by Sam Cornette
Sam Cornette has been a long time customer and friend. When we talked a few months ago, he recounted his sobering experience as an officer responding to the widespread destruction of the May 3, 1999 tornado outbreak in Oklahoma. I asked if I could share his story with you in hopes of communicating the serious threat and devastation of F5 tornadoes. His account follows:
It was 7:15 PM and my fellow officer and I were having dinner a few miles south of Moore, Oklahoma. We had heard rumors throughout the day about the possibility of severe storms (when the fine meteorologists of OK City metro give you a heads up, you'd better listen). Someone decided to do just that, turning on the radio to hear: "if you want to survive his storm, don't be above ground."
I was a commissioned police officer but not on duty at the moment. However that would quickly change.
The radio hadn't been on five minutes before things went crazy in the restaurant—yelling, total panic. I got up to see what was happening behind the counter to see employees jumping under furniture, while others rushed to their cars.
An F-5 tornado had spun across the Oklahoma country side and had sneaked up to the doorstep of Moore, Oklahoma. My partner and I ran out the door and literally climbed the building to get a better look. From our vantage point we could clearly see and hear a monster on the ground--not only the train like sound--but almost the sound of a sustained explosion.
We ran to an available truck and started in the direction of the storm. We were moving up the interstate as the tornado crossed in front of us. It was an amazing sight. It looked as though the ground was in the sky and likewise that the sky was in the ground. A black cloud of debris resembling a blender moved through Moore. I had never been afraid of tornadoes. In fact, I was drawn to them. This storm would change that view. As we sped in the direction of the moving storm, we saw all kinds of debris including something that fell onto the road maybe a mile in front of us, bounced across the four lanes, and landed over a guard rail. We had no idea that we had seen a car fall out of the sky.
It was compacted to almost half its size. Mud, metal and grass. It was so small it didn't even look like a car. We did a close inspection and were convinced it was an empty vehicle. Later that night, my police chief’s daughter would tell us she saw two pairs of lights in the sky. She didn't know she was looking at headlights.
We immediately ran to the worst-hit path. We were near an overpass where we later learned several people had been swept away. A commissioned state officer had assumed a command post for that particular location. We identified ourselves as officers, asking what we could do. He closely examined our credentials, copied the vital information on his clip board, and put us to work in on-duty status.
We were assigned areas of duty by the the officer in command as individual--one man units---because that's how new this emergency was. We walked through the destruction, helping as many as possible, making mental maps, and taking field notes. Already there were lines of people walking hand in hand sweeping large areas around both sides if the interstate in an attempt to locate those who had disappeared from underneath the overpass, where the tornado had literally taken them, from what they thought would be a safe haven.
The first hour in such a situation teaches one that there truly is only so much one person can do. It was amazing to behold two story apartment buildings sheared off just above the foundation. All those people and the essence of their existence was blown out over half mile path. Because it had just happened, those who could were just then emerging from the destruction trying to assess the situation. The stench of natural gas, the sound of it escaping from ruptured lines, confused wounded people looking for loved ones. Welcome to nature at its most horrific.
Search and Rescue Intensifies
We continued in our search-and-rescue efforts. But Mother Nature would still out-rank our efforts in more than one instance. You may have every motivation imaginable to want to move a fifteen thousand pound wall to rescue victims, but even with eight men you just can't do it. It's frustrating to be so small in the face of something so powerful.
We did all we could with each trip, and with each trip, more officers, more equipment, better briefings and more success in getting the injured to the Triage centers.
Sometimes in our search through the damage there were audible voices where people were trying to dig out and other times not so audible. Sometimes we couldn't tell what we were hearing: animal, human, or the uneasy movement of layers of broken building materials.
I don't recall ever being that overwhelmed that many times, that close together. Any officer there would tell you the same.
It lasted all night, and continued for about ten days, with brave volunteers from all over Oklahoma and even surrounding states helping out.
Aftermath of an F5 Tornado
I hear everyone describe tornado devastation as a war zone. To me it was more like jet-powered bull dozers on the ground-half mile across--and I am not even sure that covers it. It is actually unthinkable until you see it. Pictures of Greensburg Kansas, which I only saw on TV and on Storm chase websites, are all very familiar, but there’s no way to get it unless you are actually there.
The national weather service, the Norman office and all the meteorologists in city gave it their best that day, and as a result, many people actually listened. I personally talked to many who had survived by lying in a ditch, crawling into a concrete culvert, some other thing that, literally put them below the surface of the ground. They listened to the warnings, and they tried to do exactly as they were told, thank God. Otherwise it would have been much worse. The poor people who took shelter under the overpass experienced the then relatively unknown danger of accelerated winds. They were doing the best they could at the moment. Several tried but didn't make it to the overpass though it was reported they ran for it only to be engulfed by the enormous storm.
One of the most amazing things I heard was from a man who survived the in that location by hanging on to the guard rail which he described as like white knuckling the wing of a passenger jet in flight. This would have to be close to right. A 737 jet cruises at about 350 mph and we now know the wind under the overpass tends to be faster than in the storm itself. He had hung on through winds that were in excess of three hundred miles per hour.
One of the most amazing things I saw was a full sheet of plywood seamlessly driven into what appeared to be a concrete wall. I along with several other officers spent a good five minutes just trying to actually accept what we were really looking at. The impossible was hanging fifteen feet up in the air on the side of what was obviously a block building. It was as though it had been made that way.
Be Prepared, Have a Plan
I had never been asked about my account of this day, and had never really thought about sharing it, until I became friends with Rory Groves. I am please to make this contribution to his website. May 3rd 1999 was so impressive it still seems like last week, and it’s now past ten years ago.
When you hear a tornado warning, have a plan and act on it for you and your family as though your life depends on it, because it does. It's anybody’s guess as to the seriousness of the consequences if you do not.
It is easier to pay heed to warnings, and make intelligent decisions, while you still have time, than it is to recover from being caught off guard.
Fmr LE Officer Sam Cornette