Minutes, sometimes seconds, is all the time people get to shelter from a tornado. Rarely with that much time is it possible to feel safe, especially as one of the rare category EF5 storms that bore down on Moore, Oklahoma rages overhead. It is overwhelming to see what wind can do when it unleashes an unfathomable amount of energy on structures that we humans believe are solid and safe. Full sized trucks wrapped around trees, suburbans turned into an unrecognizable mass of metal void of any identifying features, and blocks of neighborhoods laid flat, down to the foundations. Seeing this almost complete destruction – for blocks and blocks – makes it hard to comprehend how anyone could live through something like this. My own difficulty in matching what I was seeing with the reality that hundreds of people had managed to survive this event led me to start recording the stories of survivors and taking portraits of where they took shelter.
I felt it was important to record these stories as they could help future tornado victims prepare a location inside of their home to better withstand a storm like this. The voices of Robert, Scott, Matt, Corey and Donna capture this experience that most of us can not even imagine and I thank everyone who was kind enough to share their memories. Almost every person I spoke with was watching the news to see where the tornado was heading as they sought shelter somewhere in their home. As the reality of the storm bearing down on them became clear and they ran for shelter in their homes, almost all of them remember hearing the phrase “If you are not underground, you will not survive this storm. You have run out of time,” said by Gary England, a meteorologist for News Channel 9 in Oklahoma City as the world began to rumble around them. These are their stories.
“We were in the living room and all of us was in there, watching Channel 9. And he said that we needed to take cover immediately and also stated that it needed to be underground because it probably wasn’t going to be good if we took it on top of ground.
I took shelter in my linen closet with my mother, and my 21-year-old daughter, our five dogs. And we survived the tornado and walked out to the house gone and just the closet there, with the towels still folded. Light bulbs still good.
It’s like you hear the commotion and then you hear a silence and a roar. And then you hear popping glasses and breaking wood and trees flying by. And the door got sucked off. We had a quilt over our heads – that’s all we had.
And when you walk out, you just, all you really hear is people crying and running and hollering. And people need help.” – Donna Baker
“I knew we had a closet to go to that was inside with no windows, kind of the center part of the house. And really our only real plan for in case it got bad.
So me and my children began to chant the same prayer over and over: “Dear Jesus please help us, Dear Jesus please help us.” Before I knew it though I could actually hear what was probably the neighbors houses being torn up. But me and the kids, remained pretty calm. My daughter – it was funny though because like I say, she didn’t scream, she didn’t cry. But when she saw our refrigerator door in the hallway, and it still had chocolate milk inside the door, she just began to cry and she began to say “Daddy, there’s chocolate milk in our hallway.” And I think it’s just because the weirdness of the situation was setting in.
Out of the front of the house there’s a cross that we put up a couple years back. And it just says simply “Faith.” And it’s kinda also a symbolic sign. The front of our house is still standing and not very many of the front of the houses are standing at all.” – Scott Cushman
“My dogs ran down the street. I went and got them. And by the time I got back, the power was out and I could see it (the tornado) coming over the back side of the neighborhood. So I came inside and I actually took a video out my front window. Called my wife. I said “Hey listen, don’t come home if you’re on the way home.” I said, “I love you and I’ll talk to you later” because I didn’t want her to hear me die on the phone, basically, you know? So I just hung up. She was really upset about that but we’ll get through it I’m sure.
And I saw a piece of this house or one of these houses fly by my window and I heard a whole bunch of stuff hitting the side of my house, so I raced into the bathroom and jumped in the tub. I was sitting on the bathroom floor and something fell off the wall and hit me in the head, so I jumped in the tub and grabbed the shower curtain and put it over my head and it went over. It was probably, I don’t know it felt like forever, but it was probably only like 30 seconds. Maybe 15-20 seconds – I have no idea. It felt like I was laying under a train going over me.” – Matt Lacey
“This is the bathroom we were in. I was right here with my back here and my feet against this door. And Cory’s head was over here and his feet were over there, which he was lucky because right at the end that shelf fell but it didn’t hit him. And my mother is 81 years old and we pushed her on the floor – she was sitting in that chair and her head was in my lap and her feet were over by Cory’s head. And this is where we rode it out, right here. And than when it left there was only one way out and it was through that bedroom window.
And my 81 year old mother, bless her heart, she’s got dementia and she just was kind of clueless what happened. You know the next day she was looking at the paper going “Oh me, look at this.” And I said “Ya Mom, we were in that yesterday.” – Carolyn Kraeger
“When you’re hard-headed like I am, you stand outside and you watch this stuff. Because it’s not gonna hit you, you know, it’s not going to hit you.
And uh, I was in the house and I walked back outside and I looked down the block and there it was. It was just that fast and I ran in here and hit that closet and boom. Everything broke loose. It blew the door off. It sucked the pillows that was on my head off. But it didn’t suck me out. That’s all the grace of God, you know.
To lose a child I couldn’t comprehend. You know, my children are well. They don’t live, thank god, here in Moore. You know, they’re safe and well. Just uh, what those parents are going through.
I’m 62. My life’s pretty much… I’m on the downhill slide so it wouldn’t have bothered me if it had taken me and saved all them, you know what I’m saying. That’s just the way I feel.” - Robert Norfolk