This article from Sgt Tim can be found in its original context on his new website: The Freeman’s Watch
As with every anniversary of the deadly events of September 11, 2001, we will likely be inundated this week with a plethora of articles on the heroes from that day and those that gave their lives that others might live. Though we, as a nation, will never forget the events of that day and the impact it had on our nation, we need look no further than the disaster that struck recently in South Texas, and the events now unfolding throughout Florida and the Southeast to understand that it is a remarkable part of the American spirit to face adversity with a steadfast courage and open heart for those in need. Though I write this article on this, the 16th anniversary of that day in 2001, I am not going to write about those events, the controversy surrounding it, or even about the events of the most recent natural disasters in our country. I prefer to write about my own experience, and those of my family, to illustrate the point that I will make at the conclusion of this article.
I have never been in a hurricane, and I have only been through very mild tremors in the way of earthquakes. However, I have seen my fair share of wildfires that spread through the woods of southeastern Oklahoma, where I grew up, and if you talk about Oklahoma and natural disasters, you have to talk about tornadoes. I have seen a few twisters in my day, as well.
Before I get into the meat of this story, I want to talk a little about someone that from my first breaths in this world was like Superman to me. I lost him in October 2014, but my dad was a very special person in my life, and he instilled in me the values that I carry with me to this day. He believed in working hard and in helping your fellow man. And those two values of his are on display in the first story that I will tell in this article.
My dad was HAM radio operator, and even in my earliest memories I can recall falling asleep to the “dit-dit-dot-dot-dit-dit” of him using Morse code to communicate with people all over the world. He erected a tower that stood taller than our one-story house to boost his signal, and he kept a map on the wall of the third bedroom of our home, which we called his “radio room”, with pins showing all the people and places he had talked to. He spoke with a Soviet military unit in Kamchatka, the Queen Mary cruise ship, and was part of a network of operators that used their radios to patch calls through from US military in South America back home, so that they could spend a few precious minutes on the phone with loved ones back before the internet and cell phones. I can still recall his call sign…WB5ULI. It’s funny how things like that stick with you, isn’t it?
He and other HAM operators in our small town were part of Civil Defense, what we had in this country before the centralization of those efforts under the FEMA umbrella. Now the most common threat to the community was the weather, and the bulk of their work with civil defense fell in preparation for severe storms and recovery following them. They put on storm-watching and preparation courses (I actually became a certified storm-watcher at the age of 7 from being present at those courses, and while I can’t verify it, my dad always told me I was the youngest certified storm-watcher in the state) and would eventually get local businessmen to contribute to the installation of a new tornado alert siren for the town. Any time there was severe weather in the area, those 3 men would deploy around our town, no matter the time of day or night, and monitor the skies for rotation in the clouds that would signify the development of a tornado. You have to remember this was before the days of Doppler radar being deployed around the country, and storm-watchers were the best thing available, especially in rural Oklahoma. I remember many nights sitting in the truck with my dad, our eyes peeled skyward, watching as the weather raged around us…and more than a few times falling asleep in that truck cab as he kept watch.
And that brings us to the first story I want to tell you. It was April 1982. Go and look it up after you finish this article. It was one of the deadliest months for tornadoes in recorded American history. I have been through some storms growing up in Oklahoma, but I can’t recall one as bad as the one that moved through that week.
I went to elementary school in one of the newer schools in my hometown. It was “L” shaped, and right in the corner of the building we had one of those pre-fabricated, corrugated steel buildings on a concrete foundation that served as the reading lab. On April 2, 1982, the morning of what would become a very long day, it was darker than night, if that is even possible. It seemed the darkness of the storm raging outside seemed to absorb even the light within our classrooms. We weren’t having class…the teachers and principal were stationed at the doors watching the weather. I was watching out the classroom window – actually watching trash cans flying through the air – not rolling down the street – they were flying through the air! The reading lab was right out the window. And that’s when it happened. That entire pre-fab building just came right off the foundation and flew up as high as the building, crashing down in the middle of the school yard. There were kids inside, and while none of them were hurt, the shock on their faces as they went from a dry inside to suddenly being in that violent storm was something to remember. I can’t help but chuckle about it now, thinking back, but at the time, it scared me half to death.
Moments later, my mom was at the school, picking me up due to the severe weather. We went straight from there, through quickly flooding roads to my dad’s work. He was a route salesman for Pepsi at the time, driving an old International Harvester panel truck along rural routes throughout SE Oklahoma, delivering Pepsi. He was back early from his route due to many of the old roads he went down in that Pepsi truck being flooded out. He had already been in contact with local authorities and was headed out to storm watch as soon as he finished the paperwork.
When we got there, he sent my mom out for batteries for his walkie-talkie. Thinking back, I can remember the look on my mom’s face – he didn’t need the walkie-talkie unless he thought he was going to be out of his truck, which had a base radio in it. I didn’t realize that at the time. I stayed with him, as he thought she would be back before he would leave. But as we waited on her to get back, he got the call – a tornado on the ground north of town. He told me to jump in the truck and we drove as fast as that old Chevy would go (Though everyone knew everyone in my hometown, and so any police would have recognized who he was and why he was driving like he was, he had slapped the magnetic “CD” sign on the side of his truck to make sure they knew why).
If you look up the tornado that hit that day that was on the ground from Speer, Oklahoma, through Broken Bow, and on into Arkansas, it says that it is disputed whether or not it was an F5 tornado. There is no doubt in my mind, having seen it and its devastation with my own two eyes. We caught a glimpse of it as we were headed north out of town on old dirt roads (and they themselves were like mud holes). We would discover later that at that point it was more than a mile wide. I just remember the black cloud on the ground and every once in a while, seeing debris going up in the air.
We hit a dirt road than was going parallel to the path of the tornado. We were going as fast as we could, but barely keeping up with that monster as it tore across that Oklahoma farmland. After what seemed like forever, we hit the highway that ran north-south just outside of town. My dad fishtailed that old Chevy truck as we tore out, headed at the time directly into the path of the tornado. I remember looking at him, scared that we were going right at it, and without looking from the road, he said, “Messer is right in the path.” I knew immediately what he was saying.
Messer is still a small little community, just off of Hugo Lake, but back then, it was basically a bait shop (for those of you who don’t know the joys of a bait shop, it is convenience store with gas pumps – but also sells all manner of live bait – from nightcrawlers to minnows and the for sure crowd pleaser – stink bait! 😊 ) with about 5 houses across the highway from it.
As we got closer, there were downed trees and power lines. My dad weaved through them at first, but the closer we got, the harder it was to drive around. I remember getting my little 8-soon-to-be-9 self out of the truck and moving what downed branches I could out of the way, and when we couldn’t get around a tree, hooking a chain around the tree for my dad to pull it out of the way with his truck. He said the first goal was to clear a path for emergency vehicles.
We were the first on the ground in Messer after the tornado passed through. I remember my dad slowing to a stop and I was wondering why, and then seeing the houses on my side of the truck, flattened to the ground. As we pulled up, we could see a man out there, with a car jack, trying desperately to jack up one end of an A-frame on a house. It wasn’t until we got down there that we realized it was a man my dad knew well, a Vietnam veteran. My dad yelled for me to grab the truck jack and he ran over, grabbing it by hand and trying to lift. I don’t know that I had ever used a jack before that day, but somehow, I just threw it up under the frame and started cranking for everything I was worth. I didn’t notice until later, but I had pinched between my thumb and forefinger on the jack while setting it up, and I remember seeing the blood running down the jack, not knowing where it was coming from. We got the A-frame up, and a couple of people came crawling out – a little shaken, but otherwise fine. We ran to the next house.
Each house, it was the same – we got the roof up, and people came crawling out, alive and save for a few scratches, well. Once everyone was up and out, we ran across the highway and checked the store. The store owner had gotten into the cooler and was fine. It had taken the roof off of the store, but the natural stone-brick walls had held up. He told everyone to get over to the store and get whatever they wanted to eat and drink while my dad was radioing to get emergency crews out, and calling for people to bring trucks out to get these people to a dry shelter for the night.
Luckily, the path of that tornado really didn’t hit any populated areas. I think that day was the first time I experienced emotional exhaustion and shell-shock, though. I remember once all the excitement was over, walking over to the side of the bait shop. I saw a plastic drinking straw sticking out of the side of that brick wall. The wind had blown it hard enough it was stuck into a brick. I just looked at the straw for the longest time. And then I remember feeling my dad’s hand on my shoulder…” C’mon, Tim. We have to go. A tornado also hit Paris.” My heart sank.
My older brothers are twins. Aside from my dad, they were always my heroes growing up, too. They were six years older than me and were in junior high. They were always better athletes than me, and they were at a track meet that day – in Paris, Texas. Which brings me to the second story I want to tell you from that day…
This next story was relayed to me by my older brothers. Their coach for track that year was also their football coach. I never had him as a football coach, but we all called him “Coach” despite that fact. When I got into junior high, he was the vice principal and civics teacher. In addition to coaching and teaching, he was also a pastor at a local church. He lived to build young men out of the boys that were given into his care, and he believed in not just telling you how to live right, but living in a manner that would become symbolic of the right path.
My older brothers had him as their football coach throughout their time in junior high and up into high school. The first time I met him was when I was trying out for the 7th grade football team. I was always skinnier than my older brothers, who made up bookends on the defensive line as defensive ends. They actually played against Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman in high school. I would love to tell you that they got a sack on him, but of course he shredded the team from our tiny town.
At any rate, I remember going out on the field, running, doing some run-throughs and working out in front of the coaches. Since we were such a small town, if you came out, you pretty much made the team, which was probably lucky for me. As I said, I hadn’t yet reached 100lbs, I wasn’t very fast, I had not reached my height yet, so I was one of the shorter kids, and I really was only there because my mom had told me I would play. My parents had divorced the year before and I had withdrawn from all of my friends and stayed locked up in my room reading comic books, trying to escape what I felt like was the end of my world.
In order to find out if we made the team, we had to wait in the locker room and when the coach came in and called our name, we followed him up to the equipment room where (supposedly) they would either issue us our pads and jerseys or send us home. Being blessed with a name that begins with one of the last letters in the alphabet, I was in that locker room for a long time. And no one was coming back to let the others know their fate. When my name was finally called, I was the only kid still sitting in that locker room.
Now, I know Coach knew what was going on in my family. My older brothers were going into their junior year, and they had quit the team, going through their own struggles with the divorce and acting out through getting into trouble. Besides, it was a small town, and people talk. I walked up behind the first year coach and into that equipment room. There sat the two young men that would be our 7th grade coaches and Coach, sitting in the corner, arms folded. When I walked in, they all just looked at me for a long moment. I was nervous. I knew that if I went home and told my mom and brothers I hadn’t made the team, they would be disappointed in me. I was going through my head…what could I say that would convince them to give me another shot???
Coach, in his hoarse, gravelly voice, “What’s your last name, son?”
I said it with all the courage I could muster, expecting the worst.
Coach turned to the two young men, a grin on his face, “I want you two to watch this young man. I coached his older brothers, and you might not think so yet, but this young man has a ton of heart. Mark my words, this young man will light somebody up this year.”
I almost choked. They all laughed. They took their time fitting me with pads, giving me a strap for my glasses, and then telling me to go the other locker room and assigned me a locker. I don’t think I lived up to Coach’s praise that year, as I only came into the game from time to time as a safety and wide receiver to block on running downs. We went undefeated that season. I would eventually work my way into a starting role in high school, but it was that vote of confidence from that man that gave me the heart that I was lacking on the field that morning.
I have strayed from the story a bit. Back to Paris, Texas that April day in 1982. Despite the weather we were having on the other side of the Red River, weather in Paris was rainy, but was still decent enough to have parts of the track meet. But in the afternoon, the tornado sirens went off and they evacuated the field to the high school nearby and put the young athletes in the hall, heads between their knees. My older brothers said that they were at the end of the hall, with Coach standing right at the door. And that is when they saw it.
The tornado that hit Paris tore straight through the middle of town. It was an F4 and was headed directly for the school where my brothers had taken shelter. They said they could hear it coming, like a freight train with the occasional pop of power lines and homes. They could see it bearing down on them, heading right for them. Instead of seeking shelter himself, Coach stood at the door and yelled for the boys to pray with him. As the tornado got closer, his prayer got louder and louder. My brothers said that towards the end, Coach was screaming with all he had to be heard over the sound of the approaching tornado. And even as it was coming across the field where they had all been just moments before, the tornado suddenly turned. My older brothers became believers that day. As they say, they wouldn’t have believed it if they hadn’t seen it, but they saw Coach pray that tornado down.
Some will say that tornadoes are just unpredictable. And indeed, they are. But I have seen photographic evidence time and again, even going through the storm watcher training as a kid of Bibles and crosses, churches spared from the devastation. I believe that Coach prayed that tornado down that day. You can believe what you choose to about it. But I knew the man… and I knew his heart.
They wouldn’t return from Paris until late that evening. My parents and I met the bus just on the Oklahoma side of Red River and drove into town with them. We didn’t have power until the next day, but we had each other, and that was quite a lot after what we had been through that day.
From the time of those tornadoes, up until just before my parents divorced, my father and the other HAM radio operators that were part of Civil Defense got together with some of the area businessmen, and aside from the siren warning system I mentioned earlier, they also put together plans in case of nuclear war. Now, these days that might sound a little silly, but you have to remember that this was the 80s and though it wasn’t quite the 60s in terms of nuclear close-calls, tensions were still high. They pooled resources. Some money, others land, others heavy machinery and others – skills and knowledge.
It wasn’t until I was older that my dad fully disclosed the complete details of their plans. They buried several freight railroad cars in locations around the town. Buried fifty feet below the surface, with food, supplies, and other materials to be able to stay down there for 3 months. They stocked each one according to the people they had assigned to that particular shelter, and they planned each shelter not just by proximity to homes and work, but also by placing families together that had boys and girls of around the same age, that they might survive together and repopulate.
It might have been a bit of a grandiose plan and might not have ever worked. But they were trying with what they had. They knew that many of the government buildings in the center of town were designated fallout shelters. And those in Civil Defense worked with federal authorities annually to get those buildings certified. They knew the federal recommendations per person for supplies, and they built their plan around that.
I remember as a kid, my dad taking us “hunting” one morning and taking us to the spot that we were to go to in case the worst would happen. He showed us markings around the pasture where the car was buried, and how to look for the signs of where the entrance was hidden. He explained what we were to do every step of the way, in case we were all separated when the worst happened. I would forget about it until one night as a teenager…
I think like most teenagers, I got into a good bit of trouble growing up. There wasn’t much to do in my hometown, and so we drank underage and other things that we probably shouldn’t have been up to at that age. We liked to go out on dirt roads outside of town and party in open fields, where we would build a fire, sit around it and talk for hours under the star-filled sky. In some ways, yes, we shouldn’t have been up to many of the things we were up to, but I think we could have been much worse off than enjoying the beauty of those starry nights, no light of the city to block it out.
We were out in this pasture that night, and I had drunk a bit more than my fill. I went to relieve myself and as I stood there, looking around, it suddenly hit me where I was at. I hadn’t thought about it in years. I looked around to confirm what I was thinking…I called on the other guys to follow me. They thought I had lost it for sure. I told them to help me move a rock, and there it was – the steel door. They were bewildered. I pulled the door open, grabbed my buddy’s flashlight, and headed down the ladder. Then they knew I had lost it. Once I reached the bottom, I looked around, and everything was preserved just as well as when my dad and the others had stocked it. I told them to put out the fire and come down. We partied all night in that old railcar, and in the morning, replaced everything just the way it was.
Now, if you have made it this far with me, thanks. I hope that you found these stories of my family entertaining, even if you don’t understand how they are related (other than the two tornadoes being on the same day). But I am hoping that by illustrating my own personal experiences and the work that my dad and others did in Civil Defense in my hometown, I can better bring home my point to this article. And that point, is that despite some of the good that can be done through the behemoth organization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, perhaps a better way is decentralizing the power and giving it back to the communities themselves.
This is not in any way a condemnation of the great work that FEMA is doing even as I write this in south Texas or in Florida. By all accounts, the work they are doing is some of the best disaster response we have seen in this country. But rather, it is a call to take a look at a different approach that would put the bulk of the power back in the hands of the communities we live in and possibly scale down a centralized federal behemoth, saving the taxpayers money. I do still believe there is a place for FEMA, but to come to aid in cases of extreme disasters – like the ones we are seeing now – and not in the cases of minor disaster relief that could be dealt with by local communities.
Now, I know what the first question most of the people will ask, even if they agree with me – yes, but where will the funding come from? Many of our municipalities are already struggling to keep up with financial demands. I think by looking inward into our communities, we might find the answer.
Just as my dad and the others in Civil Defense turned to local businessmen in their community to help fund some of the projects they needed (though there were federal grants still to contribute to some of what they did, as well) we should look at the large businesses within our communities and tap that resource as a way of building a disaster relief infrastructure. We are talking about companies, both large and small, that are already invested in our communities through the workforce. By using federal and state tax relief and deductions, we could, for example, tell these companies that for every dollar they invest in building shelters, or designating warehouses as temporary shelters for community use, they could save a dollar of taxation. For every dollar they spend in supplying these shelters with the resources they would need based upon size and possible occupancy, they could save that dollar in taxes.
This would enable these industries to contribute and give back to the communities they reside in. In addition, there could be tax incentives for building shelters in areas outside of their communities, to help rural areas and the inner cities, that might not have companies in place that could fund this kind of construction. By spurring disaster preparedness construction, we not only save on funding and destruction in the future, but additional incentives could be put in place to use small, local construction companies for the building, which would spur more economic growth. More than just construction could be brought to bear, as most of the storm shelter retailers are small companies throughout tornado alley. The incentives could also expand to telecommunications companies for hardening our telecom infrastructure against EMP and solar flares. Virtually every business could get involved though designation of facilities as possible temporary shelters.
In addition, with so many people now witnessing the destruction of these hurricanes, it would be a prime time to add preparedness tax deductions for the individual and families to help offset the cost of getting prepared for disasters before they happen, and incentivize the culture of preparedness. You buy a one-month long term food supply for your family? Tax deduction. You install a storm shelter? Tax deduction. You upgrade your property to protect against flooding? Tax deduction. And yes, I know some of these are already deductible depending on the state you live in and under federal tax laws as home improvements, but why not expand that to preparedness so that when the worst happens, we have people better prepared to take care of themselves and their community instead of waiting on a federal agency to come to the rescue? Isn’t it time we take a pro-active response to disaster, instead of a reactive response?