By Roger Moore
As the weathermen in Oklahoma City argue about the date of the first tornado in 2019, I am reminded of a couple of storms that tore up Stillwater and how the first one I remember, in 1975, terrified me as an 8-year-old.
This may be true for many if you mention June 13, 1975, as most long-time residents will immediately recall a day when Mother Nature showed her prowess. They will also recall the chaos during and after the tornado rolled though parts of Stillwater. I remember it well.
Long before the massive Sherman Smith practice complex was built north of Boone Pickens Stadium, the area housed college students and a few small families. With Will Rogers Elementary on Eskridge a few blocks north and Consumer’s IGA at Boomer and Eskridge, the neighborhood provided a strange mix of residents.
Hester Street, in those days, connected Hall of Fame Avenue and McElroy and also allowed for southward travel on the west side of the football stadium. Getting to OSU’s spacious Student Union, from Hall of Fame, was easy. Although there was not a whole lot of chatter about where to go in case of a weather emergency, my clan’s plan was to head to the Student Union basement and maybe play a few video games or perhaps roll a bowling ball.
Late on that June afternoon, we stood at Hester and McElroy looking west at what looked like the Death Star rolling in or, to an 8-year-old, the end of the world. I had never been so scared. Probably best not to wait like we did, but we packed into the Ford Pinto and scrambled to the Student Union. It was not quite London during bombing raids in World War II, but there were a lot of folks hunkered down hoping the tornado would miss anything significant.
Oklahoma has obviously led the evolution of weather coverage. But in 1975 the current technology was not available. We had radios – remember them – and tornado sirens. Television was not quite at the addictive level it is now and, while the state’s three major networks would break into regular programming with warnings, it was not the live play-by-play we have in 2019.
On that June day, however, many were just getting home from work, perhaps sitting down to dinner when meteorologists announced that at just before 6:20 p.m., the National Weather Service reported a tornado on radar six miles northwest of town.
At 6:25 the sirens sounded. By 6:40 the Student Union was packed.
By 8 p.m., a shaken and dazed mass of people headed upstairs to assess the damage. Our Ford Pinto, like most of the cars in the immediate area, had lost its windows and suffered some hail damage. The homestead on Hester was untouched, but just a few blocks away, several people lost their homes, a reminder of the power and seemingly random nature of these thunderstorms. An estimated $3 million in damage was done in that storm and there were no reported fatalities.
Fifteen years later, in May of 1990, another scary tornado rolled through parts of Stillwater. This time I was lucky enough to be a month into basic training in Kentucky, but when you hear $20 million in damage and loss of life you know it is serious. Times have changed. Not that tornadoes are not as deadly, but available technology means more and more warning time every year. Not long ago, the wife, a small clowder of cats, and myself, grabbed our “tornado bag of important documents” and crammed into a “downstairs, centrally-located room, away from windows” like we’ve been indoctrinated to do since childhood in Oklahoma. It was not like 1975 or 1990, but you just never know in Tornado Alley.
The modern meteorologist has turned weather coverage into an event that rivals many live sporting events.
Announcements now go out a week in advance predicting “significant weather events” and when things heat up in the Texas panhandle, in southwest Kansas, or Colorado, the radar gets posted somewhere for all to see. Oklahomans know when extensive coverage is likely and some have even started treating these weather outbreaks like sports watch parties with drinking games, snacks, and wagers as they settle in for an afternoon and evening of “weather porn.”
I have mostly overcome my storm fears, but when they test the tornado sirens on pretty, clear Tuesdays, I still get goosebumps.