Monday, May 14 2012
Surviving a Deadly Twister, Twice in 65 Years!
WOODWARD, Okla. — On April 9, 1947, Wilma Lake was alone in her apartment on Oak Avenue when a tornado swept through this rural town in the dark of night. She survived — crouching beneath a table — but many of her neighbors did not.
For Ms. Lake, then a 23-year-old office assistant, life went on: she would soon become Mrs. Nelson, marrying Eldon Nelson, who was known as Bud, and raise three children at 3412 Robin Drive. In graceful cursive, the brass knocker on the front door read: The Nelsons.
Early Sunday morning, shortly after midnight, Mrs. Nelson, now 87, was home alone again, on the city’s west side, in the house on Robin Drive, when an alert came over her weather radio warning of a tornado spotted a few miles outside town.
Barefoot and in her pajamas, she stood inside a small closet in the master bedroom, trying to get her son’s dog, a tan-and-white cocker spaniel named Sugar, in with her. Sugar refused, so Mrs. Nelson shut the door.
“It was so fast,” she said. “I hadn’t been in there anytime at all until it was like a bomb went off. I guess it was the roof blowing off.”
As happened 65 years ago, Mrs. Nelson survived, uninjured, even though a piece of wallboard fell on her head. And this time, six of her neighbors died, in the deadliest of a series of tornadoes that left a trail of destruction throughout the central Plains late Saturday and early Sunday.
The tornado that struck Woodward was nowhere near as powerful as the one in the 1947. But for the handful of men and women in this city of 15,000 who survived the earlier tornado, the devastation stirred painful memories.
The great tornado remains part of the lore and history of the place — the mural on The Woodward News building has a swirling twister painted on it — but no one thought anything like that would happen again.
On Monday afternoon, Mrs. Nelson went back to her house for the first time since the tornado struck, injuring more than two dozen people and demolishing 89 homes and 13 businesses as it cut a miles-long path through the city. Oklahoma officials raised the death toll to six from five. Three of the victims were identified on Tuesday as Frank Hobbie, 24, and his two daughters, Faith, 7, and Kelly, 4. Two others who died were Derrin Juul, 41, and his daughter Rose Marie, 10. A 63-year-old man also died in the Texas hospital to which he had been airlifted.
For the most part, 3412 Robin Drive exists in name only. The tornado rendered it a kind of half home: roofless, with caved-in white brick walls and shattered glass. The closet in which Mrs. Nelson took shelter now has the equivalent of a sunroof. The winds were so strong that a shard of a roof shingle pierced a plastic bottle of hand soap next to the closet and stuck there, like a dart.
Around the corner, a 10,000-square-foot store called Carpet Direct was ripped to shreds, with an upturned truck next to the wreckage.
As she surveyed the ruins of the home she shared with her late husband and the rest of her family for 47 years, Mrs. Nelson said she was not sure what it all means — surviving two of the worst nighttime tornadoes in Oklahoma history.
Mrs. Nelson, who turns 88 in July, stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 125 pounds, and her survival seemed to defy logic.
“I think the Lord must have left me here for a purpose,” she said, chuckling.
Relatives and neighbors — even the state insurance commissioner, John D. Doak — went to the house to greet Mrs. Nelson on Monday. As she sat in what remained of her living room, a friend arrived and gave her a hug.
“I’m going to make it,” Mrs. Nelson told her, tears in her eyes. “I’m a toughie. I told them at the hospital I was a tough old coot.”
Amid the destruction, the smallest things survived.
For 28 years, Mrs. Nelson kept a white bowl labeled “Grandma’s Goodies” on top of the refrigerator, with candies for her grandchildren and other children in the neighborhood. After the tornado, there it sat, without a crack in it. The front door remained intact, too, the door knocker unscarred.
Mrs. Nelson said only one thing went through her mind as the roof tore loose. “I was so worried about Sugar, and I just said, ‘Oh, God, take care of Sugar, take care of Sugar,’ ” she said.
After the tornado hit, one of her grandsons, Shane Semmel, 38, was the first relative to arrive at the house. Mrs. Nelson was in an ambulance parked outside. “She wasn’t worried about her house or anything else,” Mr. Semmel said. “She was worried about that dog.”
Mr. Semmel walked inside. Sugar was in the kitchen, covered in insulation. He knelt down and checked her. She was fine. She had survived.