Ryan Scott Ottney
PDT Staff Writer
Tim Lawrence has been out of town visiting family. As he packed up his vehicle Thursday to come back home to Portsmouth, he looked around one last time. The town sure didn’t look the same as it did when he arrived, and Lawrence said he will never forget the days he spent this week in Oklahoma City.
Lawrence headed out to Oklahoma to help his brother remodel a house for his niece. On Monday, Lawrence was watching the news at his brother’s house when the first tornado siren sounded. The house has no basement, he said, so when his brother and his brother’s wife returned home from work, they decided to drive to the storm cellar at their father’s house.
The second siren screamed as they made the harrowing drive to their father’s house, racing through the street with the tornado right in front of them.
“We were heading straight for the tornado and we made it just in time to get into his storm cellar,” Lawrence said.
Not everyone in the house went to the cellar, he said. His father decided to stay inside the house, seeking safety in the bathtub.
“He said ‘If it gets me, it gets me’,” Lawrence said. “My brother tried to coax dad out of the bathroom, but it wasn’t going to happen so he came and he started lowering the cellar. He took one last look and the tornado was two houses away.”
The three of them sat on a couch in the cellar waiting for the storm to pass. This was the second tornado in two days, he said. The first one, on Sunday, missed them by only a half-hour. When this one hit on Monday, it was much larger than the first and it landed right on top of them. Lawrence said the sound of the tornado as it passed above was like five freight trains tearing through the house.
All the while, he knew his father was still up there and he was alone.
“There was an air pressure thing, like being on an airplane. We had to open our mouths to equalize the pressure,” Lawrence said. “When we were sure it was gone, we lifted the door and found out it was blocked by a tree that had fallen onto it. We found a humidifier at the bottom of the cellar and my brother put his all to it and held the door open enough for me to get the humidifier wedged in the door to hold it open so we could crawl out.”
Houses all up and down the street and on either side of his father’s house, were completely destroyed. He said it looked like a war zone, cars were tossed into trees and those trees were stripped of their bark. Miraculously, his father’s house only lost part of its roof.
“We crawled out into broken glass, and dad didn’t even have a scratch on him,” he said.
Neighbors were walking up and down the street helping each other, he said, stepping over downed power lines and utility polls. He could hear gunshots echoing nearby, as neighbors mercifully killed their severely wounded pets. He walked up 19th Street and saw the crumbled remains of Briarwood Elementary School.
“My brother said, ‘Let’s go see if I still have a house,’ and he did. But on the other end of his street, there are some people that don’t have house anymore,” Lawrence said.
Back home, in Portsmouth, his wife Kay could only watch the news helplessly from a thousand miles away and hope that her husband and family was safe. When she was finally able to reach him on his cell phone, she said she didn’t have much to say.
“I mostly just let him talk. He was pretty upset,” she said. “I was very relieved that everybody was OK.”
The storm killed 24 people — including nine children — and damages are estimated to reach $2 billion. Emergency centers have been set up throughout the community in Oklahoma, and utility companies were working quickly to restore power as Lawrence packed up the car Thursday and began the 20-hour drive back to Portsmouth. His father has decided not to rebuild his damaged house, and will be staying with his brother for a while.
The house he went there to remodel, he said, suffered only minor damages.
Ryan Scott Ottney may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 287, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Ryan on Twitter @PDTwriter.