by Bruce Rodgers
A couple of hours into my drive down Highway 169, I ejected the jazz CD and turned on the radio. A wall of black clouds ahead of me prompted the decision. I was heading south into the northwest corner of Oklahoma, going to Dewey, a small town about ten miles over the state line from Kansas.
For another 20 minutes or so I periodically heard the announcer on KRPS, a pubic radio station out of Pittsburg, KS, list the counties and towns in southeast Kansas, northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri under a tornado watch or soon to experience severe thunderstorms. I didn’t need her voice to give me worry. The black clouds spoke volumes of potential dread. Still, I headed on, rain here and there hitting my windshield, depending upon which cloud I was driving under, and seemingly teasing me on under the pretext there was nothing more destructive than a rain-soaked highway be concerned about.
It was when the announcer listed “south Coffeyville and the area around Copan” as being under a tornado warning that I reached to turn up the volume on the radio. “If you are in a vehicle or in a mobile home take cover now,” she repeated again and again.
I planned on going through Coffeyville to get to Dewey, following Highway 166 west from the south of town for about 15 miles to intersect Highway 75 then to turn south through Caney, KS and on to Oklahoma. It was two-lane most of the way until the Oklahoma line. With the announcer’s warning, I decided to stop in Coffeyville on the north side of town, maybe get some coffee. I was about ten miles away. It was dark; turning on the headlights gave little comfort.
Not far from the bridge over the Verdigris River that leads into Coffeyville, the KRPS announcer said, “All of Coffeyville is now under a tornado warning. If you are in a vehicle or mobile home, take cover now.”
It was time, I told myself. Find a motel.
When I pulled into the entrance drive in front of the Best Western, the sirens were going off. No one was at the front desk. I stepped further into the lobby and heard a woman’s voice. “Everyone go to their bathroom or come to the business center,” she said as she walked the hallways. She was young, barely 25 or so, holding a cell phone in front of her, checking the screen after each announcement. She was trying her best to give a measure of reassurance.
When she saw me, she repeated the instructions while pointing to a small room off the lobby. Instead, I went to nearest men’s room and called home. I told my roommate the situation, figuring someone who knew me needed to know where I was at in case … She seemed surprised — “It’s sunny here,” she said.
“It’s not here,” I answered, my voice a little higher than normal. She bid me safe going and asked that I call later, which I would do.
When I came out of the bathroom, the nervous motel clerk was directing a small group of people into the business center. I joined them. There were eight of us, counting me. I leaned up against the wall. To one side was a black woman with a boy about 10. She looked bored. The boy was smiling broadly, caught up in the excitement of the evening. On the other side was a black man, presumably her companion. He was intently watching the screen on his cell phone, tracking the storm. “We’re right in the middle of it,” he announced. Standing next to him was a young black man, maybe college age. He was the size of a large refrigerator, football player for sure. He seemed unconcerned about the situation.
In front of me was an elderly white couple. Standing next to the older man was another white man, I would guess in his 40s. The older man began to talk with the other man. Both began recalling their experiences with tornadoes, or the threat of them. No one else in the group joined in.
At one point the motel clerk poked her head in the door and asked for room numbers from the group. When she got to me, I answered, “Driveway.” A few smiles broke out and the black woman asked, “You haven’t even checked in?”
I told them how the KRPS announcements convinced me it was time to pull over. That reignited the conversation about tornadoes between the two white men, him from Hutchinson and the couple from Augusta, KS.
“Are there railroad tracks behind the motel?” the younger man asked.
No one knew. “I hear they sound like a train,” he continued.
“Oh no,” said the older man. “Fifty times worse. No whistles, no clicky-clack. Just something you never heard before.”
Soon after his remark, the lights when out and the motel’s emergency lighting kicked in. The men stopped talking. The only light in the room came from the hallway through a small window. It was getting stuffy and the noise from outside got louder.
“Sounds like rain,” I said.
“That’s not rain; it’s hail,” said the younger white man.
We remained in that room in silence for another 15 minutes or so. The outside sounds died down. The motel clerk announced that the tornado warning was over but the power was still out. We filed out the room. I had to decide whether I would stay there or find a motel on the south side of town. I decided to go.
I stepped outside. The overhang attached to the motel entrance had protected my car from the hail. The sky had lightened but it was still raining though the wind had died down. As I looked across 169, I remembered the area had flooded in July 2007. Whole blocks filled with houses had been hit by rising waters from the Verdigris River. Except for some commercial buildings along the highway, including the motel the clerk had said, not much had been rebuilt. Streets led to empty lots and concrete steps marked where a house had once stood. I studied the highway as the rain fell then got into my car to head to the south of town.
Intersections had started to flood. I drove an older Prius. The car’s chassis hung low. At each flooded intersection I made a calculated guess. Just before the intersection where 169 turned south to Bartlesville, I pulled over. The water looked deep. As I stared at the running water, a Coffeyville police car pulled up to block the intersection, its lights blinking red across the water. I sat there, not really knowing how to get around the water. Then a white pickup turned in front of me, driving up a side street. I followed. Other cars followed me. In two left turns I was at the 169 and Highway 166 intersection. The traffic light was out and I looked around, it seemed the power was out across the town. I decided to drive to Bartlesville down 169.
A few miles up the road, I hit another flooded spot. I drove into it and felt the car momentarily hesitate but I got through it. As I reached the outskirts of town, I wondered how many more low spots there were along 169. If I got too far outside of town my chances of someone helping me if I stalled in high water could lessen, plus there were those big rigs on a two-lane highway. The water wasn’t stopping them. I turned around and headed back to Coffeyville. My own indecision was making me anxious.
At the spot where the Prius had hesitated, I stopped the car and watched the water flow across the road. A pickup came up behind me and honked. I pulled into the water straddling the yellow centerline figuring the road was highest there. The Prius hesitated again but got through. The power had returned to Coffeyville as I got back to the 169/166 intersection.
Angry with myself that I had become fearful due to the weather, I decided to drive all the way to Dewey. The macho in me began to rule. I headed west on 166. The rain and wind got more intense. Just before the road slapped back into a two-laner, I turned around. It was back to Coffeyville. No point in being stupid.
I found another motel. The lobby was packed with travelers. In my room all the Oklahoma TV channels tracked the various storms and tornadoes across the state, each weather expert striking a serious tone. People were going to die again in Oklahoma because of the weather.
A few days later, the media announced 14 dead due to the storms on that Friday night. Six persons were missing. Twenty-four had died in Moore a few weeks earlier.
I spent less than an hour with those people in that cramped room at the Best Western waiting for the tornado warning to be lifted. I hope they all made it home safe.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.