Oklahoma May 23rd, 2013
When I wrote and scheduled Tuesday’s post the tornadoes that gripped central Oklahoma on Monday afternoon had not yet hit. We had no idea what was to come. When my post went live on Tuesday morning and I gave it one final proofreading it felt inappropriate to be discussing such things as happiness when so many in my home state were completely devastated. But the post was already written and at that point I wasn’t really able to process the magnitude of the catastrophe anyway. I let the post stand. And as I think about it now that a few days have passed all I can think is, “How lucky I am that I have the option to choose when I will fully process this catastrophe.” The people who would most like to turn a blind eye to it are exactly the ones who must face it head on.
As I have intermittently followed the coverage of the tornado aftermath I came across this post by Jennifer Rowe Walters in which she candidly admits that Oklahoma is not known for much – one Broadway musical, one bombing of a federal building, a couple of Senators who are currently eating crow, and – for the truly ignorant – the impression of oil rigs and teepees on every corner.* Having spent several years on the East coast Rowe Walters is all too familiar with the fact that people outside the region see her (my) home state as a collection of archetypes and disasters. She knowingly foretells that this tornado will likely be added to that list.
I suspect that the accuracy of her prediction will be uncanny. New Orleans is still known today predominantly for its post-Katrina existence, and it had a rich identity to begin with. Oklahoma, which to many people who live elsewhere is quintessential flyover country, will forever struggle to be known outside of the region for more than the major moments (largely negative) which have periodically brought it to the forefront of the national conversation.** The thing is, though, that Oklahoma does in fact have a culture all its own. It is a culture that doesn’t really fit me as a person anymore, but there is a culture there. And it is a culture that is valued and treasured by the people who live there.
Unfortunately, tornadoes are a big part of that culture. Rowe Walters comments that there are no better armchair meteorologists in the world than in Oklahoma, and she’s right. I know a wall cloud when I see one, and what does and does not classify as green and when talking about the color of a storm front. She recalls, as I can, hunkering down in interior school hallways with our hands folded behind our heads during tornado drills. I recall, as I’m sure she can, hearing sirens blare at noon on sunny Saturdays as the tornado alert system was tested. I was carried to our basement in the middle of the night dozens of times as a little girl. And somehow I’ve never truly been impacted by a tornado.
Perhaps this is why I’m having such a hard time coming face to face with the aftermath of this storm. (Given the level of devastation it seems somehow dismissive that tornadoes aren’t named as hurricanes are.) I have some guilt about it. I have an incredible amount of gratitude – no one I know personally was impacted (although one more degree of separation changes that). But I left Oklahoma more than a dozen years ago and in moments like this I feel a bit like a defector.
Absent the ability to go down and reconstruct buildings with my bare hands, I am doing what I can. I changed my Facebook profile pic to the image above (largely irrelevant). And I will make a donation to charitable organizations who are supporting the disaster relief (much more meaningful). And if you have the means I would encourage you to do the same. The following organizations (among others) are all taking donations:
Most of the time I have mixed emotions about my home state. But right now I feel nothing but sadness and sympathy for it.
*When I was a little girl my father once hosted a business client from the East coast. While in Oklahoma he wanted to see two things, an Indian (his term…) and an oil rig. Lovely.
**It’s too bad the Thunder are out of the NBA playoffs. A national title, while trivial in the grand scheme of things, might do a lot to lift spirits.