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The May 10 Tornado

Thursday, June 10, 2010

photo by Rich Thompson, meteorologist and stormchaser,

My friend Debby has lived with her husband Mike Kaspari, a renowned expert on ants (dude hangs with E.O. Wilson!) near Norman, Oklahoma for 15 years. Mike teaches at the University of Oklahoma, and Debby works from a studio at home, drawing and painting and sculpting and illustrating and launching shows of her work. Their arc is somewhat similar to Bill's and mine; they got married about the same time, bought an awesome place in the country, and shaped it into a little Eden for birds, bugs, animals and themselves. Here's the house, a shot best taken in winter, because it was surrounded by magnificent oaks that beautifully hid it in the grove.

They'd lived there several years when they decided to build a storm shelter beneath the floor of the garage. In fact, they built it on May 10, 2001. Remember that date.

Oklahoma, as anyone who reads the news knows, is smack in the middle of Tornado Alley. I just read that the farmer whose picturesque place north of Oklahoma City was used for much of the filming of "Twister" just had most of his buildings leveled by a monster tornado this May.

The Kasparis had had the shelter for nine years, and so far luck had been with them. Debby had spent quite a bit of time there, in fact, but they'd never yet been struck. She doesn't like storms; she doesn't like lightning or thunder and she has always feared tornadoes. Like me, she was marked by the Wizard of Oz as a child, and has never really come to grips with that snaky monster from above. Oklahoma is a tough place to live if you fear tornadoes. And you'd be a damned fool not to fear them.

Storm shelters are no fun to be in. They're dark and windowless, underground and spidery and claustrophobic, and although Debby would retreat to it, Mike never liked it one bit, and he'd often go under a stairwell when threatening clouds piled up. On the afternoon of May 10, 2010, Debby was weeding away in the garden when she decided she didn't much like the look of those clouds--dark, dirty and coppery-colored.
Photo by Rich Thompson,

She headed to the storm shelter, and Mike stayed upstairs, making homemade bagels, and planning to go under the stairwell when it got really ugly.A photo taken the night of May 10, 2010, in another storm cellar. Little Gizmo's bundled in a towel, because there was no time to hunt up the cat carrier. May 10 was a wild, wild day in Oklahoma. Photo by Mike Kaspari.

Meanwhile, Tim Ryan was checking the weather on his computer while on assignment for his work in Barcelona, Spain. He didn't like the looks of the radar, nor did he like what he was picking up on the Twitter feed from his Oklahoma friends and family. His thoughts darted to his dear friend Debby, who would be bumming out and probably already sitting in her storm shelter with Gizmo the cat on her lap. So, being Tim, and always thinking of the ones he loves, he called her up. He's done that for me, too. Not with a tornado, but just because.

He'd talked Debby through a tornado warning before, and he was going to be there for her, whether from Oklahoma City or Barcelona. Yep, she was safely down in there, but she'd been in there a long time and she really wanted to come out NOW. "No, no, stay there! Stay put!!" Tim urged. "And get Mike down there with you! It's hitting Lake Rupert RIGHT NOW. It's right over you!!"
Photo by Rich Thompson,

Debby called Mike down; he grabbed his Kindle, in case it would be a long time, and they shut the door over their heads, and just a few minutes later there was a low humming sound. Not like a freight train, not a roar, just a hum. This hum was the vortex of the tornado passing right through their house. It isn't that noisy in the vortex. But then their ears popped hard.

And when the noise stopped Debby noticed that there was light coming through the cracks in the shelter roof, and that shouldn't be so, because the shelter was under the floor of the garage, and wasn't there a garage roof over them? Tim was still on the phone, talking to Mike, when the humming stopped and Mike tentatively opened the shelter door.

"It's gone. It's gone. Everything is gone. We should be dead! We should be dead! We should be dead!!" Mike said, as Tim listened helplessly from Spain. For there was nothing left of their house, their grove of ancient oaks, their garage and their barn but a huge triangular pile of rubble with giant oaks uprooted and thrown on top of it.

Photo by Debby Kaspari

The iron-framed bed is the one I slept in only three weeks earlier. I think I see the shower, too. It was a great shower.

Photo by Debby Kaspari

The front of the house. Both their cars were totaled, too.

The barn. Photo by Debby Kaspari

Photo by Debby Kaspari

The storm shelter, blown full of debris, that saved Debby, Mike and Gizmo's lives. The stairwell Mike favored was crushed flat under the second floor.

Debby and Mike, wearing borrowed clothes, pause on the first day of assessment at the entrance to the tiny shelter that kept them among the living.

Photo by Debby Kaspari

The backyard, once a grove of noble oaks, now blasted flat. The red stripe, from a can of paint that was carried along by the funnel. The indigo sky, a receding wall cloud from the storm.

Photo by Debby Kaspari

The house, as viewed from the water garden. This is where Gizmo and I took our wonderful nap, where iris and bougainvillea once bloomed.

These are incredible times we live in. To have photos from a storm shelter, to have photos of the immediate aftermath; to receive them via computer and to be able to post them, is humbling, amazing. But stormchasers posted photos of the actual tornado that ate Debby and Mike's home, and I have those, too, even though it makes my stomach squirm to post them.

Photo by Rich Thompson,

It was an F4 tornado, a huge wedge with a funnel a half-mile across. Stormtrackers told Debby and Mike that it was a single F3 tornado until just before it hit them, when a second funnel merged with the first. And 100 yards beyond their house, a third funnel merged with those two, and it became a monster F4 with a path a half-mile wide. And who needs monsters from outer space, who needs myth and legend and horror movies, when things like this can reach right down out of the sky and obliterate everything you hold dear?

Photo by Rich Thompson,

On May 10, 2010, 22 tornadoes touched down across Oklahoma. One had a track of 150 miles. Debby and Mike were square in the path of an F4. Her firsthand account is here, on her blog, Drawing the Motmot. And in this post, Anatomy of a Tornado, Debby figures out just what happened to her and her neighbors.

Right after the tornado, when Tim called to tell me what had happened to our friends, we began scheming about how to help. There was an outpouring on Facebook and in emails of people asking how and where they could donate. It has taken me a month to pull this together, but our hope is that having a single, centralized place--right here on this blog--where people can donate makes the most sense. So here it is. We've put the word out to the great bloggers at the Nature Blog Network and to friends who Debby has touched with her art. Thank you for coming here.

If you would like to reach out and help Debby and Mike, please see the animated mini-story created by my WebWitch, Katherine Koch, on the right sidebar of this blog. Clicking on the DONATE button leads to Debby's PayPal page, with easy instructions for donating.

If you'd prefer to mail a check, please send it to

Deborah Kaspari
Dept. of Zoology
University of Oklahoma
730 Van Vleet Oval
Room 314
Norman, OK 73019

Thank you.


A gripping story, well told and all the more compelling because we all know that it is real. It happened in a real place to real person people. Count me in on the donations. Thank you Julie for doing this! I hope and pray that Debby and Mike can get their Eden back again one day.

Oh ugh ugh ugh. How devastating. What a great lead up to this, but how sad. I loved Debby's Eden. How incredibly divinely magnificent that they both got into their shelter safely because of a friend in SPAIN no less.

Well, I cried again, even though I've read Debbie's account and already shed tears. An incredible story of unimaginable power and survival. A scary story. But one also laced with love and friendships.

Thank you for this post. Will send my blog readers this way and look forward to many hands helping.

Here's another Kaspari update that is important to know. Debby and Mike just learned this week that because there house is built in an unincorporated area - they will be 100% responsible for the removal of all debris - a surmountable cost probably in the thousands of dollars, if not 5 figures.

Thanks for posting this very real story. It happens every season here in Oklahoma. I have lived 47 years here and still it is very real and scary! My prayers are with your friends and the hundreds others that have lost out to the tornados!

I too had read this story but Julie's retelling has nearly brought the tears. I feel helpless to assist them. I will offer daily prayers.
Susie Ruby

Posted by Anonymous June 11, 2010 at 12:27 PM

I'm all too familiar with 'tornado alley' and know first hand of the destruction and terror. My heart goes out to Debby and Mike. ~karen

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