Whenever Oklahoma makes the news, my first thought is always, “this can’t be good.” As a native Oklahoman and a life-long student of Okie culture, I am qualified to make that judgment — and I am usually right.
Not long after moving to Seattle in the fall of 1994, I was lying in bed one morning when NPR broke into normal programming to say a bomb had been reported in downtown Oklahoma City. Details were to follow, but I knew it had to be worse than the very clinical news intrusion indicated.
And so it was Monday morning when someone asked if I had seen the news out of Oklahoma. I knew instantly the news could not be good. It wasn’t.
Through cable television, online news, phone calls and Facebook reports I have followed this week's terrible tornado news out of Oklahoma closely. The facts are mostly known at this point: On Monday morning (May 20th) an F5 tornado with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour hit Moore, Oklahoma, killing at least 24 people, including 10 children, and injuring some 353 others.
Though geographically distant, the connection between Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest is deeper than you might think. Dust Bowl refugees settled the agricultural Yakima Valley in the 1930s. In the 1970s, linebacker Brian Bosworth made a colorful splash as the Sooner turned Seahawk. In the early 1980s, Seafirst Bank was nearly seized by the federal government due to its losses stemming from investments in the energy debt of Oklahoma City’s Penn Square Bank. Most recently, Oklahoma energy tycoon Clay Bennett played the villain by taking the Sonics to Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma is what country singer Jason Aldean croons about as one of “those flyover states.” Who’d want to live down there, in the middle of nowhere?
I spent part of my 5th grade year in Moore at Kelly Elementary, just three miles from the Plaza Towers Elementary School where a number of students died this week. A few years later, my family moved to Wichita Falls, TX, where on April 10, 1979 one of the worst tornadoes in U.S, history cut an eerily similar swath through town. After the storm cleared, we all strapped on Red Cross volunteer arm-bands and began helping the victims.
“I don’t remember tornadoes as big as this one when I was growing up,” said Vivek Varma, an Okie and executive vice president at Starbucks here in Seattle. “I do recall how terrifying it was. I’ll always remember pitching a Little League game in Chickasha [Okla.] and seeing a funnel cloud appear high in the sky. We hightailed it back to the house. Over the years Chickasha skirted disasters like this for some reason. Moore always seems to get pummeled."
“Oklahoma City has been tested many times with natural and man-made disasters,” said Jay Porter, another Oklahoman who works as an executive at Seattle’s Edelman Public Relations. “Whatever opinions people here might have, I don’t think there’s any way in the world Seattle is as well prepared for a major disaster as Oklahoma City is. Here’s hoping we don’t get a chance to find out.”
On Sunday President Obama visits Oklahoma, a politically conservative state where just under one-third of the ballots went his way last fall. Obama carried more than 55 percent of Washington State. On Monday night, after the storm passed, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin went on national television to thank the churches, nonprofits and neighboring governors who were lending support. Only after a long list of thank yous did she finally get say, “I even received a call from President Obama.”
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R) voted against Hurricane Sandy relief, and has adamantly rejected the idea that a new tornado relief package is necessary. He said the funds are already available.
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