After dinner, I settled back into my hotel, the Sands Inn, in Woodward, OK. I started bouncing between grading papers and reading a book my girlfriend recommended. That was the first time we lost power. Once we lost power, I looked out the window to the west and saw that there was a storm raging to the west. It was a ways off still. Realizing I had prepared poorly for such an event, I wandered down to my car and grabbed a flashlight and my police scanner for listening to the NOAA weather radio. I didn’t have much battery life for the weather radio, so I mostly checked it periodically. I picked up my grading work, and my dirty clothes and such and put them back in my bag. I quickly checked the back of the door and the drawers for any sort of evacuation instructions. There were none- not even for fire. Most plains hotels have a rally point or something.
I watched the storm in the distance for quite some time.
After maybe an hour or two without power, the power came back. I walked inside and flipped on the TV to the weather on local channel 9. From there, I saw exactly what we were up against. The weatherman said “Woodward, you only have a few minutes to take cover. There is a long track, confirmed on the ground tornado headed your way at 60mph. Take cover NOW!” I had my video camera rolling and got a brief video of the weather announcement, though I am having problems editing the video. Then we lost power again. Then there were tornado sirens for about 10 seconds before they abruptly ended.
In this situation, my brain switched into disbelief mode. The first thing I did was post on Facebook. Looking back, this seems really stupid, but at the time, it seemed ironic that the storm chaser was being chased. I picked up my bags, the radio and the flashlight and started seeking safety. I was lucky, as two whole minutes had elapsed since I had heard the warning.
I looked at the cheap bathtub on the 2nd floor and the king size bed, and instantly saw that that was not safe. There was no way the plastic tub was any protection at all. And there was no way that the king size mattress was going to fit or be any help. I knew I had to get lower. I walked out the front door of the hotel towards the lobby. I met several other 2nd floor tenants at the outdoor stairwell and we descended upon the lobby.
On the lobby, the safest place in the building, there was a note on the door that said “Tornado warning, take shelter at the high school”. The door was locked. I looked at the window, thought about the .38 I had in my bag and thought “I have a key”. One of the other tenants already had his .45 out for the same reason.
Realizing that this building wasn’t even that safe, I said, “I’m driving.” It might have been stupid, but I figured I had a full tank of gas, and even if I headed east and dodged the storms all night, I could eventually find a break in the approaching squall line that was tornado and hail free. It felt better to drive than to wait at a hotel that didn’t stand a chance against the tornado. I got in my car, and I could see that many of the others that had clustered at the lobby had done the same. Based on my memory of the radar image, I headed east. As I headed east through town, I saw all of the sirens and emergency vehicles headed west.
After a few minutes of driving, I heard on the radio that the west side of Woodward had been hit and that the tornado had passed north and east of the city. It had pretty well passed through before I had even left town. I doubled back west to help with the search and rescue efforts.
All of the cars were being diverted down a side road through a neighborhood. It turns out that that was the neighborhood that was hit. I showed up to help, and several vehicles parked on the street to help. A police officer said to me, “Great, a f-ing storm chaser, GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE” and beat on my hood. I tried to turn around but he kept walking in front of me and yelling. Finally, I got turned around (no sense arguing- they don’t want my help, then I’ll get out of the way), headed east through town, and then north out OK-31.
Along OK-31, I encountered the rest of the damage path, though it was a rural area, so no houses were hit where I was driving. Instead, the tornado dumped tons of drywall, insulation, etc. on the road as it passed through. I saw a teddy bear on the side of the road. That really bothered me.
Somewhere in this mess, my brother and his girlfriend called. My brother’s girlfriend was an old friend of mine and a former chase partner, so she was giving me radar updates and told me to get as far north and west as I could to avoid more incoming severe weather. I headed north, and then west.
After several hours of driving, I was under clear, dry night skies and so I pulled over at a truck stop in the OK panhandle and slept for a few hours in the back seat of my car with the engine running, just in case I had to run again. I heard several were killed in their cars. It wasn’t until Wednesday or Thursday of that week that I confirmed that none of them were from my hotel that followed my lead to drive instead of taking cover at the hotel (which was not damaged by the tornado).
The next day, I drove back to NM and tried to process all that I had seen.
I will post more photos of the day’s chase later on this week.
Starting Odometer Reading: 241856
Ending Odometer Reading: 243184
Trip Total: 1328 miles