Every spring, the University of Oklahoma Police Department sends out a mass email, at the top of which is this image:
The tiny white pixel in the middle of the dark-red splotch is where I live.
Before I came here, I’d never lived in a place where natural disasters were a real fear. My chunk of Georgia freezes every so often, when the winter’s particularly bad in the mountains, but never more than two days at a time; the hurricanes out of South Carolina sent us bad rain some summers, but they never even really pulled branches down. Cleveland got cold, but in a predictable way. Paderborn was just boring– people talked for days when the temperature got above 85 in the summer, the local radio stations spent all day broadcasting excited PSAs about avoiding heatstroke. Hurricanes were for the coast, floods were for the Ruhrgebiet, blizzards and avalanches were for Bavaria or Canada or wherever the hell; earthquakes were for California, volcanoes were for Iceland and Hawaii, and tornadoes just happened in the movies. Oklahoma is the exception to the rule; Oklahoma is the one place I have ever been where disasters live anywhere but the fringes of my mental geography.
This year, Moore, Oklahoma was leveled by a tornado. Moore is the suburb between my town and Oklahoma City; it is famous because Toby Keith lives there, and because it has been tornado-hit more than any other city in the country. I was in Paris when I heard about this year’s tornado– I got a text from a uni friend, also studying in Paderborn, telling me to check to make sure my family and friends were safe. The next morning, I came down for breakfast in our hostel and saw the movie theater where I saw The Avengers last spring, on the TV screen– a few letters had been blown off the sign. The hospital that had been next to it was gone. Just gone. “I live there,” I told the person next to me– “I live ten miles from that. I know that place.” I didn’t mean to claim the disaster– I just couldn’t fathom why no one else felt suddenly sick and terrified. Look, I wanted to say, That’s real. That’s happening now! The sky came down to earth to kill us and I could have been ten miles away!
This week, my ex-roommate drove me into Oklahoma City for lunch. We drove through Moore on the way there; as we turned a corner, my friend said, casually, “Check it out. This is where the tornado came down.”
I looked up from my phone– we were passing a little five-store strip mall, with identical metal facades in bright colors. Maybe they had been going for a southwestern-architecture kind of theme? I’m not entirely sure, because the facades were bent and twisted around themselves– the beams had been tied into knots and collapsed into precarious zigzags, leaning out over the parking lot and back over the rooftops, and sagging where supports had simply been torn away. People walked around under them. One or two of the stores might have been open for business. The traffic moved placidly past them.
It’s not what tornadoes take that makes them so frightening, I think. It’s that they never take everything. I saw great neon signs with only one or two letters missing on our drive through Moore; I saw houses with roofs ripped off like opened envelopes, chillingly clean corners under blue tarp waving in the wind. I saw a subdivision’s sign missing bricks from only one corner, and I saw the bricks in the grass ten feet away, trailing off in a straight line. I saw a square of lawn that contained nothing but the tattered frame of a house, with a jumble of water-damaged furniture and plaster dust piled up between the four posts that were all that was left of the walls, and dead wires clinging to old beams like jungle vines; I saw the houses on either side of it, untouched.
I can’t think of another kind of natural disaster that does this. Tsunami don’t wash around some houses and carry off others. Hurricanes drop rain without discriminating. In an earthquake, there’s no part of the ground that doesn’t leap. Blizzards and hailstorms and forest fires, they don’t leave trails – they don’t leave untouched pieces. Tornadoes do.
My old roommate’s father was driving me home from university once, in my freshman year. The clouds had started gathering while I waited on the steps of the honors building, and by the time we made it onto the freeway, the car was weaving under gusts of wind and the rain clattered against the windshield like stones. We were doing sixty when his twelve-year-old son called him; “Dad,” I heard him say, “When are you gonna be home? There’s a tornado warning.” My roommate’s father changed lanes, accelerated, said impatiently, “For God’s sake, Dylan. There’s always a tornado warning. Get in the closet with your mama if you’re worried and we’ll be home soon.” (The tornado didn’t touch the ground that night at all; tree branches were all that fell.)
In my sophomore year, a tornado hit my town, not Moore; it traveled straight down my street, took out traffic lights, left the road gravel-scattered for weeks. It left the ground a mile before it got to my apartment complex, but I spent the two hours it took to get there curled up in my bathtub (every apartment and house in Oklahoma has at least one windowless, interior room) with the television up as loud as it would go in the other room, to hear the reports about its path over the sirens. I remember putting my hands over the top of my spine and thinking, Maybe it will miss us. A cold front of fear and a warm front of hope.
Sometimes I wonder if the fact Oklahoma is called “the buckle on the Bible Belt” has something to do with the fact that most of its population spends a good five months of the year waiting for God to backhand them off the map. I wonder if living that close to your imminent destruction, year after year (because there is not a year without tornadoes) does something to a person– to their view on mortality, to the ability to believe in a being that is both infinitely powerful and infinitely merciful. There are no atheists in foxholes, they say, and I wonder how many there are in storm bunkers and bathtubs and hall closets– if it is less terrible to believe, curled up in the dark with the light coming in yellow-green under the crack in the door and the oncoming-train noise of the wind gaining volume outside, that there must be a reason that it isn’t coming for you. That there is Someone, somewhere, who is controlling when the funnel jumps. Which is less cruel to believe: That some infinite brain spends the off-season deliberating over what to take when the warm fronts come sweeping out of the mountains again? Or that we are collateral damage in a war between winds? Is it easier when it’s senseless, or when it isn’t?
“Don’t worry,” our cheerful blonde tour guide assured my freshman group, the summer before I moved to Oklahoma. “No tornado has ever hit campus!” She sounded so confident; a hundred and ten years’ track record, that must mean something, right? It’s like playing Risk with my dad, and rolling five sixes in a row– “Come on,” he groans, “What are the odds–?!” and it makes him happy to be angry, so he forgets that every roll of the die is an independent event, not in any way related to the roll that came before it. Four sixes in a row do not make the odds of a fifth six any worse than 1/6. Tornadoes don’t carry road maps, and they don’t know where campus begins and ends. “Well, of course Norman’s never hit,” is how the joke begins– “I mean, Moore’s right there, right?”
There aren’t a lot of skyscrapers in Oklahoma City, or a lot of buildings over ten floors in Norman or Moore. They seem kind of embarrassing, somehow– no matter how big they are, they’re too small under the sky here. No matter how much space they take up, the clouds in silhouette swallow them. They’re visible from miles away, and from that distance they just look tiny. There’s no point. Babel would never have been conceived of in Oklahoma. Who the hell wants to build a tower to Heaven itself? You spend your life squinting into the heavens, waiting for the light to turn that sick, unnatural yellow and the clouds to sprout tumors and the wind to turn into a solid wall– and when it happens, you duck under the ground and clasp your hands over the top of your spine and try not to think about how little weight it would take to crush you, how inadequate a shield ten fingers are against the force of a god’s arbitrary fury. You don’t go seeking Heaven in Oklahoma– because the prospect’s just not as appealing when you’ve ended every summer of your life thankful that Heaven never found you.
Two years ago, I attended the university’s TED conference. A stormchaser was there, from the National Weather Center (which is on my campus), to talk about the tank-like red vehicle (“The Dominator”) which he is paid to drive into tornadoes. “It’s a great job,” was how he concluded his talk. “I don’t know, I guess you have to be a little crazy to do it. Anyway– see you guys next year.” He laughed. “…Or not.”