Boat
An acclaimed reporter returns to her hometown after the worst twister on record and emerges with a suspenseful story of human courage in the face of natural disaster.
Holly Bailey grew up dreaming of becoming a storm chaser. Instead, she became Newsweek’s youngest ever White House correspondent, traveling to war zones with Presidents Bush and Obama. But nothing prepared her for what she would soon find back home. On May 20, 2013, the worst tornado on record landed a direct hit on the small town of Moore, destroying two schools while the children cowered inside. Bailey went back both as a journalist and a hometown girl, speaking to the teachers who put their lives at risk to save their students, the weathermen more revered than rock stars and more tormented than they let on, and many shell-shocked residents. In The Mercy of the Sky Bailey does for the Oklahoma flatlands what Sebastian Junger did for Gloucester, Massachusetts, in The Perfect Storm, telling a dramatic, page-turning story about a town that must survive the elements—or die.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Central Oklahoma has long been known as “tornado alley,” and anyone watching the news knows why. In May 2013 two of the strongest tornadoes on record hit the ground there in less than two weeks. On May 20 a milewide twister packing winds in excess of 200 miles per hour tore through the center of Moore, a quiet suburb south of Oklahoma City, killing twenty-five people and injuring several hundred. Among the dead were seven third graders at Plaza Towers Elementary, who died when their school building collapsed on top of them. It was the fifth tornado in fifteen years to sweep through Moore, a town that has been so unlucky with the weather that many locals refer to it as the “tornado alley of tornado alley.”
I spent most of my childhood in Moore. Though I lived a few miles away in south Oklahoma City, I went to school in Moore until I was fourteen, right on SW Fourth Street, a few blocks north of Plaza Towers. Many members of my family have called Moore their home over the years. Some still do, residing a mile north of where the May 20 tornado hit. Knowing their city’s track record with the weather, they jumped in their car that Monday and fled the storm, looking in their rearview mirror and praying that they would have a home to come back to when dark clouds had passed. It wasn’t the first time they’d had to run, and given Moore’s history, it probably won’t be the last.
The May 20 storm bore eerie similarities to a tornado that had slammed into Moore almost exactly fourteen years earlier. That storm, which hit on May 3, 1999, was so devastating that many Oklahomans still refer to it by its date alone—like their own version of 9/11. The May 3 twister was another milewide monstrosity that killed thirty-six people as it cut a deadly diagonal from just south of Oklahoma City through Moore. More than five hundred people were injured, some so horrifically it was a miracle they survived. The storm caused more than $1 billion in damage. In Moore alone it wiped out several entire subdivisions on the west side of town, reducing them to ruins.
The May 3 storm remains the strongest tornado ever recorded in the nearly one hundred years since scientists have been trying to understand the mysterious phenomenon of the tornado. At one point its winds clocked in at 302 miles per hour—the highest wind speed ever measured near the surface of the earth. The storm may in fact have been stronger, but nobody could get close enough to measure it at the epicenter. Meteorologists studying tornadoes have been forced to keep a safe distance from their subjects. The 1999 storm was so destructive it prompted the National Weather Service to rethink how it measured tornadoes on the Fujita scale, which was launched in the 1970s to categorize storms by size and wind speed. In 2007 scientists adopted the Enhanced Fujita scale, which factors in the damage left in a tornado’s wake to more accurately gauge how strong it was—though so much is still a guessing game.
In 2013 some neighborhoods that had been rebuilt after 1999 were hit again—a destructive second act that has never happened to any other city. But just when it seemed it might be an exact replay of May 3, the May 20 tornado turned slightly to the east, taking aim at the heavily populated central part of Moore. At points it became wider and moved more slowly than the previous storm, becoming what is known as a “grinder” as it took its time chewing neighborhoods into tiny bits. The storm left behind more than $2 billion in damage, giving it the dubious distinction of being one of the most costly tornadoes in history. The May 3 tornado had been ranked as an F5—the highest rating under the original Fujita scale. The tornado that hit fourteen years later was categorized as an EF5—the highest possible rating on the updated scale. Moore was suddenly one of the only cities in the world to have been hit twice, in almost exactly the same spot, by two maximum-strength tornadoes.
Before Moore had a chance to fully digest its latest unlucky bout with the weather, the storm sirens sounded again. Just eleven days later, on May 31, an even larger storm developed to the west of the city. A tornado that was at least 2.6 miles wide—bigger than the width of Manhattan—touched down in nearby El Reno, a few miles west of Oklahoma City, not long after Friday-evening rush hour. The El Reno storm, as it came to be called, is now the widest tornado on record. Fortunately, the tornado hit the ground in wide-open farm country, where houses were few and far between. Just as it began to aim east toward the more heavily populated city of Yukon, whose main road into town is named after its most famous son, the country singer Garth Brooks, and beyond that to Oklahoma City, it lifted, sparing Moore from another devastating hit. But it left behind irreparable damage. People still jittery over the May 20 tornado had jumped in their cars and tried to flee the storm at the last minute, clogging the roads as the twister approached. Four people—including a mother and her infant son, born just seventeen days earlier—died when the storm sucked their vehicles off the roads on and near Interstate 40, where the tornado’s nearly 300-mile-per-hour winds picked up 18-wheelers and twisted them like tinfoil.
The twister had been moving straight east, but out of nowhere it quickly changed direction several times, erratically veering northeast, then heading due north as it grew into one of the most violent storms in history. It then literally made a loop over Interstate 40, turning around to hit land it had already hit. It swerved west, then southwest, then south, then southeast and east again, covering several miles in just minutes. Nobody had ever seen a storm like it, and as it unpredictably danced all over the landscape, the tornado was so gargantuan that no one on the ground realized it was changing direction. It was so massive it had multiple vortices swirling around inside it—monsters within the monster—though you couldn’t see them until you were right up on it, at which point you were too close to escape. With no warning, the massive twister turned on people who had been chasing the storm, including crews from the local television stations and The Weather Channel, who were sending live video feeds when the tornado began raining debris down on them. Some were picked up in their cars and hurled off the road. Many had spent their careers warning people to avoid the path of a dangerous tornado, and now they found themselves unexpectedly discovering the consequences firsthand.
Three veteran storm chasers died that night. Their white Chevy Cobalt was found half a mile from where it was lifted up by the storm, crushed like a crumpled-up soda can, and dropped in the middle of a canola field. Still buckled in the passenger seat was fifty-four-year-old Tim Samaras, one of the most respected tornado scientists in the world. But even Samaras, who was not a risk taker in his pursuit of the strange monsters he had devoted his life to studying, was caught off guard by the El Reno twister, a weather system so destructive that someone later said it seemed as if it had been designed specifically to kill storm chasers.
Samaras’s car was so mangled—its engine and front two tires ripped away—that a state trooper on patrol almost didn’t recognize it was a vehicle when he saw it from the road. Inside he found Samaras dead, still strapped in the passenger seat. His shirt, shoes, and a single sock had been inhaled by the storm, but somehow his wallet containing his identification was in his pocket. Peering into the car, the officer saw the seatbelt in the driver’s seat was still buckled, but the seat itself was empty. Carl Young, a forty-five-year-old meteorologist and Samaras’s longtime chase partner, had been sucked away. His body was found half a mile to the west, facedown in a creek swollen by flash flooding. The next morning, just after dawn, officers found Samaras’s son Paul, who was twenty-four, a few yards away in the same creek, his body revealed only after the floodwaters had subsided.
• • •
When the El Reno storm hit, I was nearly 1,500 miles away at a concert in New York City, but I knew almost instantly that a twister had touched the ground. My iPhone lit up with a text message from a recent ex-boyfriend, a photojournalist living in California who was already booking a flight to Oklahoma because it looked like disaster was about to strike again. I ran outside and called my mother, who lived in south Oklahoma City—right in the storm’s path. She didn’t pick up, which wasn’t like her, and I began to worry. I flagged down a cab and headed home, pulling up live video of the storm on my iPhone from KWTV, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City that was renowned as the longtime home of Gary England, the weatherman who had gotten me through every storm as a kid. Every few minutes, I’d try to call my mother again. But there was no answer as the storm inched ever closer to her home.
It was a routine we went through almost every spring—bad weather would pop up in Oklahoma, and I would call to check in. But this time was different. Only days earlier I had gone back to Moore to cover the aftermath of the May 20 storm, and even though I had grown up around severe weather and at one point had even dreamed of being a meteorologist, it wasn’t until that trip home that I had realized in a visceral way how truly horrific and ruthless tornadoes could be.
By then I hadn’t lived in Oklahoma for fourteen years. I had left Oklahoma City in early 1999, bound for Washington, D.C., where I covered politics for various news outlets until I landed a gig at Newsweek. As the magazine’s youngest White House correspondent, I traveled to several war zones, including trips to Baghdad with President Obama and to Kabul with Vice President Cheney. I hadn’t even had a passport before I joined the White House beat, and suddenly I found myself in the same time zone as Osama bin Laden twice in the span of a few months. I was stunned by the pure devastation I saw in the volatile places we went, as motorcades sped past shelled buildings and landscapes so bombed out they resembled the moon.
In 2005, I witnessed a war zone closer to home when I was among the small pool of reporters who accompanied President George W. Bush on his first trip to the Gulf Coast to survey the devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In helicopters and later on the ground, we saw New Orleans, one of America’s most beautiful old cities, submerged under several feet of dark, swampy water. It was a sight and smell that none of us on that trip—Bush included, I’m sure—will ever forget. At one point the heat, humidity, and smell were so overwhelming that a reporter turned and vomited. And we were only visitors. In a few hours we would get back on Air Force One and fly back to Washington. I couldn’t imagine what the people of New Orleans, who couldn’t escape the disaster around them, were going through.
Yet none of that prepared me for what I found when I returned to Moore on May 21, 2013—less than twenty-four hours after the tornado had hit. As I steered my rental car along SW 149th, a street I had driven down countless times before, the landscape around me was unrecognizable. Under dark, ominous skies I passed large electrical transformers that had once stood as high as six-story buildings but were now bent and twisted into the ground. Every tree as far as the eye could see was shorn of its branches, its trunk whittled down to a giant slingshot. In the mostly rural farmland all around me, there were large swaths where tall grass had been literally sucked from the ground—bald spots that revealed the red, muddy earth below. In the fields where vegetation remained, the mix of grass and weeds seemed permanently bent toward the east—as if every blade had been sprayed into place with a thick coat of Aqua Net.
As I approached May Avenue, I began to see the outlines of familiar neighborhoods, but many homes were simply gone, wiped clean off their concrete slabs. I could see tiny figures picking through piles of debris in the distance, and with the road ahead blocked by downed trees and power lines, I pulled over, got out, and began to hike through a muddy field strewn with the confetti of people’s lives—photos, shoes, clothes, books, and toys, all carelessly tossed about. I even saw a child’s rudimentary drawing of a smiling blond woman, the pink construction paper tattered and wet but still somehow firmly tacked to a corkboard that had been blown off a wall somewhere. The oak trees that lined May Avenue were sheared off and covered in debris. They resembled grotesque Christmas trees, decorated in jagged pieces of metal and pink insulation that hung from their maimed branches. A king-sized mattress was impaled on one like a sick version of a holiday angel. The remains of a crushed car were wrapped around the trunk of one tree so closely that they looked like a discarded piece of chewing gum stuck to a pole by someone too lazy to throw it in a garbage can.
Even along the Gulf Coast after Katrina, I had never seen devastation like this. The fact that it was my city, my hometown, made the devastation that much more shocking. Standing there, a terrible odor hit me. It was the smell of death—worse than New Orleans after the hurricane. To my immediate right was a giant dead cow, bloodied and still, its eyes wide open as if in terror. About a dozen yards behind it were several dead horses that were being slowly pushed into a pile by a man in a gas mask driving a forklift. As I stood there in the middle of May Avenue, several residents gathered near me to watch, holding their noses and looking shell-shocked as thunder boomed in the distance and it began to rain. The horses had lived there, one man told me, but the cow he had never seen before, a terrible gift left behind by a tornado that had taken almost everything.
It was things that remained that surprised him. While his house was gone, reduced to a pile of scrap wood, he pointed to a home across the street—totally obliterated except for a chimney and a closet, where the missing door revealed clothes still on their hangers, just as they had been before the storm. The only sign something was amiss was a few spots of mud, spit out by the storm and splattered on a jacket sleeve as innocuously as dots of tomato sauce after a spaghetti dinner.
Farther into Moore, I found more signs of how strong, but also how peculiar, the storm had been. The local bowling alley had taken a direct hit that wiped out the entire building. But in the middle of the rubble, a line of bowling pins stood in precise formation on one of the dusty lanes. How had they not been knocked down by a storm so fierce that it destroyed almost everything in its path and shook the ground like a tiny earthquake? In some neighborhoods entire blocks were decimated by the tornado’s winds, reducing most houses to nothing but sticks, while on the next street some homes were unscathed except for a missing shingle or two and a coat of mud on the windows. One resident told me how her entire kitchen had been blown apart, her refrigerator sucked out and deposited onto a jungle gym at a playground down the block. But her vintage Fire King dishware, so old she rarely used it, had been left untouched in a nearby cabinet, without a crack or a scratch. “I guess the tornado didn’t like tulips,” she said matter-of-factly, referring to the red and yellow flowers adorning her dinnerware.
The peculiar behavior of tornadoes was no mystery to me. I have been fascinated by storms ever since I was a kid, when I would watch them rumble past my house, scary but beautiful at the same time. I grew up during the oil bust in Oklahoma, and we didn’t have much money, so my mom entertained me by taking me to the public library, where we went spent hours at a time. Aside from poring over the Sweet Valley High series (which is what made me want to become a journalist, as one of the twins worked for the school paper), I didn’t waste much time with young-adult books. Instead, I checked out every volume I could find about storms and tornadoes, and what the library didn’t have I somehow persuaded my mom to buy, even on our limited income. I was probably the only nine-year-old kid in my neighborhood with a scientific field guide to storm clouds.
Despite my obsession with tornadoes, I had never seen one in person (and still haven’t). On many occasions when I was older, I’d drive toward threatening storms, hoping to catch a glimpse of a funnel cloud, though I never got too close. You never knew when one would turn on you, and when it did, size didn’t matter. “A tornado is a tornado,” my mother often told me. “No matter how big it is, it can kill you.” I even enrolled in a storm-chasing class when I was at the University of Oklahoma, entertaining the idea that, as a journalist, I might want to write about storms someday. But I dropped out after I was offered an internship at the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau for a semester, an opportunity that was too good to turn down—especially for someone who had never lived outside Oklahoma and longed to get away. When I moved to the East Coast for good after college to pursue my journalism career, I missed the storms. But the weather that began to roll through Oklahoma was unlike anything I’d experienced in my childhood.
Starting with the 1999 tornado, the storms back home seemed to be getting bigger and more violent. They were nothing like the tornadoes I remembered as a kid—storms I found to be absolutely terrifying were a tenth of the size of the twisters that have rumbled through Oklahoma in recent years. Some have attributed the dark turn in the weather to climate change, but the truth is, even the scientists who know more about tornadoes than anybody aren’t sure how to explain it. And that is what is fascinating about tornadoes. They hit so often, but scientists still know so little about what causes them and what is happening inside them that makes them so deadly. As one meteorologist told me, a tornado is like an iceberg, where the funnel is only a small glimpse, less than 10 percent, of the entire storm. People know more than they did thirty years ago, when the only warning that a tornado was coming was the neighbor’s roof blowing away. On May 20 the storm sirens sounded sixteen minutes before the tornado hit the ground—an eternity in tornado science—and the weather community is desperately working to expand that time.
There are some things about tornadoes that scientists will never understand. One of these is the unique relationship that people in central Oklahoma have with the bad weather that torments them every spring. No region in the country has been ravaged more frequently by killer tornadoes, yet people there would never dream of living anywhere else. During the May 3, 1999, tornado, my mom’s younger sister Betty lost her home. By then she and my Uncle Dale and their kids were living on a farm near Shawnee—east of Oklahoma City—but they had kept their first home in Moore, and it was wiped from the slab when the tornado moved through. Fourteen years later, on the night before the May 20 tornado, they were struck again. An EF4 twister with winds gauged at 166 miles per hour approached their farm, and Aunt Betty could see it moving across the valley right toward her. Up close the tornado looked nothing like she had expected. It was a giant wedge of a cloud that looked, she told me later, “like a column of boiling black water.”
As it drew close, she raced around the house gathering what she could to take to the basement. Important papers were already in the safe, but for some reason, as she ran around her bedroom, she grabbed a bottle of Versace perfume that she and my mother had found on an antiquing trip a few months before. Later, as she recounted the story, she couldn’t explain why that perfume had been so important, why she had suddenly been so determined to save it: a discontinued bottle of perfume from the 1990s, which she used only sparingly. “I guess your mom could have put a few drops on my dead body,” she said, with a laugh. “No tornado is going to take my fancy perfume.”
Her youngest son, Gordon, lived nearby but was in Oklahoma City that afternoon. He had tried to get to her before the storm hit, but she had urged him to stay away. She didn’t want him to get caught up in the storm trying to drive to the house, and on the phone he had started to cry, telling her that he didn’t want her to die. As the storm passed, the tornado ripped the roof off her house, destroyed several barns, and completely demolished Gordon’s home nearby. Fortunately, my aunt was safely sheltered in their basement, and she emerged to see not only the damage but also the puzzling things the storm did as it moved over their land. Several of their cows and horses were picked up by the tornado in the south pasture and carried nearly half a mile away to the north pasture. The animals were pretty scraped up, but amazingly none died.
My aunt has now been through two killer storms in fourteen years, not including all the near misses in between, when she watched tornadoes skirt her land. But not once has she considered leaving, not for a second. Instead, as she and Uncle Dale battled with the insurance company over the cost of rebuilding their home, she tried to find the humor in the situation. Things could always be worse, she pointed out. She could be dead. And the tornado hadn’t been totally ungracious. The storm had deposited on her doorstep a skinny, one-eyed calico cat, which followed her around, rubbing against her legs as she yelled into the phone at her insurance agent. She had no idea where the cat had come from.
While my aunt’s home was partially destroyed, the tornado left her neighbor’s home across the street completely untouched. But in a bizarre twist, a fierce lightning storm came through the next morning and struck that pristine house and burned it to the ground. Another sign, she said, that things could be much worse.
My mother’s attitude toward storms was no different. On the night of that terrible El Reno tornado, I finally reached her as the storm seemed to be redeveloping due west of her house. She was in an underground shelter across the street from her home at my Aunt Mary’s house—crowded with several of Mary’s kids, their children, and their dogs. The storm sirens were blaring, and it was raining and “blowing like the dickens,” she told me. Her phone was dying, and she told me she would call me later. A few miles to the west, a small EF1 tornado, with winds measured at 100 miles per hour, blew off part of the roof at the Oklahoma City airport and traveled east across the city before lifting. It was followed by intense flash flooding that killed thirteen people in Oklahoma City. Among the dead was an entire family that had crowded into a drainage ditch to take cover from the tornado and been washed away.
I tried to reach my mom again later that night and the next day, but her phone went straight to voicemail. I knew the power was out in her neighborhood and that she was probably okay, but the next day my ex-boyfriend, on the ground to cover the damage, asked for her address so he could go check. He texted me a picture of her house—a little windblown but still standing. When I finally reached her, she sounded weary but was almost blasé about her close call. She told me about driving through her neighborhood the morning after the storm and seeing roofs damaged and trees ripped apart. Around the corner from her house, she looked up and saw a giant trampoline impaled on a tree. “This is why I always say you should never buy a trampoline,” she told me, “because in Oklahoma, you are always going to end up owning one, even if you didn’t buy it.” I knew that her dispensing of random folksy advice was her strange way of coping, and all I could do was laugh.
The way my mom and her sister reacted to those two terrible storms perfectly encapsulates the attitude most Oklahomans have about living in an area so prone to deadly weather. They are resilient survivors, stubborn in their refusal to let nature get the best of them. It seems to be a spirit passed down through the generations, dating back to the days of the Dust Bowl, when a severe drought ravaged the land in unspeakable ways and forced many Oklahomans to migrate west. Those who survived—and, surprisingly, many did—wore it as a badge of pride, a sign that somehow they had triumphed over the worst Mother Nature had to offer. If only they had known what she would throw at their descendants in the decades to come.
That sense of satisfaction in surviving the elements is no different in Oklahoma today. Despite the fact they are smack-dab in the middle of the most dangerous tornado zone in the country, most Oklahomans never think about leaving or moving somewhere else. They argue that they are no crazier than Californians who suffer the constant threat of earthquakes or people in New Orleans, New York, or Miami who know that one giant hurricane could wipe out parts of their beloved city for good. “I could never leave,” my aunt told me. “You stay and you rebuild.”
And many have, even in Moore, where people have lost their homes, all of their belongings, even their loved ones to the killer storms that have taken aim at the city again and again. So many have chosen to stay, praying they might be spared from the next storm. Everybody agrees there will be one; the only unknown is when. People in Oklahoma describe it as living “at the mercy of the sky,” a saying I first heard my grandmother use when I was barely old enough to understand what storms were. Over the years, people in Moore and elsewhere in central Oklahoma have become amateur meteorologists as they have adapted to life in the danger zone of storms, attuned to clues of when bad weather is on approach.
When I was in Moore talking to survivors of the May 20 tornado, I couldn’t help but think of one of the most terrifying nights of my childhood. I was ten years old when a tornado swept through north of Oklahoma City. I still remember how a sunny afternoon suddenly turned into a dark and threatening evening. Moisture clung to the air, a wetness you feel only when a tornado is brewing. Jagged bolts of lightning lit up the sky, which was the color of an ugly bruise. The scariest part was how calm it was. That’s what you are taught to fear the most, a storm that is suddenly quiet, because that’s when the twister is about to hit. Unlike hurricanes or typhoons, which can spend weeks swirling and gathering strength over the ocean before landfall, tornadoes are still largely unpredictable. They appear and disappear, large or small, with little warning beyond signs that the weather conditions might be ripe. No one knows what’s going to happen or when, although the National Weather Service and others in the weather community have invested untold millions in money and manpower trying to figure that out.
On that night back in 1986, the tornado struck two housing additions in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City, destroying nearly 40 homes and severely damaging 150 others. Fifteen people were injured, but no one died. I later found out the storm was two hundred yards wide—just over one tenth of a mile. To put that in perspective, the tornado that tore through Moore on May 20, 2013, was more than ten times its size and the El Reno tornado that followed eleven days later was thirty times larger. Had the funnel not lifted before it headed toward the more populated center of town, the level of destruction could have been reminiscent of an atomic bomb.
Meteorologists now believe these bigger storms are part of a larger trend, not anomalies, but they don’t know the cause. The tornadoes are not only getting bigger but also showing up at random times of the day and the year. It used to be that tornadoes would hit mostly in the springtime, in the early evening when the ground had warmed from a full day of sun, causing the warm surface air to rise and collide with the unstable air above. But two years ago Oklahoma was hit by a tornado in January, and there have been an increasing number of storms in the fall, around October—a “second spring,” as some locals joke. The May 20 tornado that hit Moore took place hours earlier than usual, in the middle of the afternoon, when kids were still at school.
When I arrived in Moore the day after the tornado, the stories of incredible bravery and horror were just beginning to be told—how teachers had thrown their bodies on top of their students to shield them from the storm, at great risk to themselves. How young mothers had done everything they could to shield their tiny babies whose lives had barely begun. One mother survived to tell the tale of how her seven-month-old baby girl had been sucked from her arms and killed. Another mother died cradling her four-month-old son in the tiny bathroom of a 7-Eleven where she had rushed to take cover when the storm hit. The store took a direct hit, and rescue workers who spoke of digging through the rocks and debris began to sob uncontrollably at what had been lost. But then there were miracles too, like what happened at Briarwood Elementary, where the entire building was leveled but no one died.
Within hours of the tornado, Moore, which had been through this routine so many times before, was already on the job of picking up the pieces. The city began hauling debris away and repairing the damage even before people could come to grips with the horrible scar that had been left on their city. That same day, the owner of the liquor store on SW Fourth Street, just four blocks north of where homes had been blasted away by the tornado, went outside and replaced the letters on his marquee that had been sucked away by the storm. His previous sign had been famous around town for its witty messages, but this one was simple. “We’ll be okay,” it read.
It was at that moment I knew I wanted to tell the longer story of what had happened here. As a native, I knew how people felt about the weather, how they loved it and feared it all at the same time. I wanted to know what it was like being in the path of a tornado that seemed bigger than life itself as it bore down on the city from the west. I knew I had to chronicle the story of those who survived one of the worst tornadoes in history—and those who didn’t make it. And I wanted to tell the larger story of how unique Oklahoma is because of the weather, the often crazy lengths to which the local media go in trying to cover the storms in a state where local meteorologists are more famous than celebrities.
This book is a story of Oklahoma’s relationship with the weather as told through the lens of what happened in Moore. It’s a story of that disaster, the hours leading up to the tornado, the suspenseful minutes during the heart of the storm, and the painful hours of reckoning afterward. It’s about the victims, the survivors, and the people who tried to help, all of them working tirelessly to tackle this horrifying natural disaster. It’s a story of death and destruction but also of survival and resilience. It is the story of the people of Oklahoma, who choose to live at the mercy of the sky in a part of the country where you can lose everything—your home, your business, even your life—in one unpredictable, violent storm.
4:00 A.M., MAY 20
Gary England rarely sleeps in the springtime, and even though he was dead tired, with an aching fatigue that seemed to penetrate his bones, he had spent another night tossing and turning. All he’d hoped for was a little bit of shut-eye, a few hours of peace. But the sleep he so desperately needed had eluded him again, as it so often did at this time of the year, when tornadoes are most likely to embark on their destructive dance.
Lying in bed in his house on the northern outskirts of Oklahoma City, painfully tired but awake, England felt like a zombie. Worse than that, he was a zombie with tornadoes whirling through his head. It was like this every spring: When he would shut his eyes at night, terrible storms would rumble through his mind—conjuring horrible memories of death and destruction—only to collide head-on with the agonizing question of when the next one would hit. That’s what kept him up on nights like this: the trepidation that the next round of bad weather was about to begin.
That Monday he felt more unsettled than usual. Staring at the ceiling, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something really bad was going to happen, and every time he drifted off to sleep for even a few seconds, he was suddenly jolted awake by an overwhelming feeling of dread. It was like an alarm he couldn’t shut off that just kept sounding again and again. Bad weather had been in the forecast for a week. But how bad? He desperately needed to sleep, but his mind was too busy thinking, planning, worrying. How bad would this storm be? Would people be ready? Was he ready?
Well before dawn, England finally gave up and crawled out of bed, trying not to wake Mary, his wife of fifty-two years, who slept beside him. He padded down the hall to his computer, which was still on from when he’d left it a few hours before, its screen showing a radar image of Oklahoma. He looked at the small clock in the corner of the screen. It was just after 4:00 A.M. He had been in bed less than three hours. He was tired, but the adrenaline was already starting to kick in, or maybe it hadn’t really subsided from the day before.
May 19 had been a late night at KWTV-9, Oklahoma City’s CBS affiliate, where Gary England had been forecasting the weather since 1972. His title was “chief meteorologist,” but he was more than just a weatherman. Yes, he did the daily forecasts, and yes, he was on television five days a week—sometimes more. But at seventy-three he was considered to be something of a weather god in Oklahoma, the most famous meteorologist in a state that has raised forecasting to an art.
It was the apex of storm season, and that Sunday had been particularly destructive. Two tornadoes had swept through the Oklahoma City metro, carving their way through the heart of England’s viewing area. One had hit just north of the city, in the suburb of Edmond, not far from the KWTV studio. An even stronger twister, a massive stovepipe of a storm with winds measuring at least 160 miles an hour, had touched down along the southeastern part of the metro area. It was stalked on live television from every possible angle by dozens of storm chasers on the ground and in the sky as it churned through the Oklahoma countryside, furiously devouring everything in its path.
England had been on air until almost midnight, directing the chasers linked to KWTV and monitoring the severe weather as it moved to the east. When the storms eventually petered out, the radar went quiet, and he headed home, the twisters continued to dance in his head, tormenting him with the dark questions that had increasingly come to consume him: How many people had died that night? Could he have done more to save them?
Late March to June is prime tornado season in Oklahoma, a time when the most dangerous thunderstorms of the year rumble across the plains, though they’ve been known to hit as early as January and as late as November. The threat of tornadoes has come to be a key part of Oklahoma culture and lore—the equivalent to watching Sooner football on a crisp fall Saturday or going to church on Sunday mornings. Football, Jesus, and tornadoes: That was Oklahoma. It was a fact of life, and everybody knew and accepted it when I was growing up.
Gary England was right at the center of that culture, a human warning system who had become synonymous with bad weather in a state that took a degree of pride in its designation as the epicenter of the nation’s “Tornado Alley.” Over the last thirty-five years, four of the most dangerous tornadoes on record had hit Oklahoma, and England had been on air for every one of them, not to mention the thousands of other twisters he had covered—both large and small. People often asked him how many tornadoes he’d been through as a meteorologist, but he had long ago lost count. “I’ve dealt with thousands of tornadoes,” he would say, with a weary grin. “And I feel like it too.”
Short and slight, with wheat-colored blond hair that had grown thinner over the decades, he did not look or act like the grandfather he was. He was known to sprint through the studio at prime moments of weather drama, thanks in part to the running shoes he’d taken to wearing with his suit since the camera never showed his feet. But he increasingly felt his age—especially during storm season, when the station would interrupt its regular programming to track bad weather as it moved across the state. Like other television stations in Oklahoma City, KWTV would sometimes go for hours without a commercial break during particularly dangerous storms, coverage that weather-crazy viewers around the state had come to expect. England was the star of the show, fueled by little more than pure adrenaline and the occasional sip of Diet Sprite—since tornadoes don’t tend to pause for bathroom breaks.
He would stare into the camera, talking to viewers for hours on end about the approaching storms while micromanaging the show around him. He directed the storm chasers out in the field and monitored as many as a dozen live video feeds from cameras mounted on cars and on the station’s helicopter, which flew into the storm to give viewers at home a bird’s-eye view of the weather. Behind him was a tiny army of young meteorologists, many recent graduates of the University of Oklahoma’s weather school, who had grown up watching him on TV. They now worked in his shadow, hoping to learn everything they could from the man who was revered as the godfather of weather coverage among storm junkies.
Since joining KWTV in 1972, he had pushed every boundary of television weather coverage. Some weathermen thought nothing of relying simply on data and radar information from the National Weather Service, but England considered himself as more than just a meteorologist. He was a soldier on the front lines who did whatever possible to keep his viewers safe from Mother Nature’s wrath, even if it meant violating protocol.
People still talked about a storm that had hit Union City in 1973, when England had broken into programming and declared a tornado warning minutes before the National Weather Service had. He had done so again and again over the years, much to the chagrin of scientists who criticized England as brash and reckless. A few years later, after reading an article that suggested Doppler radar could be a major advance in tracking tornadoes, England persuaded Channel 9 to invest in its own Doppler—even when it was unclear whether the technology really worked. England helped invent the tiny map at the bottom of a television screen that warned of coming storms, and under his guidance KWTV became the first station to deploy its helicopter to chase tornadoes. But it was his friendly folksiness and his tendency to be right about the weather that kept people tuned in. Sometimes it seemed he had a direct line up into the sky.
Over the years, KWTV, looking to spice up its coverage, had given him new toys to play with. For the 2013 storm season, it was a touch-screen radar that operated like a giant iPad, which at first mystified England, who had thought of himself as tech savvy. “Uh, all righty,” he said, as he poked at the screen trying to figure out how to zoom in and out during its first night on air. But in truth, none of the toys mattered. He himself was the star attraction—the hero of a generation of Oklahomans who either credited him with saving their lives or thought of him as the best source of entertainment in a state obsessed with storm coverage.
Long before The Weather Channel introduced tornado spotting as an adventure sport to most of America, weather coverage had become a tense and obsessive form of reality TV in Oklahoma, with local meteorologists and storm chasers playing key supporting roles in Mother Nature’s unpredictable script. England was the most famous and enduring character of this strange drama. On most days he had the stage presence of a small-town boy made good, with a folksy demeanor and deep Oklahoma twang that would be a career killer for most broadcast journalists today.
But his sunny presence on television could shift in an instant when he detected a storm brewing. Over his decades on air, viewers had come to know that when he took off his suit jacket and got serious, things were going to be bad, really bad. When he told people to take cover or to get out of the path of a storm, there was no question that they had better do it—or they could very well die. England had unfortunately been proved right again and again over his career.
In 2010 a popular Oklahoma City blog called The Lost Ogle conducted a poll of its readers to gauge the most powerful person in Oklahoma. England came in first, followed by Jesus in second place. From then on, the blog jokingly referred to him as “Lord England”—a nickname that to many wasn’t so far from the truth.
While KWTV’s ratings went up and down over the years, it was hard to think of anyone in Oklahoma who was more known or revered. His rivals at other stations sometimes beat him in the ratings, but no one came close to his stature. Elected officials privately cringed in fear that he might get the political bug someday and put them out of a job. After every big storm, lawmakers—from the governor to members of the state legislature—were quick to tell their constituents that they had consulted with Gary England about the weather, seeking his advice on storm preparations. In most cases he had far more credibility than they did.
But after forty-one years on the air, he was bigger than politics. He was a living legend, immortalized in newspaper cartoons as something of an antitornado superhero. His office was crowded with artwork that people from all over the state had gifted him at meet-and-greets. One painted him as a grinning hero in a cowboy hat wrangling an ominous, wild twister. Another cast him as a robed Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars—Oklahoma’s “only hope” against dangerous weather. At the station’s front desk, visitors passed by a giant bronze bust of a smiling Gary England that had been given to the meteorologist in 2007, when he was named one of Oklahoma’s “100 Heroes and Outlaws” as part of the state’s centennial celebration. The selection committee, England liked to joke, had somehow mistaken him for a hero.
England had mixed feelings about the bust, which he passed on his way into the studio most days. He was flattered, but he was also a little embarrassed. He knew how lucky he was—a boy from a tiny town in northwestern Oklahoma who’d considered being a pig farmer until he’d caught the weather bug. He’d been recognized by the state for doing a job he absolutely loved. Sometimes the sculpture seemed a little too much like a memorial. Despite the ambitious meteorologists waiting in the wings in anticipation that he’d soon retire, England wasn’t done yet. He loved his job. He loved his viewers, and they loved him. And he was obsessed with finding ways to keep them safer from storms that seemed only to be getting bigger and deadlier every year.
He saw his job as more than being a local weatherman. It was a public duty, a calling, to keep people safe, and he wasn’t ready to walk away from that responsibility just yet. Some days, he did wonder if it wasn’t starting to be too much. It wasn’t the physical demands of the job, the hours on air, the giving up of any semblance of personal life for weeks on end every spring. It was the burden he felt to protect people, both viewers and his staff in the field. In the end, he knew he was just one man pitted against the elements, but knowing that didn’t make it easier when people died. He had dedicated his life to trying to prevent mass casualties from tornadoes like those that had hit towns around him when he was a kid—he’d never forgotten the storm in 1947 that wiped out Woodward, Oklahoma, killing more than one hundred people. But in recent years the pressure he felt to save people’s lives had started to consume him.
To his viewers and even many of his closest friends, family, and coworkers, he was his usual cheerful, folksy self—at least when the weather wasn’t bad. But privately he was haunted by storms. He couldn’t understand how in a state where people were so obsessed with weather, where local media was saturated with warnings, so many people continued to die. He constantly worried about whether he had done everything within his power to protect people. Had he said the right words or issued the warnings fast enough for people to take shelter? What more could he have done?
He had always been a bit of a worrier, consumed by thoughts like these. But his anxiety intensified after May 3, 1999, when a milewide twister wiped out parts of Moore and south Oklahoma City. That storm had changed his life. For the first time in his long career, England had essentially narrated live a nearly two-and-a-half-hour trail of destruction as KWTV’s helicopter hovered in the sky capturing every second of the monster storm churning its way into some of the most heavily populated parts of his viewing area. He was stunned as he saw debris from homes and cars flying through the air, carried like Matchbox toys. In his most calm but stern voice, he’d warned people they should get below ground or they would very likely die. But many hadn’t listened.
Thirty-six people had died—the biggest death toll in the state from a tornado in decades. With more than 10 miles of neighborhoods completely wiped off the map, many believe the death toll would have been far higher had it not been for the local weather coverage. In the days after the storm, state and local officials praised Oklahoma City’s weathermen for their handling of the storm. England was lauded for saving lives with his specific warnings pinpointing exactly where the tornado’s trajectory would take it and calling out street names in an urgent attempt to clear out the neighborhoods before it was too late. Many survivors credited him with protecting them that day. As the massive cleanup began, some spray-painted messages on whatever remained of their wiped-out homes. “Gary England saved my life,” one message, scrawled on a mangled garage door, read. “Thank you, Gary England!” said another.
In response, he smiled and somewhat bashfully accepted the praise. When asked about it, he agreed that things could have been far worse, but inside he was torn apart in a way that he had never been by the hundreds of storms he had seen in his career. Even as the state moved on, rebuilding as it always did, he obsessed over the people who had been killed that day. Why had they died? Did they not know the storm was coming? Had they not taken cover? What could he have done to reach them more effectively?
“Tornadoes can be very majestic when they are out in the fields somewhere, when no one is around,” he often told people. “But my god, when you put them in a populated area, it is terrifying.” As Oklahoma City expanded and cities like Moore built out into the rural farmland tornadoes were known to frequent, the potential scale and scope of the devastation was growing.
• • •
Back in 1999, a few weeks after the May 3 storm, England took an afternoon off work and pulled the coroner’s reports on the people who had been killed that day. It was the beginning of a dark tradition he would secretly pursue over the next decade after every deadly tornado as he embarked on a desperate search to understand how people had died and maybe learn how he could save more lives the next time disaster struck.
England was horrified by the injuries he read about in the coroner’s reports. Some victims had tried to run from the tornado and been sucked up and spit out, their bodies literally pulverized by the storm. Others had been killed when they were hit in the head by flying debris. He quietly talked to doctors about the injuries of those who had survived—and was amazed and shocked by what he heard. He was told about people whose skin had almost been sandblasted off by the storm—leaving their bones and tendons exposed. One man’s eyeball had literally exploded when he was hit by debris, but he lived too. Another victim had been impaled in the throat by a two-by-four.
He didn’t tell anyone what he had done. He felt it was too morbid, too dark. But on air he began issuing unusual decrees for subsequent storms. In addition to his usual mantra urging people to “take your safety precautions” and “get below ground,” he started telling people to wear helmets and shatterproof goggles, along with heavy, long-sleeved clothing. He told them to dress as if they were going to war. He suspected some of his fellow meteorologists might think he had gone off the deep end. He was encouraging his viewers to do something that even the National Weather Service hadn’t endorsed. But he didn’t care. “Twenty percent of those killed on May 3 died of brain injuries,” he said. “I’m from Seiling, Oklahoma, and that to me says wear a helmet.”