Walking the path of a killer tornado
By John D. Sutter
Editor’s note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. Last week, he live-tweeted a walk down the path of the May 20, 2013, tornado in central Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at email@example.com.
NEWCASTLE, Oklahoma (CNN) — Before I decided to walk the 17-mile path of last week’s tornado in Oklahoma, I wanted to check out its origins.
Would I be able to reach the rural stretch of land where the storm dropped from the sky like a pencil pushing through the clouds, as one resident told me? Would it be possible to track the storm, mile by mile, minute by minute, on foot and in detail?
To find out, I downloaded a map from the National Weather Service and drove on Thursday afternoon to Newcastle, a rural town southwest of Oklahoma City. I found the quaint cul de sac where the tornado was born. No one expects an infant to grow into a terrorist. Likewise, looking at the humble beginnings of this tornado, I’d never have dreamed it would stomp across the metro area, smashing neighborhoods, killing 24 people, including seven children in one elementary school, and causing an estimated $2 billion in damages.
At the end of Pendergraft Lane, I met the Eubanks family’s horses, Denali and Mikey, who didn’t seem to have a care in the world; saw a few downed tree limbs; splashed in a puddle or two, left from the rain. The most memorable scene, however, was that of Leacie Pratt, 8, swinging on a broken play set. Its wooden pieces were intact but had been twisted, as if its joints were melted. The swing set creaked and flexed and swayed beneath the weight of the tiny girl in purple sneakers.
She kept on swinging just the same.
Leacie’s grandfather, Gene McCullah, told me the family was away when the tornado hit and felt extremely lucky only the swing set and his tool shed had been damaged.
Have you seen the rest of the path? McCullah asked.
I hadn’t. Not more than a few blocks, really.
But after meeting them, I wanted to see it all.
There’s something about walking that submerges a person in a place. The ambling speed is geared for making observations and conversations. Writers from Bill Bryson to Henry David Thoreau have long observed this. “You must walk like a camel,” Thoreau wrote in an 1862 essay, “which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” By walking the storm, I wanted to process it — to chew it up, camel-style, and spit out something that made sense.
When I explained this to my dad over dinner on Thursday night, before I took off, he jokingly asked if I was trying to “be the tornado.” Maybe I could twirl around and make whooshing noises while I was at it, he said. Lighten the mood.
As much as I love a good twirl, I didn’t want to be the storm by walking with it. What I really wanted to do, I realized after seeing Leacie on the swing set, was to learn what the tornado was up against. To meet the people whose lives ostensibly were ruined by this event, which is a horrific but frequent occurrence in Oklahoma, and to learn what it takes to recover. Did the tornado win this battle, or did they?
It wouldn’t be easy. As I walked back to my rental car that night, I called Nate Gunter, an editor at Oklahoma Today magazine who is from Moore, the suburb south of Oklahoma City that was hardest hit by the storm, to ask him about the project. You know you’ll have to cross two highways and a river, right? he asked.
Two highways and a river. I’d have to figure that out.
My conversation with Gunter was cut short when an older woman with gray hair and glasses drove up and stopped beside me to ask what the heck I was doing out here by a field of horses at the end of a random street. “Are you lost?” she asked.
I told her the plot, blaming it partly on my editor.
The woman laughed wildly.
You’d better make sure your editor knows what you’ll have to walk through, she said.
I wasn’t quite sure myself.
Doubts in mind, pen, notebook and smartphone in pocket, I turned on a GPS mapping app called My Tracks and set off Friday morning on the tornado’s trail.
I’d saved a route of sorts on my phone. It snaked mostly eastward across the Oklahoma City metro area, going through neighborhoods that, in satellite images, look like they’d been put through a wood chipper; to elementary schools where teachers shielded their students from deadly debris; and ending east of the city, 17 miles away. It took the tornado about 40 minutes to zip down the path, according to the National Weather Service. I knew in the best of scenarios, assuming I finished, it would take me much, much longer.
The morning stretch was pleasant. The sky was a nonthreatening, monotone gray. Birds were chirping. A cool breeze helped my mood. I walked past a few uprooted trees; a barn whose sides had curled back, like paper under a hair dryer; and a field of cows that looked at me like I was crazy for walking through this country. Minimal damage, really. You had to keep your eyes up to find evidence that the bucolic scene had been rattled by a low-grade twister still gathering its power.
After taking a few photos of workers who were trimming branches from around power lines, I was settling into a groove of sorts. I’d walked about 4.5 miles, making right angles at mile markers to try to stay on the tornado’s diagonal path. In a little neighborhood where all houses were intact, I hollered at a man walking a corgi. I wanted to ask what he’d seen and heard. Other residents described the terror they felt as they watched a twister drop from the sky, and then the relief that it seemed to blow through this area without causing nearly the damage it could have. The fellow walker didn’t respond. No matter, I thought. Plenty of people to meet on the path.
But minutes later, I heard a car drive up behind me and stop.
I turned to see not one but three police cars, lights on.
Not exactly the folks I’d hope to meet.
You can’t get arrested just for walking, right?
Where are you headed? one cop asked. I realized I didn’t quite know the answer to that, so I muttered something about CNN and pulled a work ID out of my pocket.
Apparently someone in this neighborhood had called the police on me. I can understand why people here would be protective in this moment. The cops said there had been a string of auto burglaries lately. Backpacks are suspicious after the Boston bombing, even if mine just contained a water bottle, bananas and granola bars. And everyone had to be on the lookout for looters after the tornado. But Oklahomans also are inherently skeptical of anyone who does not travel by car.
I grew up near Oklahoma City and returned after college as a reporter. Once, while I was riding my bike to work at The Oklahoman, some evil woman in an SUV rolled down her window to yell, “GET A CAR!” I had one then, as now.
Maybe get-a-car woman moved to Newcastle. Back to haunt me.
I explained the premise of my journey to the cops: wandering reporter; trying to understand how people make it through something like this.
They thought the whole thing was hilarious and said my hat, a straw Fedora I purchased at Walmart (on the receipt: “Fashion Hat”) to keep my ears from getting sunburned, was probably part of what made a resident call the cops.
It made me look like an East Coaster, a detective said. A foreigner in my own land.
We had a laugh, took a photo together, and went our separate ways.
Good luck, they said. Hope you make it.
‘No media here’
Twisted blinds. Shattered glass. Decapitated mailbox.
I’d walked about seven miles in three hours, zigzagging across Newcastle to the northeast, mostly along high-speed roads with no sidewalks. My leather shoes filled with water as I slopped through shin-high weeds still wet with morning dew.
Already the power of the storm was becoming more apparent. As was its scope. News crews mostly hadn’t been covering the storm’s path this far west. As someone who had been hanging out nearer to the epicenter of the storm for the past two days, I was amazed to see so much damage way out here. This was another world.
Gate off its hinges. Banged up barn. Strips of metal siding turned to chewing gum.
I stopped on the corner of a highway and waited to meet Don Staley, a 53-year-old who lives in Newcastle and survived three damaging tornadoes in the region. At age 10, he hid in an underground storm shelter as a tornado passed. But after the storm, the door to the cellar, as people call it here, was stuck. That experience gave Staley an intense fear of being buried alive that he’s not been able to shake 43 years later.
Storms leave lasting damage, he told me. Both physical and psychological.
I waved goodbye to Staley and walked toward a neighborhood in Newcastle that I could see from a distance had been heavily damaged by the storm. I’d mostly been walking through farms and sparsely populated areas until now. But even from a distance, I could see the horrors of what a tornado does to a subdivision. Splinters of wood jutted up at odd angles. Sand-dune rooflines had been flattened.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood entrance had been turned into a police checkpoint. A young officer in sunglasses was not impressed by my media credentials.
No media here today, he said. We’re clamping down.
I asked if there was any way to get past.
The officer said something that would change the nature of my journey.
You could become a volunteer, he suggested. Volunteers get official badges. And with one of those, you could pass right into the neighborhood.
Perfect, I said. Show me where to go.
About 20 minutes later, after walking down a road lined with fast-food restaurants and gas stations, I found myself at Braum’s, an Oklahoma-based chain of ice cream and burger stores, which was serving as the hub for volunteers in the area.
I signed an ominous release form, “hereby” acknowledging “the dangers associated with tornado cleanup volunteer work, including and not limited to dangers of live electric wires and other utilities, unstable structures, and other dangers, known and unknown.” (Unknown dangers — Like tornadoes? Walkabout journalists?)
I pinned a “volunteer” badge to my shirt, but still felt a little funny.
Is this ethical? I asked my Twitter followers, who I’d been updating en route.
“#justdoit,” a former colleague replied.
I did. And I took the change seriously. It’s not that I was going to shirk on my journalistic duties, but I promised myself also to look for ways to help. Not in the news-anchor-rescues-a-puppy sense. But I’d at least try to chip in. Earn the honor of that plastic badge with a safety pin.
In the Braum’s parking lot, I chatted with a couple of for-real volunteers. Judging by Blake and Drew Thompson, selflessness and access to heavy equipment seem to be two valued traits in times like these. The brothers heard on the radio that volunteers were needed and took off work to come. Blake, 28, wore a shirt dedicated to Oklahoma City’s beloved local celebrity, meteorologist Gary England. (Other cities have dozens of famous people to gawk at. OKC has The Thunder, its NBA team; the Flaming Lips, the indie band; and Gary England. People freaking love him. There’s even a Gary England Drinking Game).
The brothers brought a chainsaw and wheelbarrow, hoping to help clear rubble. Ready to do whatever was needed to assist strangers.
Credentials in hand, I wished them good luck and then hoofed it across a soggy field of knee-high grass. I could see the rubble of a suburban neighborhood on the horizon. Once I was in the thick of the grass, as the rubble grew larger, I wished I’d stayed with the pack. Forgotten the walk. Maybe working as a for-real volunteer would have been more helpful than wandering, writing and tweeting.
A helicopter swooped overhead, making multiple passes. I felt watched. Did the copter know about my somewhat falsified reporter-to-helper metamorphosis? Could the pilot see my suspicious, hipster-looter hat?
I neared this Newcastle neighborhood. It’s a cliché, but it resembled a war zone. Chewed-up homes. Flakes of insulation. Boards and nails and clothes in the grass. A box of Rice Krispies. A tiny, blue-haired doll.
Up the road I met Jason Leger, 36, whose house crumbled in the storm. Hundreds of volunteers had been helping him pile up the fragments.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” he says in a YouTube video he shot of the wreckage. Rain falls on a spooky line of trees that looks like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” Mist also appears to rise from the ground. “Wow,” he says.
It’s true that Leger had much taken away. He was wearing clothes purchased after the storm. A neighbor loaned him a car. But he did his part to giveth back.
When he emerged from the storm shelter to find that apocalyptic scene, Leger told me, his first move was to run across the street and dig a neighbor out of the rubble.
Car and wind speeds
The highway and the river.
I’d known these obstacles were coming, and as I wandered east through an oddly and mostly intact neighborhood, I worried I didn’t quite have a plan.
On the map, the only way I could see to get across the Canadian River without swimming was to walk across a bridge along Interstate 44 in Oklahoma City.
Cars were going at least 65 or 70 mph.
I asked Twitter what to do. No response. But as I approached the highway I saw two surveyors in bright orange vests. I figured they would know.
One of the men, who was wearing a yellow hard hat and had this you-can-do-it expression on his face, told me walking along the highway was the only option. He’d done it before, which gave me hope it was possible. And as long as I walked along the railing on the highway bridge, I’d probably be all right, he said.
Probably. Great. And no hard hat.
As I walked up to the edge of the bridge, keeping as far to the left on the highway shoulder as possible, the cars and trucks sounded like jet engines whizzing by. The farther I got into the center of the bridge, over the river, the more the sounds wove together into a cacophony almost like a dozen emergency sirens.
To my left, I saw the overgrown riverbed and an iconic 1920s bridge, one section of it missing from the trauma of being hit by the tornado, which was between EF 0 and EF 2 strength here. Strong by any normal sense, with winds of 65 mph to about 135 mph.
But weak compared to the EF 5 rating the storm would later acquire.
One block, two storms
Maybe walking the 17-mile path of a tornado seems excessive.
But while the May 20 Oklahoma tornado was much longer-lived than most, it’s not in the record books. In 1925, the Tri-State tornado spent 3½ hours making its way down a path a whopping 219 miles long. Nearly 700 people died, in three states.
“It’s just another violent tornado moving through,” Ken Gallant, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service told me, referring to the science of the Moore, Oklahoma storm. “No characteristic that strikes me as odd or unusual. …”
People in Oklahoma are weirdly accustomed to tornado warning and sirens, especially in May. Even people whose homes were pulverized by the recent storm are quick to downplay what they’ve been through, to say it’s just part of living here. But a storm of this size did send nearly everyone into fits of terror.
The Twitter feed for the National Weather Service’s office in Norman, Oklahoma, shows the urgency of the situation as the tornado dropped out of the sky at 2:56 p.m. in Newcastle and pushed quickly to the east, toward Oklahoma City and Moore.
“302pm – LARGE VIOLENT TORNADO moving toward Moore and SW OKC. Take cover right NOW!!! Do not wait!!”
One minute later, at 3:03 p.m., the twister crossed Interstate 44 and the Canadian River. Its strength would only intensify from there, hitting a block, near the corner of SW 149 at May Avenue in Oklahoma City, which had been leveled by a 1999 tornado. Residents there were spooked by the coincidence — they described living in the bull’s-eye of tornado alley, at its very epicenter — but many pledged to rebuild.
One of them was Kay Taylor, a former PE teacher and counselor in her 60s. I found Taylor along the path of my walk as she and family friends were sorting through the rubble of her home. She showed me the storm shelter where she and her 94-year-old aunt, whose home was totaled in 1999 and this year, waited out the storm.
“That’s the only thing that saved us,” she said. “We would’ve been gone.”
‘You’re doing what?’
It wasn’t long after I left Taylor that I got another visit from the police.
I’d been wandering the path of the storm off the road, amazed and horrified by its scale. The destruction seemed to continue forever. A whole neighborhood was gone. Metal was wrapped around branchless, barkless trees, seeming to defy physics. The scrap creaked in the wind, like a rusty door. I started to catalogue items stuck in the debris. It seemed the only way to make sense of what life might have been like before the storm.
Purple cowboy boot, plastic deer, fake sunflowers. Party balloons, plaid sofa, “Home Alone” on VHS. A tattered American flag, translucent in the hot early afternoon sun, which had come out from behind the clouds.
It was an eerie, apocalyptic scene.
Soon after I turned back to the road, two Oklahoma City police officers pulled up next to me to ask what the heck I was doing out here on the tornado’s path.
Walking, of all things.
You’ll have to go to the media command center to get special permission to walk past this point, one of the officers told me. Media isn’t allowed, only residents.
Where’s the command center?
About a mile and a half north of here.
They didn’t offer a ride, so I walked the route, picking up supplies on the way and cursing the cops under my breath. Two times in one walk — seriously?
I’d walked about 15.5 miles at that point.
When I arrived at the command post, at a church, I was sweaty and sunburned. My nose looked like Rudolph’s. I later would notice I’d burned a V-neck pattern into my neck.
I was such a mess the officers seemed to take pity on me.
“You must be the lowest-paid person at CNN.”
I played up the drama — telling them about the friendly cops in Newcastle, the river crossing and the long walk off my path to come here to talk to them.
They left for a few minutes to confer with each other, as if my walk were a matter of national security. While they were away, I started reading notes kids had sent to the police officers, which they had taped up to the side of a trailer-turned-office.
“Dear hero, Thank you for rescuing the children and people in Moore. I am in second grade, and people are counting on you.”
“Dear hero, Thank you for the job you do. I am sure it is not easy for you to see all of the damages and rescue kids in Moore. I am safe. Thank you for being brave.”
Crap, I thought. I can’t hate the cops after reading that.
They came back from the conference.
Wear the CNN hat, one officer told me. It’s less suspicious.
They were kind enough to drive me back to the tornado’s route.
It wouldn’t be long before I’d wish they hadn’t.
The singing teacher
3:16 p.m. on May 20. The tornado reached its peak.
Winds 200 to 210 mph.
“TORNADO EMERGENCY for the City of Moore,” wrote the National Weather Service, known for its detached, objective approach. “This is as bad as it gets.”
The wreckage of Briarwood Elementary School is testament to that.
This is the school where children survived, but it’s impossible to see how. A Big-Bird yellow slide and playground set remain upright, but not much else. Wind pushed swings up against hunks of scrap metal. The school crumbled.
I stood stunned at the edge of the school, unable to process it, when I met Wende Melvin, 41, who was visiting the location with her two daughters. One graduated from the school and the other still attends it. Maybe it was a mother’s intuition, Melvin’s not sure, but she decided to pick up her younger daughter from class early that day, before tornado warnings were announced.
As we walked around the perimeter of the building, they recounted fond memories that took place in now-collapsed hallways, or on patches of land now occupied by rescue and cleanup trucks. “My kids were crossing guards right here,” she said. Our conversation was wrapping up when a young man in an orange safety vest approached us to ask a favor.
Do you know the teacher, the one who sang to the students? he asked.
I knew what he was talking about, although I didn’t know her name at the time. Waynel Mayes made news after she sang with her first-grade students to drown out the storm as it pummeled the school. “I told them to sing as loud as they could and if they got scared, they could scream,” she said in an interview with CNN.
“She was singing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and she was playing instruments with them to keep them entertained — and that really hit me,” said the young man in orange.
Barry Chalifoux, 18, told me he sold off many of his electronics — a DVR, satellite dish and cell phone — to come to Oklahoma to meet that teacher, who he’d seen on CNN. He traveled here from Slave Lake, Alberta, a place that was hit by a major May 2011 wildfire, which Chalifoux said he lived through.
“I just want to say I thank her for keeping those kids occupied that way,” he said, earnestly. “I know if that was me, I would appreciate it all my life.”
He also felt compelled to volunteer to help people in Moore.
I told him I’d do my best to track down the teacher for him.
The sun was getting low, and my phone battery was running lower, so, after meeting a few more courageous people, including a man who helped pull kids from the rubble of the elementary school, I decided to call it quits for the night.
The delays with police and volunteers and rivers had made it impossible for me to finish the route in a day. I’d walked 20 miles (44,000 steps) in 12 hours.
I would rejoin the path in the morning. I prepared for an emotional day, one that would include a visit to the elementary school where seven children lost their lives.
‘Like you’re in a dream’
“It’s sickening, just sickening.”
I asked a man who was directing traffic near the Plaza Towers Elementary School whether I was headed in the right direction. I’d seen the words “RIP PLAZA” spray painted on the wreckage of a home one block back, an office chair sitting alone in a yard filled with geometric hunks of plywood and metal. At another home, the walls and roof were gone but a kitchen table and two chairs remained.
I wasn’t prepared for what I would see.
The site of the school stopped me in my tracks.
Unable to comprehend the site where seven children had died, I again looked for the details in the rubble, the signs of life as it once was.
Plastic Easter egg, chocolates, a soggy copy of “Cat in the Hat.” Uno card, keyboard, softball, tinsel. Empty photo frame, phonics “starter set,” blue magic marker.
The sounds of chainsaws. The beep of construction equipment in reverse. Sirens.
The air had a tang you could almost taste. Mildew and manure. Mud oozed beneath my feet. “She let out a noticeable sigh,” read the page of a book, soaking wet and dug into the soil, open for anyone to read. “She could feel her heart melting.”
Behind a fence, seven crosses for the seven victims.
People had started leaving dirt-caked stuffed animals on a chain-link fence.
I looked up at the building. One office was more or less standing, books still on a wooden shelf and a paper on the desk, flapping in a stiff wind.
Nothing else was as it should have been.
I wanted the walk to end at that moment. Here I was, peering into someone’s office at the site of a school where children had died just days before. What kind of jerk of a voyeur was I? Was this assignment anything more than disaster porn? What was the point of cataloguing all this madness?
I stopped posting photos to Twitter and stood in place for a few minutes.
Maybe I should have stopped in Newcastle. Become a volunteer.
In this daze, I saw another man in an orange safety vest approach.
Fernando Ayala, 41. He was driving through Oklahoma City for work when he saw part of the destruction along Interstate 35 in Moore, farther east along the path. He was so moved by what he saw that he decided to stop.
“You see it on TV,” he said, “but to see if firsthand? It’s like you’re in a dream.”
He told me he hoped to stay in Oklahoma City.
Once he saw the devastation, he had to help.
‘We pull ourselves up’
Ayala, and many other people I met on this walk, helped me see something I hadn’t before: Everyone has his or her own way to contribute, to help people move on from a disaster and start their lives anew. In Oklahoma, as some friends and I discussed on this trip, this is a learned trait, part of a well-oiled disaster-recovery machine.
I mean that in the kindest of ways.
The state was born of tragedy, after the Trail of Tears uprooted American Indians from their ancestral homes in the east and marched them, starving and dying, to Indian Territory, which later would become Oklahoma (the name literally means “Land of the Red Man”). In the 1930s, it was the Dust Bowl, which sent monstrous black clouds rolling across the prairie and chasing farmers west to California.
That’s the generation that spawned Woody Guthrie, the pre-Bob-Dylan Bob Dylan, who wandered the country telling stories of downtrodden, out-of-luck people.
Families of those who stayed in Oklahoma through the Dust Bowl are among the ones who built the state. Everyone who’s come here since seems to learn their hardscrabble, no-complaints ethic by association.
It’s this unique mix of people that comforted each other after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, including many children, and rattled the community’s sense of safety by isolation. And they’re the ones who, time and time again, come to each other’s rescue after a tornado wipes out a house or neighborhood or town.
Because if there’s any constant in Oklahoma, it’s severe weather.
Even people who have just lost their homes will tell you that.
“In Oklahoma, after something like this, we pull ourselves up by our boot strings and we get on with life,” said Gail Skaggs, 67, who I found digging through the rubble of her home near Plaza Towers Elementary.
“This is tornadoes, you know?” she said, looking back at her nonhome.
“What’s amazing about Oklahoma is the people.”
I’ve been living outside the state for years now, and it’s easy to forget how infectious the state’s do-gooder-ness can be. I think magazine writer Sam Anderson put it best when he wrote Oklahoma City’s ethos goes something like this: “good folksy folks humbly helping other folksy folks stay humble and helpful.”
Someone should make a bumper sticker out of that.
With the help of some Twitter followers and volunteers, I figured out a relatively easy way to cross the second interstate on my route, I-35.
The tornado crossed this point at 3:25 p.m. on May 20, leaving the “Warren Theater” missing letters. From the south, its marquee reads “WAR.” As in War Theater.
“325pm — tornado crossed I-35 in south Moore and is now moving along and south of 4th street,” the National Weather Service tweeted. “Take cover!”
By that point, I’d walked about 23.5 miles to the tornado’s 12.
I’d met so many inspiring, helpful people: Sherrie Lambert, whose sister died in a 1999 tornado and who put orange and red flowers on her grave this week after it was damaged in the Moore tornado; Tim Eason, a Hulk-Hogan-looking character with a blue kitchen sponge strapped to his forehead, who drove here from Arkansas to cook meals for volunteers; the random man who yelled “Watch out pardner!” at me as I stumbled through neighborhood streets clogged with heavy construction equipment, texting and walking, against my better judgment. Meeting them gave me hope — both that they would take care of me on this walk; and that they, or we, would take care of each other after the storm.
I stopped to talk to Sue Denny, 59, because I noticed the letters “OK” had been spray painted on her garage door. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means you’re in Oklahoma!” she joked.
It also means no one in the house died.
But the postal abbreviation is also a state of mind.
Some 26 miles into the two-day walk, neighborhoods of rubble started to subside, in favor of open fields with downed trees and twisted, broken fences.
I was nearing the eastern edge of the storm.
With blisters on my heels throbbing and my steps starting to stagger a bit, I trudged down Southeast 4th Street in Moore. To get there, I’d crossed a muddy field where nails stuck out of boards like fangs. (It’s no wonder volunteers get tetanus shots before entering). I’d walked across train tracks, around creeks and down tire tracks.
I stopped at a first aid station near the edge of the suburb, not because I was hurt but because I wondered if other people were. Nail injuries and allergic reactions to insulation fibers were the most common complaints, a physician’s assistant said.
Through a gate, across a field, around a pond.
Insulation stuck in a fence, like cotton candy.
At the bottom of a meadow I found Ann Eades sitting beneath a pine tree.
Her home, like about 1,200 others, according to news reports, had been leveled (Officials have estimated 12,000 properties were damaged in the storm). Volunteers scooped up the debris and cleared her foundation to the point only dirt remained.
She was moved nearly to tears as she recounted what had happened. The wind. The shelter. The stomach-churning scene that followed. And worst: At 71, she knew she wouldn’t be able to clean up the land and take care of it. She’d have to move.
Our “grandkids came out to swing,” she said, looking toward a metal swing set, which was bent by high winds. “All my grandkids are about grown up. Then we wanted to use it for our great-grandchildren. But we will just have to get a different lifestyle. … It’s just devastating.
“But we still love each other, and we’ll be OK.”
On Sunday, the day after we met, she was planning to volunteer at her church, offering to help other storm victims who hadn’t been able to clean up as much as she had.
“That’s what your purpose in life is — is to help each other,” she said, very matter-of-factly, as if her sage words were already so well understood by everyone on Earth that they didn’t bear repeating. She added: “At this time in life, a friend and a hug and a brother and sister in Christ is all you really need. Possessions is not — never was — anything to me, except for comfort.”
I asked where the path of the tornado went from her house. It was hard to tell, and I knew I was getting near the end.
“That’s it there,” she said, pointing east. “The white house. That’s the end of it.”
She gave me a hug and I kept walking.
The white house
It wasn’t the end. Not exactly.
“I saw that sucker coming right at us — a BIG GRAY FUNNEL with crap flying around!”
That’s Melvin Sexton, a funny 71-year-old with orange-gray hair and a pearl-snap shirt, who pointed to the field behind his house. Debris was everywhere — metal, clothes, wood, a decapitated Raggedy Andy (or Ann?) doll, a CD for America Online access.
Sexton showed me a hole in his stand-alone garage where a refrigerator — whose, he’s not sure — flew through the roof and landed perfectly in a trailer parked inside.
It looked like something out of a cartoon. Refrigerator flies through air. Cue whistling sounds. And BAM. It lands right in a trailer, doing almost no damage.
Sexton and his wife and son offered to show me the way across their yard and toward the end of the storm. Before we left, I asked what they had learned from the experience of their roof flying off, their garage being damaged.
“Just don’t bitch too much about the cost of insurance premiums,” he said.
We walked down a green hill and across a small bridge.
“Look at this right here!” said Betty Sexton, Melvin’s wife. It was a stake of wood jabbed straight into the ground, like a knife. “You need some shorts?” Melvin said, picking up clothes sized for maybe a 4-year-old. Shaun, their son, 46, pulled a set of Power Ranger rings out of the mud. All this stuff was from neighbors — or someone else. They’d never seen it. Betty: “There’s part of somebody’s doll.”
They walked with me, continuing the exploration of the junkyard that their property had become, before sending me on my way, through a beautiful field of wildflowers. Mars-red soil contrasted with the Ireland grass.
“Well you better get walking before you get rained on!”
‘You’re almost to the end!’
Under one barbed wire fence. Over another.
Around a highway and down a dirt road.
I knew the map came to an end soon. My walk slowed. The writing in my notebook started to look sloppy and semi-delirious.
Baseball card. Book jacket. NASCAR calendar.
I could hear crickets chirping. Early evening sounds. The sun was behind me now. I felt it on my neck, and it cast a faint me-shaped shadow. I rounded what I thought would be the final corner and saw two men on four-wheelers.
“You’re almost to the end!” one said.
Up one final hill. Yellow wildflowers were to my right. It was a beautiful scene. Finally, I thought, the destruction is over. I can just enjoy this moment. A sense of completion. I felt like I had found my place in the storm’s aftermath. I’ll never be the guy who brings chainsaws to Braum’s, but I can listen to people and take down their stories. Maybe that doesn’t help much, but hopefully it’s something.
“I send peace, love, and strength to you and especially to the people you will meet. Thank you for doing this #tornadowalk,” one person wrote on Twitter.
“Re-walk in a year. Cows will be fatter and the rebuilding will be well under way!”
I was feeling pretty good about it all when I saw this:
A house, with no roof.
This was supposed to be my triumphant finish. No more damage, right?
I stood there for a minute, wondering what to do about this house on top of the hill. So I did the only thing my journalist brain knew: I walked up to check it out.
Strollers on the porch. Car in the garage. But no one was home, far as I could tell. I wanted nothing more than to end the journey by meeting the people who lived in the home at the end of the map, but the property was ghost-like, abandoned.
It had that strange, something’s-about-to-happen-quality to it, which kind of freaked me out. I hoped the “something” wasn’t a gun-owning person returning home to find me in his or her yard, stammering about taking notes in my phone.
I’ll risk it, I thought. I walked behind the house. I had to see if the tornado’s path stopped here, or if it continued over the hills to the east, beyond my reach.
On the map, this is where it ends. No path continues.
But did the destruction?
The yard was littered with items: a crocheted blanket, Windows 98 guide, a magazine flipped to an ad for the Village People and a “Warehouse Blowout.”
In the back, it gave way to a ravine and another fence.
Metal and branches were scattered across the way, too.
But I’d never get there to check it out.
I turned around to walk back to the road, where a getaway car was waiting. The sky had turned foreboding, as Melvin Sexton had predicted. Purple clouds. Pale horizon. From the looks of it, I’d finished where I’d started.
But as I reflected on the journey, I realized this was only fitting.
I thought of the little girl on the swing set I’d seen at the start of my journey, 22 walking hours, 31.5 miles and 73,000 steps ago. The swing set creaked beneath her, but she swayed just the same, while her granddad installed a new shed.
I couldn’t see over that hill to the east.
But I knew the people there would be OK.
™ & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.