Stormchaser: A Tulsa Memoir Part 1

Between the early spring and a few severe storms lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot about and missing my home state of Oklahoma. We’ve been watching Stormchasers with the girls, one of the few shows they’ll watch that we all enjoy – and I mostly enjoy it for the scenery. I’ve been calling it “Norman Porn” because one of the chasing teams is based out of Norman OK, where we attended college. It’s weird how the wide, wild skies, that red dirt, and the scrubby grass in highway ditches gets me feeling all nostalgic.

Oklahoma: Land of Perpetual Road Work

There was a time in my life when I’d have recoiled in horror at a description of the Sooner state as my home or a place I’d consider myself “from,” but since moving to Iowa eight years ago, that’s how I’ve ended up responding to any question about my origins. I wasn’t born in Oklahoma, and I lived in several Midwestern states before we moved to Tulsa, a large city in the northwestern corner of the state, when I was 11 years old. I never loved it; I never felt like I belonged there. I moved away from Oklahoma when I was 23, just months after getting married, in August 2004. What is home, anyway? When I’ve lived less than 12 years in any given state in my short life, is it where I was born? Where my family originated? Where I became myself? I don’t know. But Oklahoma became a part of me.

Oklahoma has two seasons: brown and tornado. Christmas in Tulsa isn’t remotely close to a wonderland of any kind. If it snows more than about ½ inch, the entire city shuts down and cars carom through the streets in utter panic. Sure, it gets cold, and ice storms can and do wreak occasional havoc on homes and lives. My sister and brother-in-law once had to camp out and take showers at a friend’s house for weeks while waiting for their electricity to be restored after an ice storm. But it’s kind of hard to get into the Christmas spirit when the average high temperature is nearly 50 degrees. Oklahoma weather tends to vacillate wildly from one extreme to another: one January day it can be nearly 60 degrees, the next 20, then a week of mid-40s, then the cycle starts all over again.

Merry Christmas from Tulsa!!

In the Midwest (and please don’t get into a debate with me about whether or not Tulsa is in the south or the Midwest. It’s the south. Deal.), you measure life by seasonal touchstones. Birthday: autumn, brisk, crunchy leaves, apple orchards, hay mazes. Christmas: cold, snowy, dark, crèche in the town square, cocoa, ice scrapers, mittens. Easter: thaw, chilly, wet, egg hunts in dresses and parkas, open windows, crossed fingers. Anniversary: summer, warm, sunny, beach, farmer’s market, asparagus, splash pad.

In Oklahoma, you lose those touchstones. Everything sort of runs together in “coldish and brown” or “greenish and fucking hot” with no transition. Leaves go from green straight to dead: sometime in late October a switch flips. Similarly, it feels springish about half the time in February (the other half it’s just nasty) and by April the sirens are being tested and you’re making sure the batteries in your weather radio are still working.

Severe weather terrified me: things could turn on a dime and a day could go from bright and pleasant to a boiling green sky and fearing for your life. Live in Oklahoma long enough and you become resistant to weather scares, even though every other night from mid-April to late September, So You Think You Can Dance is pre-empted so Gary England can make sure you don’t die. My husband’s first instinct is still to walk outside and take a look when a siren goes off: he’s a millionth generation Oklahoman. My instinct is to carry everyone and everything we love into the basement and hide under a mattress for four hours. (OK: experience has mitigated that somewhat, but I’m still edgy until things clear up.)

This tornado touched down in Oklahoma less than a week ago.

To illustrate the difference between the corner of tornado alley where we currently live and the heart of tornado alley in Oklahoma, all you have to do is compare the weather reports.

In Oklahoma, if there is severe weather, you have information down to the street number about that storm’s location. All colors of the rainbow will alert you to the temperature, precipitation, lightning strikes, wind speed and direction of this particular storm system. A squadron of pro storm chasers fan out over the area to provide up-to-the-second info on hail location and size, damage, what the cows are doing, etc etc. An extremely serious and kind white man will offer you calm and reassuring information so you know exactly how likely it is that your trailer park will be obliterated. He will let you know that there is a tornado on Main Street in Purcell moving northeast (which is the direction all the tornados go in Oklahoma: they all follow the path of I-44) at fifty miles per hour: this storm is wrapped in rain so it’s very difficult to see and if you’re in that immediate area, take cover now in a central room of your house with no windows (amusingly, Oklahoma houses do not have basements, they have all been “built on the slab”). The night before Brian graduated from college, a huge storm system moved through the Oklahoma City area and the TV station was hit by a tornado. They evacuated quietly while the storm visibly shook the building (on camera!), and then returned immediately to work when it had passed. Oklahoma weather is serious and smart.

In Iowa, there’s just one color on your TV screen: scary red, and it’s spread over a huge area on the map because they aren’t exactly sure what county the tornado is in? Probably, like, southern Linn county, which is only 100 miles or so wide, so if you’re there, maybe you should hide? We’re just going to set off all the sirens, just in case. My cousin Fred called from his Ford Focus and he says that there’s some dark clouds in the general Marion area? So if you’re there, look out for those… clouds?

Last night, our county had a wind advisory. No storm watches or warnings, but the description of the weather said something like, “There might be some strong storms, and a tornado could possibly form.” Well, which the fuck is it? If there’s a possibility, why don’t you put us under a watch? If there’s not a possibility, please don’t use the T word! I am sort of grateful that I live in a place where tornadoes are rare enough that they don’t warrant an investment in technology or serious training, just like snow is rare enough in Tulsa that it doesn’t warrant investment in plows. But the confusion of bad meteorology is just as unnecessarily chaotic and potentially destructive as unplowed streets. People overreact; people underreact.

I was so relieved to escape scary spring weather when we moved to Iowa, but two years after moving here, a storm struck the heart of our college town, passing less than a mile from our apartment building. Ironically, after years in the center of tornado alley, that was the closest I’d ever come to actually being struck by a tornado. We crouched in the laundry room with our cats in carriers and the sirens going off over and over and over again. I hated the shitty meteorology that night: the uncertainty, the messiness of it, the fact that no one took it seriously so a bunch of fools were just wandering around downtown right beneath the storm, and then thousands of students flocked to streets filled with debris and downed power lines because it was just exciting (Idiots Out Wandering Around, fulfilled). No one respected the weather, because they didn’t have to.

Iowa had always felt like a huge upgrade from Oklahoma: everyone around us generally applauded the fact that we’d finally made it, that we got out. But that experience was the beginning of the end of our honeymoon with Iowa. Iowa is great, don’t get me wrong, but it ain’t perfect. No place is. So, what makes a home? Why are we here? Is this it, for life? In a series of upcoming  posts, I will talk about growing up in Oklahoma, my amusing juvenile romanticizing of the Midwest, what it was like to get here, and why we might leave.

m4s0n501

9 Responses to Stormchaser: A Tulsa Memoir Part 1

  1. Ha! This brought me right back to my sleepless nights in the shack, wondering if my tiny dwelling was about to be obliterated.

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  3. I live in the middle of Saskatchewan – we get maybe 1 tornado a year… maybe… but every time it stormed (or, you know, got a little windy…) my Dad would order me into the basement to hide under the stairs or the bathtub. And I wonder why I’m a little over-paranoid…

  4. It’s hard to know when to make that call when it’s such a rare occurrence and you don’t have good information. This is why I miss really good meteorology! So far, we have only had to take our kids in the basement once, and I think it was just new mama overreaction (my daughter was weeks old at the time).

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  9. Ahh, a fellow Oklawoman. You’re the first one I found and I must say it’s quite a relief not to be all alone. I was born and raised here, but I’ve always hated it. Compared to everything else, I hate the storms the least.