As my young family huddled behind a sofa in front of a large plate glass window in our southwest Norman home, we all looked out to the south to see if we could catch a glimpse of a tornado that was headed our way.
We had a box of crackers, the babies had bottles and Dad had his pipe and the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera.
It wasn’t the safest situation more than 60 years ago but, like most homes in Norman, there was no basement.
The theory has always been Norman is somehow protected from twisters. The Canadian River was supposed to divert storms as they passed our way. Native American spirits supposedly helped too.
History says otherwise.
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This week in 1893 was particularly deadly.
A tornado ripped across the area of what is now 48th Avenue NW and Franklin Road and killed 12 members of the Catholic farming community. All were members of the new St. Patrick’s Church in Norman (that church later became St. Joseph and St. Patrick, and now just St. Joseph’s).
The same storm had taken other lives before moving eastward across the Canadian River. Historian John Womack, writing in “Norman, An Early History,” reports many of the victims were related. Eight members of the O’Connor family, three members of the Monroney family and one Rooney family member were killed.
With no Catholic cemetery in Norman at the time, the bodies were transported by wagon to Purcell for burial. The only survivor of the O’Connor family, George, later attended Notre Dame, and became Norman’s first ordained Catholic priest.
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In late April 1949, three people were killed and dozens of others were injured when a tornado ripped through the University of Oklahoma’s north campus and the Max Westheimer Airport. At least 50 members of the Oklahoma National Guard were on the firing range near Mount Williams when the storm struck.
Buildings, planes and equipment were smashed. OU officials at the time estimated damage to be near $1 million. Many of the temporary buildings damaged were part of the Naval Air Station, which had closed a few years earlier.
The fleet of seven airplanes assigned to the OU flying service was destroyed.
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Fast forward to Norman’s modern era. Since April of 1964, the National Weather Service has recorded 15 tornadoes in Norman. Some are F0 in size and others, like the ones in 2010 and 2013, were recorded as EF4. All but one have come in April, May and June.
The loss of life and property destruction for the Norman storms pale in comparison to the May 20, 2013 storm in Moore. It was Moore’s third major storm, including one in 2003 and the May 3, 1999 twister that killed 43 in Moore and throughout the state.
Driving through the damaged area in 2013 with Sheriff Joe Lester was an eye opener for me. That EF5 took 24 lives, seven of them schoolchildren at Plaza Towers Elementary School.
Two other lives were lost a day earlier in tornadoes on the eastern edge of the metro area. Eleven days later, the wildest tornado on record would rip through the western side of the metro area, killing eight, including three storm chasers.
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In 2013, the devastation in Moore was widespread. More than 12,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and an estimated $2 billion in property damage was done. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to slab foundations. An estimated 33,000 people were impacted by the storm.
My most enduring memory of covering those storms will be the willingness of Oklahomans to pitch in and help strangers. OU opened its housing to storm victims, Journey Church opened its doors and fed anyone. Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith and Garth Brooks held benefit concerts.
Driving over the 19th Street Bridge one morning, two days after the twister, my vehicle was blocked by an army of teenagers with gloves, rakes and trash bags. They were helping with the cleanup. School was called off, so they showed up to help. It gave me hope for the future.