|Southmoore High School with the EF5 tornado in the background|
(photo is a screen shot taken from storm chaser raw video)
Monday, May 20, 2013 was, for the most part, just like so many other days at school. Sure we were gearing up for our final week. Scholarship & Awards ceremonies as well as STUCO's annual Black Light show were the previous week. State End-of-Instruction (EOI) exams and AP testing were over. Southmoore had even held its first graduation practice of the season. This day was the start of the home stretch for finals and the last day.
As so often occurs during mid-April to the end of May, inclement weather forecasts were made; forecasts which included a chance for storms that could produce a tornado. This is normal, and while we take such forecasts seriously we must still live our day-to-day lives.
- First period AP US History: finishing up our post-exam movie (with written assignment) "Thirteen Days" (Cuban Missile Crisis)
- Second period AP Human Geography: debrief on free response questions from Friday's big AP exam overseen by the College Board
- Third period planning hour: working on textbook inventory & boxing up of more books, plus a mad-dash to grab lunch (Qdoba & "taco Monday")
- Fourth period planning hour: special meeting for training on a new video-based announcement system (TV monitors are the Senior Gift from the Class of 2013)
- Fifth period AP US History: repeat from 1st period
- Sixth period AP Human Geography: repeat from 2 period...OR SO I THOUGHT
Part way through the period, and interrupting our free response question debrief, administration came over the intercom and mentioned that due to an approaching storm and the continued/updated forecasts throughout the day we were to report to our severe weather reporting rooms. So the students in my 2nd floor outside wall classroom and myself proceeded to move downstairs to the interior classroom to which we are assigned. We joined 2 other classes (the hosting science class and a re-routed math class). Not truly knowing the severity of the storm the kids were visiting and laughing among themselves. Some grabbed their cell phones and then began saying things to use three teachers about "um, maybe this is worse than we think".
The host teacher pulled up a live news feed from one of our local news stations and we began watching the reports. There was a storm west of us that looked ripe for creating a tornado, but the current track of that storm was suggesting a route much further north than us. And then we noticed on the radar image a "hook" that was forming. We three teachers began having students move the science lab tables away from the interior walls to provide enough room for all of the students to sit down along the walls and built in cabinets. An announcement come on letting us know that reports indicated a small tornado was about to drop from that "hook"...we could see this on the live news feed (storm chasers just love Oklahoma).
But this "hook" on the radar and the tornado we were seeing in the live feed didn't seem to be moving in the same northeasterly path of much of the rest of the storm and predicted tracking. During much of this time I had my walkie-talkie two-way radio turned on to hear the "chatter" from the administrators with each other (I'm one of the check-in captains for fire-drills and for some reason I grabbed this device as we evacuated from upstairs today). I heard one of the principals say something about seeing the tornado, it being big, and it heading in our general direction.
The three teachers decided that maybe we needed a bit more protection in the event that the tornado did make contact with our school, so we quickly organized a re-moving of the lab tables back into the area of the room along side the interior wall and had all of the students crawl under. By this time two-families who had come inside of the building near our main office were routed to join our classroom...they joined us under the tables. Within less than a minute of getting everyone under the tables the power went out. This interior room was pitch black. Back-up generators allowed some emergency lights in the hallways and also our intercom system to come back on. An announcement was made that everyone should take cover.
And then...waiting, waiting, waiting. I could feel the panic in my students's voices. I had already sensed some uneasiness in their eyes as we started moving the tables. While I felt safe that the design of this building would provide protection for us I also knew that "you never know". Waiting, waiting, waiting...after about 15 minutes, an announcement was made that the administration thought the storm and tornado had passed us, but due to things being dark to please stay in our holding rooms. Students crawled out from under the tables. Some started checking their phones, texting friends and parents, "any news", "what happened", but most of these messages didn't make it initially due to 1) the interior nature of the room on the 1st floor and 2) as we would later learn, significant damage to power lines outside. I stepped into the hall to try and get a better reception on the two-way to see if I could hear anything from admin...but no. With no power, the signal boosters spaced throughout the building were not working. A few other teachers, began to emerge from their rooms and a teacher at the end of the hallway could see out the glass doors into the neighborhood adjacent to our school. A trampoline was upside down on a house's roof; debris was all over the ground.
Being in the hall, various teachers began to receive a few simplistic text messages. I heard one comment "Briarwood is gone". My heart sank. The mother of one of my students still in the darkness of that room I had just stepped out of is a teacher at Briarwood; we've become friends during the two years I've had her daughter in class. I rapidly fired off a text to her "U ok? I've heard b wood hit??" and then moments later another "Safe?" That was at 3:54 PM. School should have been out at 3:02. I wasn't hearing back from this friend/mother. I knew she would be addressing needs at Briarwood, but as time passed without a response my stomach started knotting up. I knew I couldn't say anything to my student since I didn't know anything for sure; I didn't want to worry her if not needed.
About 20 minutes later a simple three letter text arrived "Yes", followed by another "Yes". I don't know if the lack of connectivity caused a duplicate message or if the first meant to respond to "b wood" being hit and the second about her safety.
We had been in refuge for almost 2 hours and students needed to use the restroom. So one of the two teachers with me walked 2 young ladies to the end of the hallway near our centrally located "commons area" to let them use the faculty restroom...it was still pitch black in there. After several rotations, my student finally showed up at the door for a turn and I whispered to her that he mom was ok. She had heard other kids mentioning that they thought Briarwood had been hit, but that news confirmed that not only was it true but that it could have killed her mom. I could tell she was so relieved and she hugged me.
Students were not allowed to leave unless a parent showed up to check them out. Announcements were made calling for kids by name to come to the office. Eventually one of my students had her name called. All others were to remain in these darkened rooms. Eventually the administration realized that with no electricity that these rooms were getting very warm due to no air conditioning. Instructions were made that students could step out into the hall but to stay in the area of this room. As students began to step out my phone rang. My Aunt Margaret in Baton Rouge was calling. Instantly, I knew this tornado was BAD if out of state family was already trying to reach me; it meant national news was already reporting the disaster. The connection was so poor that all I could hear was her voice "David, hello, hello, David?". As I hung up, I gathered the remaining members of my class together in the hallway. I tried to offer words of comfort. I texted the mother again: "Sarah is under my watchful eye" and a few moments later a "Thank you" appeared.
After principals began finding ways of communicating with the outside world and contacted district level administrators on how best to proceed a decision was made to escort all of our remaining students to our gymnasium so as to use that area as a better way to connect students with parents who would make it up to check them out. This process would last hours....HOURS. It was about 5:30 when this process started...as the numbers dwindled, different teachers would start to leave to head home (especially to check on their homes/families if they lived near the tornado's path. Since I am single, have no children (I knew my dog would be safe with her water, food, and indoor potty pad), and I live comfortably outside of this area of the city I stayed...and stayed. Throughout the evening at various points my cell phone would make a connection (our gym is very bad for cell reception) and I'd get 6 or 7 messages at once. Counts less friends and family members..."David are you ok?", "Are you still at Southmoore", etc. I felt horrible at only preparing simple one word answers "yes" and then hitting send. The reception was so poor that I'd often have to try sending each "yes" 4 or 5 times. I would later apologize to my friends/family if the simple one word replies came off as rude and dismissive...EVERYONE said that they totally understood; I was busy with the kids...I was safe.
About 8:30, a caravan of police showed up to evacuate our remaining students to a shelter that had been set up. A school bus sitting outside was to be used along with the vacant police car seats. About 60 kids could be transported at once. By this point, our 2000+ student population had now dwindled to just over 100...the process had taken so long because the roads were so blocked that parents couldn't get to the school to pick up their students (not for a lack of trying). With about 45 kids remaining, and enough other teachers/principals to watch over I did make my exit.
By now we had received enough information for me to know that going north from our school to head to the interstate to get across town to my house wasn't going to work. I'd have to go south (how far was still uncertain), go way east or west (because reports were that both I-44 to my west and I-35 to my east were totally shut down), before turning north to get to I-40 and reconnect with my normal route from there. It took me 90 minutes to drive 3 miles south of Southmoore. Voice mails rang in during that time (14 missed calls with worried voices..."Are you ok?"...including another Louisiana Aunt (Katherine). I returned Aunt Katherine's call and we chatted very briefly before I lost the signal. But at least that portion of the family knew I was safe. That 90 minute drive connected me with I-35 and surprisingly it was open so I risked it and got on. While the traffic flow did slow down through the mile section where the tornado crossed the interstate, it only took me a total of 30 minutes to get home from the point were I got on I-35. For caparison, my daily route home-to-Southmoore (or reverse) is about 25 minutes).
It was late; I hugged my dog and texted my mother "Home". Responded to as many Facebook & twitter comments about my safety and then I went to bed. I'm not sure how fast I drifted to sleep, but I know it was fast. I'm still not sure how I've been able to sleep so soundly each night in light of this whole ordeal.
I'll be sharing more "parts" to this week's story later. It's now late on Friday night (truly Saturday morning) and I need to get to sleep...graduation is tomorrow!!!
Some remote roads can bring us such joy and peace, and who knows what this one may ultimately bring in the way of life lessons and the setting of goals for the future. But one thing I do know is that I am so thankful a disaster like the one which impacted the community of my students/school is a rare remote road.